Can A Marriage Survive After Marital Infidelity?

Updated May 2, 2024by Regain Editorial Team

Navigating marital infidelity is one of the toughest challenges you might face in a marriage. It's been estimated by the American Psychological Association that 20% - 40% of divorces in the U.S. are caused by one or both partners being sexually unfaithful. Emotional infidelity isn't considered in this statistic, but it likely affects the decision to divorce as well.

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What does this mean for you and your marriage? If you or your spouse has been unfaithful, you may be facing a very difficult problem that has upended your once-happy marriage. Can a marriage survive infidelity? And, if you manage to keep the marriage together, what kind of relationship can it possibly be? As with most complex issues, educating yourself on the subject is the best way to start figuring out what's next.

What exactly is marital infidelity?

Most married people consider marital infidelity a serious breach of trust, and surviving infidelity is extremely challenging. 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're being 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 include emotional cheating, such as sharing your most intimate secrets with someone other than your spouse or flirting with someone else in a way that invites sexual interest and arousal.

Sexual infidelity has 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, that also has different names: an emotional affair, flirting, being emotionally unfaithful, fooling around, and even the old-fashioned hanky-panky. Or, we might simply say, "Something is going on between them."

How infidelity can harm marriages

Marital infidelity can have many negative consequences on a relationship. Let's take a look at several ways in which a marriage may be impacted following an affair.

Loss of trust

When people are unfaithful in their marriage, they cover their illicit relationships with deceit, subterfuge, and outright lying. When you've created this massive smokescreen and your spouse finds out, they may find it hard to trust what you tell them for a long time after that. They may even be suspicious when you're being truthful. After all, how do they know you're not lying, considering that you 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 difficulty believing their spouse doesn't want to hurt them back. They may now think it's possible or even probable that their spouse is cheating on them—or will cheat on them—so they don't trust them, even if nothing is happening.

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Loss of emotional intimacy 

When your spouse has been engaged in marital infidelity, they may have been emotionally intimate with someone else. This may affect any emotional connection you had with your spouse before the indiscretion. The emotional intimacy may begin to fade even before you know about the affair. 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 care for that other person. Sex often leads to an emotional connection, however. Getting back the emotional intimacy you and your spouse once shared can be 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 unfaithful partner 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 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, sex may become bland, mechanical, and unsatisfying because the emotional connection has been diminished. 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, and confused, along with many other emotions. Both people must deal with these negative emotions before the relationship can heal from the rift caused by marital infidelity.

Increased focus on the past

When we have an extremely painful experience, it's hard to move on until we allow ourselves to process our emotions fully. The spouse who has been betrayed might feel stuck in their feelings of hurt, anger, and confusion. The person who had an affair might feel stuck in guilt and mourning for the other relationship that could have been.

All this focus is on the past. However, it is important to stay focused on the present moment and look towards the future to cultivate a healthy marriage.

Is it possible to rebuild 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 to just live with what happened. You can make the decisions that will give you a chance to have the life you truly want.

Reinventing your marriage

While not an easy task, it is entirely possible to rebuild your marriage after an affair. The first step is for you and your spouse to commit to the work required to preserve the relationship. During this time, it will also be important for the spouse who has been betrayed to reflect on whether they believe they will forgive their partner for what has happened. Rebuilding a marriage takes time and effort—it's not an instantaneous process. 

The responsibility of each spouse

You both must accept certain responsibilities before you can work to rebuild 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. However, authentic forgiveness rarely happens immediately. Instead, it might come later in the therapeutic process. If they can't forgive, they need to consider ending the relationship.

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Seeking support

Spouses in a healthy relationship can solve an enormous number of problems. That's the beauty of marital closeness and cooperation. However, if you and your spouse are working to heal after infidelity, you may benefit from help from someone you both trust to find your way back to each other. You will need to find 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 can be hard to make progress if you are not on the same page. What you can do, though, is agree to try it once and see what happens. After a counselor works with you through one session, you can determine together if you think future sessions would be helpful. For therapy to work, you'll both have to commit to the process, but you can start tentatively if needed.

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 have regained trust in your spouse.
  • 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 there's been infidelity in your marriage and these are the outcomes you're looking for, you may want to think about online therapy. Many couples dealing with serious issues such as infidelity have turned to online therapy for help. Online therapy can be as effective as in-person therapy—and may even be a marriage-saver. 

Regain is an online therapy platform offering help from therapists who specialize in relationships. After you're matched with a licensed counselor, you can meet alone, with your partner, or a combination of both. You can have therapy sessions right in your own home. Your therapist can help you and your partner work through all the feelings brought on by infidelity and get past them to move your relationship forward.

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