As a counseling clinic that offers marriage counseling, we see many couples who have experienced infidelity in their marriages. One partner cheats–emotionally and/or physically–and the other partner experiences intense betrayal.

So why do marital affairs happen?

First, we need to be clear that an affair is never the primary issue. Affairs rarely happen in healthy marriages, which is why it’s important to seek out a qualified couple’s therapist when issues first arise. 

Affairs are the result of unaddressed problems in a relationship. Common problems include unresolved childhood trauma, family of origin issues, a history of sexual abuse, sexual addiction, communication difficulties, and asynchronous sexual desire.

When these issues are not addressed head on, one partner may seek connection, comfort, arousal, validation, or companionship outside of the marriage, resulting in an affair.

A Man Talking to His Upset Partner

What should you do–and not do–when you find out your spouse has cheated?

When you discover an affair, your first step should be to reach out to trained therapists for help. This should be a couple’s therapist and, for the betrayed partner, a certified partner trauma therapist (CPTT) who can help you process and heal from this newly-experienced trauma.

If the cheating spouse also has a sexual addiction, there is often a long-standing pattern of sexual violation within the relationship and a deeper history of trauma. If this describes you or your partner, please reach out to a certified sexual addiction therapist (CSAT) who understands how to address sexual addiction within the context of a marriage relationship.

While it’s natural to try to contain the situation due to shame or to pretend it will all just magically be ok, this will only isolate you further. The trust in your marriage has been ruptured, and there may be other offenses.

Do not assume your partner is telling you the whole truth. “It was just that one time.” “I was so drunk.” “It didn’t mean anything.” “It was an accident.” “Nothing happened! You’re crazy!” Staggered disclosure, where the cheating spouse reveals breadcrumbs of information over time, is very common. It is also the MOST traumatic way to learn about affairs and betrayals.

It’s also not healthy to get lost in investigator mode–trying to find out the who, what, when, where, and why–as tempting as it may be. It’s not healthy to put your partner on blast–sending a mass email to friends and family members about what your spouse did. And lastly, it’s not healthy to involve your children beyond what is absolutely necessary in this early phase of discovery. These actions greatly complicate the healing process. Only share necessary details with trustworthy friends who can hold your story in confidence.

Brown Hanging Bridge

What has to happen for a marriage to heal? How do we start the road to affair recovery?

To begin to heal your marriage, you must tell the truth of your experience in a safe environment with a properly trained therapist. It will be tempting to want to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible. We frequently hear, “He was so remorseful when he was caught! I’m sure he’ll never do it again.” Denial of what happened and its impact on your marriage will only prolong the healing process and cause more hurt and a greater fallout. In order to truly heal yourselves and your marriage relationship, both spouses must both fully address the complex issues that led to the affair. You must be willing to open up and understand not only the violations and wounds, but the history that led to you both here.

Please remember that change that is fast doesn’t last. There are important rituals of healing that can be incredibly therapeutic in the proper environment. This may involve a formal disclosure from the cheating partner and a resulting impact letter from the betrayed. For the highest likelihood of a favorable outcome, it is critical that you work with a therapist who understands betrayal trauma and the affair recovery process. 

The good news? Two partners who are committed to walking the hard, vulnerable road to recovery, who are willing to explore the deep things and go through the rituals of healing and change more often than not have a favorable outcome. And while sexual addiction complicates affair recovery, recovery is still possible with a skilled CSAT to guide you.

Black and Silver Ring

What happens if it doesn’t work out? 

Sometimes, marriages end. One or both partners may give up on the process of healing and strengthening their marriage. And sometimes, it’s prudent to end things.

The offending partner may not respond to boundaries in the relationship, and in order to enforce consequences and support the offended party, the marriage has to end.

A couple may only do some of the necessary work to heal, which leaves festering wounds and partially-resolved betrayals.

In these situations, a structured, therapeutic separation or a divorce may occur. A skilled therapist can walk you through this process as well as help you learn to live apart, heal on your own, and help your children adjust to the change.

Are you really going to leave me there?

No. We do have some encouragement for you. Our most traumatic life experiences, the most heinous violations of our trust, can also be some of our strongest catalysts for growth if we can endure the process of addressing them and moving towards healing. We call this the gift of recovery.

Your children witnessing you facing and healing wounds is a powerful legacy, and no matter the outcome for your marriage, to give and receive forgiveness is a beautiful expression of humanity at its finest.

The Finding Place Counseling and Recovery is located in Little Rock, Arkansas. We have CSATs, CPTTs, and marriage therapists on staff to help you and your spouse recover from your traumas and heal your marriage. Contact us to schedule a session or to book a custom intensive.

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