A marital affair can shake up a marriage like a tax audit shakes up a business. But although few things strike so deeply at the heart of a marriage as an affair, it is not necessarily the end of a marriage, provided it is handled correctly.
A strong, happy marriage stands on three legs – trust, intimacy and financial health. Damage to any one of those legs can make the once-stable tripod wobble and fall.
But cheating doesn’t just damage one leg – it hurts two, trust and intimacy. So an affair is very tough to bounce back from. It damages the very core of a relationship, making one partner doubt the love and loyalty of the other.
It is possible for a marriage to survive and even thrive again after an affair, but it takes a lot of work. The pain and damage from the affair don’t heal quickly, and sometimes they last for many years, or even decades.
If you’re determined to save your marriage after an affair, it’s important to act quickly and decisively.
The Affair Must End
First, the affair must end. Immediately. It can’t go on any longer. This means if you are the one who cheated, you must end things right now. Do it by phone call and get it done. I don’t care how deeply involved or entangled you were or are with this person – your marriage is and must be your primary relationship. So end the affair quickly and cleanly. Tell the other person you want to save your marriage and ask them to respect your decision.
Ending the affair by phone is the best way to do it because it doesn’t involve any more personal, face-to-face contact between you and the person you were having the affair with. Going to meet them in person may seem somehow like a more “honourable” way to do things, but there’s not much honour in a secret affair anyway, and an in-person meeting can quickly spiral out of control into either an emotional fight or having sex “one last time.”
Better to do this by phone call. Write down what you want to say and stick to that message. Don’t get drawn into lengthy conversations about irrelevant subjects. Stay on message – I’ve recommitted to my marriage and can’t have any contact with you anymore.
Never Have Contact With Your Lover
Which brings me to my second point. Not only must the affair end at once, but you can never have any contact with the person you were cheating with. This is also essential.
You must break things off quickly and cleanly and make sure you have no more contact with this person, no chance to ever see them and cheat with them again. Not only is this vital to restore your partner’s faith in you – faith which you have trampled on – but this is vital for you. It’s important for you to protect yourself from the possibility of further cheating.
End the affair quickly, cleanly and permanently. Let the person you were having the affair with know that there is zero chance you will cheat with them again. This may be very painful for you and for them, but it is the best thing to do. You don’t want this person to have any doubt. You don’t want them waiting around hoping you will leave your spouse and come back to them.
Restoring Intimacy with Your Spouse
Once all this is done, it’s time for you to focus on rebuilding trust and intimacy in your marriage. Intimacy is not sex. Intimacy is sharing your true self with your spouse. That means frequent, honest, clear communication.
The first thing the injured spouse is going to want to communicate about, probably, is the lurid details of the affair. While it is fair for them to ask about it, and understandably, it is important for both spouses to limit this kind of conversation. A good idea is to agree to a short period of time – a single meeting of an hour, say, or perhaps a few meetings over a week. During this short time, your spouse can ask you anything they want about your affair, and you can answer them.
You don’t have to tell them everything – that’s something you must decide in advance – but you do have to satisfy them.
Be honest and clear about what you did. Be sincere and straightforward about how you are recommitted to your marriage.
If this kind of conversation isn’t possible to have safely, then arrange to meet a marriage counsellor or trained therapist who can act as a referee to protect you both and to keep you on the topic you’re meant to be discussing.
Once this short “truth and reconciliation” period is over, then it’s best for both spouses to move on. It will take time for the wounds of the affair to heal, but it’s important to give them a chance to heal. That means not talking and arguing about the affair every day, which just reopens the wounds and keeps them from healing.
Sex will be a difficult and delicate subject to bring up for a while, and the spouse who’s been betrayed may not want to have sex with their partner for a while. This is completely understandable. It’s also possible the spouse who cheated may feel such guilt and shame that they can’t or don’t want to have sex for a while, either.
So work on other ways of touching each other and being intimate. Cuddling on the couch while watching TV is a start. Backrubs and foot rubs are a good way for spouses to touch each other and make each other feel good without the specter of sex raising its head.
You might even get a massage table and learn how to give each other serious massages. Anything that gets you touching your spouse again, learning how to touch them and how to let them touch you is a good idea.
Recommit to spending time together doing interesting things, too, like taking a class together. Cooking classes are great for couples, since you can learn something fun together and then keep doing it together at home.
Remember, an affair strikes at two of those three pillars holding up a marriage. To recover from an affair, be honest and serious and follow these guidelines and you’ll have a good chance.
But it will take time, months or years probably, before your relationship has completely recovered — so be patient.