Courtney came to my office after her husband had an affair. She wanted counseling to help her decide whether to forgive or divorce him. She was concerned about her three young children and worried about being able to support herself financially. She’d loved being a stay-at-home mom, and didn’t want to give up time with her children. She’d heard from a friend that she would be forced to go back to work. Courtney was open to doing some intensive couples therapy to see if the infidelity wounds could be healed, but she wasn’t sure her husband would be willing.
I shared the research about infidelity and divorce with Courtney: The data shows that when there is an affair, partners are much more likely to divorce than when cheating was not a factor. But infidelity doesn’t always cause a divorce: Marriages can heal and recover even when there has been a betrayal.
American Psychological Association research found that 20-40% of divorces are caused by an affair. The discovery of an affair may trigger a divorce, but there were likely problems in the marriage before the affair. When marital problems are not addressed, unhappy spouses may turn to someone outside the relationship. Other data finds that 40% of adults who have ever cheated during a marriage are separated or divorced, while only 17% of partners who had not cheated are separated or divorced. But about 50% of partners who did have affairs are still married, compared to 75% of partners who never cheated.
Men are less likely than women to divorce when there is an affair: 61% of men who cheated are still married, while 34% are separated or divorced. But only 44% of women who have cheated are still married, and 47% are divorced or separated. Those who stayed married may have worked through the betrayal, worked on forgiveness and recommitment to the relationship, or worked with a marital counselor to address the underlying issues.
How does one make sense of these statistics? While interesting as data, the numbers won’t help Courtney decide about the future of her marriage. She thought about whether she wanted to save her relationship, and we spent several sessions exploring her dilemma. She wondered how the affair would affect the divorce if she chose to go through with it.
How Affairs Affect Divorce
In the past, adultery was grounds for divorce, but you had to prove it — and if you did, you were more likely to get what you asked for in the divorce, whether that was money, support, assets like the home, or custody of the children.
Courts now recognize that a fair and equitable settlement serves families best, and creating a parenting plan that meets the children’s needs is more important than a parent’s infidelity. If you are the one who strayed, you probably don’t need to worry that this will affect the divorce settlements.
All states now have some version of no-fault divorces as well: One spouse just needs to claim “irreconcilable differences” and a divorce will happen, whether or not the other partner agrees.
Some spouses look for justice or revenge in their divorce, but they're unlikely to find it in the courtroom. Infidelity is generally irrelevant to the outcome of a divorce settlement, in terms of custody or finances. The emotions of divorce are intense and complex, and seeking professional help from a therapist or divorce coach will better serve your needs, as well as your recovery. I advise clients to work through their intense emotions before deciding whether to divorce or to work on the marriage.
A Few Complications
Despite no-fault divorce, some people seek reimbursement for money that was spent on an affair, such as dinners, hotel rooms, travel, gifts, etc. Forensic accounting is expensive, can take time, and rubs salt in the wound with each discovery, at a time when the financial effect is usually fairly minimal. But if you believe that your spouse spent a lot of money on their affair partner—by paying their living expenses, for example—it may be worth paying for your lawyer or financial specialist to do the research. In a community property state, you may be entitled to reimbursement for half of the money spent.
Cheating and affairs affect children, whether or not their parents divorce. If there is a divorce, children will suffer during and after it if there has been an affair, especially if they have witnessed a parent’s trysts (direct harm) or if the parent who feels betrayed tells the children about their other parent’s affair (indirect harm). Courtney and I discussed how she might protect her children from the harm caused by her husband’s affair.
Do affairs cause divorce?
The answer is: It depends. If you or your spouse had an affair, take the time to consider whether you want to divorce or not. If you decide to keep the marriage together, find a therapist with expertise in couples counseling if there has been a betrayal. If you divorce, find an out-of-court process, such as a Collaborative Divorce.
Courtney ultimately decided to divorce. Her husband’s affair was a long one and she believed it was ongoing. She felt she could have worked through a one-night-stand, but her circumstances felt overwhelming. When her husband declined to do couples therapy, she raised the subject of divorce with him. They agreed to do their divorce as amicably as possible, to protect their children. Courtney continued to work with me in therapy to help her manage her grief and anger. Ultimately she forgave him, freeing herself from the pain of the betrayal. Then she was ready to move on.
© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022