Milan Stojanovic/Shutterstock
Source: Milan Stojanovic/Shutterstock

Infidelity is emotionally devastating, with serious negative consequences to both parties, both personally and professionally. Yet many couples do decide to weather the storm, and that decision, while challenging, can have positive consequences.  

People have affairs for a variety of reasons, including sexual addiction, retaliation, exploration, and a sense of entitlement.[i] Regardless of the reason, though, the innocent partner always experiences significant feelings of betrayal. 

While unlikely to provide consolation in the immediate aftermath, the specific motivations for straying often impact a couple’s decision on how to move forward. In addition, partners' motivation for staying together often predicts how successful they will be in repairing their relationship.

One of the most interesting and heartening findings for couples seeking to reconcile is the healing power of acts of grace and kindness demonstrated by the innocent spouse.

The Reasons Couples Decide to Rebuild

Many couples choose to stay together and attempt to rebuild their relationships after trust has been broken through unfaithfulness. The reasons for maintaining the relationship include social support, acts of kindness, and motivation to stay together.[ii]

Couples that are motivated to stay together are prepared to put in the effort to repair the relationship.[iii] Such motivation is fueled by owning property, having children, or having already invested a significant amount of time in the relationship.[iv]

Couples motivated to stay together often head straight to counseling, if they were not already receiving professional help. Yet there are ways to recover separate and apart from professional intervention. One involves proactive, positive behavior, not by the betrayer, but by the innocent partner.

Partners Who Choose Grace Over Justice

One reason couples decide to stay together appears somewhat counterintuitive at first blush — acts of kindness by the non-straying partner.[v] It is widely recognized that one of the most powerful factors in rebuilding a marriage after an affair is forgiveness.[vi] Individuals willing to forgive a partner's betrayal can rebuild intimacy through grace. 

Acts of grace by the non-straying partner are benevolent acts that are emotionally powerful. Treasured acts of mercy reported by the straying partner include avoiding mention of the affair, exhibiting increased kindness, and demonstrating forgiveness and love by buying flowers.[vii] Unfaithful partners report that receiving mercy from their betrayed partners is unexpected, and has a profound impact on healing the relationship.[viii] The decision to choose kindness over revenge or retribution contributes to relational healing.[ix]

Proactive Relationship Repair

Active post-affair reconciliation includes practicing forgiveness, managing painful memories, and counseling.[x] Although couples dealing with infidelity begin counseling with a higher level of distress than those that seek counseling for other reasons, the good news is that they often improve faster in therapy.[xi]

Some couples work through infidelity by exploring the meaning behind the moves.[xii] This includes talking about what led to the affair and how their relational dynamics might have contributed to the process.[xiii] This type of open communication facilitates an understanding of the bigger picture and the underlying circumstances that contributed to the betrayal.

Many couples that move on after infidelity change their relational dynamics to improve communication and adopt more constructive methods of interacting.[xiv] Couples that have successfully moved on speak of “weathering the storm,” appreciating each other more, “growing up,” and feeling like “a survivor, not a victim.”[xv]

Among couples that decide to stay together, there is often an expressed desire to view the decision as a second chance. Couples surviving affairs may even decide to renew wedding vows to celebrate forgiveness and a new beginning.[xvi]

A Personal Choice

The choice to stay with an unfaithful partner is extremely personal. The aggrieved party should give careful consideration to this very important decision. Yet if a couple does decide to reconcile, both partners must commit to the process of rebuilding trust and reconciliation. 

Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

[i] Iona Abrahamson, Rafat Hussain, Adeel Khan, and Margot J. Schofield, ”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” Journal of Family Issues Vol. 33, No. 11 (2012): 1494-1519 (1495).

[ii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?”

[iii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1503.

[iv] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1503.

[v] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1504-1505.

[vi] James Cordova, Joseph Cautilli, Corrina Simon, and Robin Axelrod Sabag, ”Behavior Analysis of Forgiveness in Couples Therapy,” International Journal of Behavioral Cosultation and Therapy 2, no. 2 (2006): 192-214.

[vii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1504-1505.

[viii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1514.

[ix] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1514.

[x] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1506.

[xi] David Atkins, Kathleen A. Eldridge, Donald H. Baucom, and Andrew Christensen, “Infidelity and Behavioral Couple Therapy: Optimism in the Face of Betrayal,” Journal Of Consulting And Clinical Psychology 73, no. 1 (2005): 144-150 (148).

[xii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1505.

[xiii] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1505.

[xiv] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1509.

[xv] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1509.

[xvi] Abrahamson et al.,”What Helps Couples Rebuild Their Relationship After Infidelity?” 1510.

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