Can A Marriage Survive After Marital Infidelity?

Updated March 18, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Karen Devlin, LPC

Dealing with marital infidelity is one of the toughest challenges you might face in a marriage. It's been estimated that 17% of divorces in the U.S. are caused by one or both partners being sexually unfaithful. Emotional infidelity isn't even considered in this statistic, but it likely affects as well.


What does this mean to you and your marriage? If you or your spouse has been unfaithful, you're facing a very difficult problem that has resulted at the end of many once-happy marriages. Can you and your spouse recover from it? And, if you manage to keep the marriage together, what kind of marriage can it possibly be? With this problem just as with most others, educating yourself on the subject is the best way to start.

What Exactly Is Marital Infidelity?

Most married people consider marital infidelity a serious breach of trust. When you engage in marital infidelity, you violate the agreement you have with your spouse to remain emotionally faithful and sexually exclusive with them. This agreement can be a written contract or merely an assumption that fidelity is one of the most basic ingredients of marriage.

You know you're unfaithful in your marriage if you act on sexual attractions outside your marriage. Having sex with someone other than your spouse is marital infidelity, of course. Marital infidelity can also be emotional cheating such as sharing your most intimate secrets with someone other than your spouse or flirting with them in a way that invites sexual interest and arousal.

We give sexual infidelity many different names: cheating, sleeping around, having an affair or liaison, being unfaithful, adultery, having a fling, or having extramarital sex. As for emotional infidelity, we call it: an emotional affair, flirting, being emotionally unfaithful, fooling around, and even the old-fashioned hanky-panky. Or, we might just say, ' Something is going on between them.'

How Infidelity Harms Marriages

Serial cheaters often seem to think that infidelity in a marriage is trivial. Serious harm to the relationship can happen after only one instance of marital infidelity. The impact can be so devastating that the marriage is plunged immediately into a crisis as soon as the extramarital affair is revealed.

Loss Of Trust

When people are unfaithful in their marriage, they tend to cover their other relationship with deceit, subterfuge, and outright lying. When you create this massive smokescreen, your spouse may find it hard to trust what you tell them for a long time. They may even suspect you when you're truthful. After all, how do they know, considering that you've deceived them so many times before?

Even the partner who cheated may feel a loss of trust in their spouse. This can happen if they understand how much they've hurt their spouse and have a hard time believing their spouse doesn't want to hurt them back. Also, if the unfaithful spouse didn't believe they and their spouse would ever cheat on them, their behavior may make them feel disillusioned. They may now think it's possible or even probable that their spouse is cheating on them, too, so they don't trust their spouse.


Loss Of Emotional Intimacy After Infidelity

When your spouse has been engaged in marital infidelity, they've been emotionally intimate with someone else. The present situation now corrupts any emotional connection you had with them before. The emotional intimacy may begin to fade even before you know about the affair. In fact, sometimes it happens before the affair itself and is a major cause of the affair.

Many people claim that a sexual affair doesn't necessarily mean they cared for that other person. Sex almost inevitably leads to an emotional connection. Getting back that emotional intimacy is difficult and may take a long time, but it is possible.

Loss Of Sexual Intimacy

Typically, when one partner or both partners have cheated, neither feels a sense of intimacy with their spouse. They might stop having sex altogether. The partner who is unfaithful was more interested in having extramarital sex and may now be mourning the loss of that relationship.

A partner who hasn't cheated even though their spouse has may feel too angry, rejected, disrespected, and hurt to want sexual intimacy with them. They just don't want to put themselves in that vulnerable position again, or at least, not right away.

You might still have sex with your spouse after one of you has had a sexual affair. However, because the emotional connection is no longer there between the spouses, sex between them may become bland, mechanical, and unsatisfying. What's more, one or both of you might lose your drive to have sex with your spouse.


Increased Negative Emotions

After an affair, both partners usually have extremely intense emotions about what has happened. They may feel sad, angry, hurt, fearful, anxious, guilty, confused, and many other emotions. Both people must deal with these negative emotions before the relationship can heal from the rift caused by the marital infidelity.

Increased Focus On Past

When we have an extremely painful experience, it's hard to move on until we deal with it completely. The injured spouse might feel stuck in their feelings of hurt, anger, and confusion. The person who had an affair might feel stuck in guilt as well as mourning for the other relationship that could have been.

All this focus is on the past. Healthy marriages stay focused on the present moment and developing plans for future happiness. For as long as the two spouses continue to live in the horrible feelings of the past, they stay stuck in self-imposed misery and torture.

Is It Possible To Be Happy In Your Marriage After Infidelity?

After marital infidelity, any of these things can happen:

  • You can separate or get a divorce.
  • You can remain in a broken marriage.
  • You can recreate your marriage.

The choice is yours and your spouse's. If you don't know how to move on from here, you can get help from a therapist. You don't have just to take life as it's handed to you. You can make the decisions that will give you a chance to have the life you want.

Reinventing Your Marriage

If both partners are willing to work on the marriage, it's entirely possible that you can get past the effects of the affair. Your marriage is likely shattered, but you can reinvent it to have a healthier marriage than you've ever had before.

The Responsibility Of Each Spouse

You both must accept certain responsibilities before you can work to remake your marriage. The spouse who has cheated needs to end the other relationship if they haven't already done it. They need to seek to understand their spouse's feelings and apologize at some point.

The person whose spouse had an affair needs to accept the responsibility of forgiving their spouse. Authentic forgiveness rarely happens immediately. Instead, it might come later in the therapeutic process. If they can't forgive, they need to consider leaving the relationship seriously.

Striking A Balance Between Realism And Trust

Is it realistic to expect your spouse to never have sex or even a deep emotional attachment to anyone but you? This is currently a subject of debate among psychologists and everyday people alike. Perhaps believing that both partners will be unfaithful for many, many years is unrealistic.

Does this mean that we shouldn't try to be faithful? Does it mean we'll have to deal with constant marital infidelity from our spouse? No. Instead, it means that we need to be willing to work harder when it happens. The need for an outside relationship starts with dissatisfaction in the marriage. Once you remember that, you can get back to your commitment.


Why You Probably Can't Solve This On Your Own

Spouses in a healthy relationship can solve an enormous number of problems. That's the beauty of marital closeness and cooperation. However, if your relationship is broken, you need someone outside the marriage that you can both trust to help you find your way back to each other. You need someone who can be impartial and who understands how relationships work.

What If Your Spouse Doesn't Want Therapy After Infidelity?

It's common for one spouse to push therapy while the other one balks. It's hard to make any progress at all until you agree. What you can do, though, agree to try it once and see what happens. When the counselor works with you through one session, you can talk about going to the next session. Before long, you'll both have to commit to the process, but you can start tentatively.

How Will We Know When The Marriage Is Healed?

As the marriage heals, you'll likely notice the following signs:

  • You'll be more focused on your relationship with your spouse than on any other relationship.
  • Your marriage will be stronger, even in the face of other life challenges.
  • You trust your spouse more.
  • You feel more committed to your spouse and act on that commitment.
  • You have more empathy for each other.
  • You both take on the responsibility of creating a better marriage together.

If these are the outcomes you'll look for, talking to a licensed counselor from can help you move toward them. Your relationship can flourish again, and you can feel happier and more satisfied with your life!

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