Infidelity is arguably the most common cause of a marriage ending. But infidelity doesn't have to lead to divorce. In my work with couples I have seen a range of scenarios following infidelity, as related here with names changed of course.
1. The Marriage Is Renewed
Paul and Jackie were only in their second year of marriage when Jackie had a sudden fling with a co-worker. Paul knew intuitively that something had happened and Jackie immediately confessed. Paul was devastated and felt he couldn't go on with the relationship because he could never trust her again. He was also baffled as to why she did it because they had a strong sexual connection and had even made love the night before the tryst. Jackie came to understand that her attraction to the other man was less about him than about something she felt was missing in her marriage. The other man had shown a great interest in her mentally and emotionally while Paul wasn't comfortable with intimate conversation. But it wasn't all Paul's fault. Jackie was equally responsible. She had been unable to ask for what she needed and had taken a more submissive role in the relationship. In time, Jackie was able to convince Paul that her attraction to the other man wasn't sexual, it was emotional. After several months of work, the couple was able to come back together with a more open communication of both of their needs. Of course, it took work on Jackie's part to repair the fracture and convince Paul she was reliable and trustworthy again. They now have a much stronger and more satisfying marriage.
2. The Marriage Collapses.
Brian, a bonds trader, a driven Type A character and ex-athlete, found out that his wife Cheryl, an interior decorator, was having a relationship with one of her clients. He drove home, packed his belongings and left the marriage. He refused to even talk to his wife. Any further discussions were confined to dissolving their marriage and were conducted through his attorney. Cheryl came for therapy, very distraught and full of regret. Brian had taken a scorched earth stance and they never spoke again.
3. The Relationship Is Redefined.
Vera and Ted had a typical suburban life with an attractive home and two young children when Ted took up secretly with another woman. Vera, though hurt and angry, retaliated by having a fling with an ex-boyfriend. It became a standoff. Each hurt and was hurt by the other. Their agreement, devised over the months following their affairs, was to keep the structure of the family as a business partnership and quietly live separate lives. They felt it was best for their children not to break up, though some of their friends were skeptical as to how much was really being hidden from the growing children. When the children graduated high school, a divorce quickly followed.
4. The Marriage Is Forever Damaged.
When Pat found evidence on a credit card of her husband Michael's affair, he ended the relationship he'd been having with his assistant, saying "it meant nothing". They entered couples counseling with a lot of anger on both sides. She couldn't get past his affair and obsessed for months, needing to know more and more details of what had happened. He, in turn, blamed her for what he had done since their marriage had grown passionless and predictable. Neither one ever softened to the other. It became a hopeless impasse. They remain married, but in an angry troubled relationship. Small incidents can erupt into torrents of anger, a corrosive environment for their two growing children.
5. The Rules Are Changed.
Don and Cyndi are a successful creative couple who share a belief that infidelity is an understandable and therefore forgivable action. They both agreed that it was unrealistic to expect one person to fulfill another person in every way forever. After one, then the other strayed from the marriage, they established new rules where they redefined the marriage as "flexible", not "open". This meant that occasional affairs were acceptable. The couple celebrated the fact that their relationship was strong and that no outside relationship ever caused them to break up their marriage.
As shown by these five couples, infidelity will change a relationship forever. It can be a turning point and sometimes a breaking point. But with the help of a skilled couples counselor, marriages can be renewed and reestablished with a stronger foundation than before the affair. It takes love, compassion and commitment on both sides. Both parties have to delve into the true reason for the affair and take ownership of their part in it. This can be the hardest challenge of all -- to be hurt by someone, and then have the strength to forgive and move on.