Infidelity... It is indeed our secret epidemic until the next celebrity like Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his or her tragic saga unfolding, rivets the nation's attention to the fact that betrayal, in all of its various forms, is all too alive and well in marriages across the country.
In our book, Surprised by Love, Julie and I address and answer that question head-on with a resounding yes! It is very possible if you are willing to do the work necessary to heal and redesign the relationship that's been damaged by the affair.
The fact is that your ability to save the relationship has less to do with the circumstances of the affair and much more to do with the responses to it by both people involved.
Marriages don't end because of infidelity; they end because of how infidelity is dealt with.
The real question is: "How do you define love?" and "Is your definition of love large enough to encompass profound failure?" The only limitations on love are those we place on it; either that of the imagination or lack of in this case, where possibility is foreclosed on due to overwhelming emotion that is not as well-managed as it could be.
For example, people often claim as a matter of fact that certain things are simply "unforgivable" (some famous gurus like Dr. Laura actually preach this regularly!), or as a client recently tried to convince me in all earnestness, "There are limits to how much you can love someone." Perhaps, but in our quick-fix, self-absorbed culture, it is our contention that those "limits" are too many and too quickly ascribed, accounting for the failure of a lot of marriages and many couples plagued with infidelity.
If you define love as contingent upon your spouse always being faithful and never failing you or your relationship, especially in the arena of fidelity, and always conforming with your ideas of how it "should be," then I agree with the naysayers. It isn't possible to save a marriage following an affair, and you are destined to be consumed by resentment forever. In this case, forget forgiveness.
However, if you define love as we do, as "unconditional contribution" in the face of the extreme failure that can accompany being a mere human being (and with the caveat that there will be boundaries and standards an unfaithful partner agrees to live by to do the work of healing and redesign), then it is not only possible to save a marriage after infidelity, it is possible to thrive beyond it.
The truth is anything can be forgiven because doing so is an act of will rather than a change of circumstances aligning with what we deem they must, as that represents a set of conditions that have little to do with the work of forgiveness and even less to do with what it means to love.
Forgiveness that is grounded in "true love" is as much about the willingness of the forgiver to evolve as it is for the forgiven to be worthy of forgiveness based on a genuine shift in expected behavior over time. Both are fundamentally choices; whether or not a marriage can be repaired rests more upon a decision to grow by leveraging the hurt, as brutally painful as it is, and choosing to use it as a source of evolution, both individually and as a couple, rather than a rallying call for the destruction of a marriage and family.
Julie and I found life-altering love and true fulfillment in our marriage after an affair and divorce. By working through the pain and committing ourselves to both healing and designing a new relationship, we found the secrets to a stronger, more satisfying marriage (See Second Chances to learn more).
Succeeding in love has more to do with becoming a person capable of loving than it does about finding the right person who will love us and meet all our needs perfectly.
In relationships, we can complain, or we can create. Our greatest freedom lies in deciding which of these choices we will give our time and energy. One leaves you victimized by the events and circumstances of life, while the other allows you to learn from the wisdom in every failure.
Recovery from infidelity is no different than any serious life challenge. Contained within its experience are both pain and opportunity. Julie and I chose to leverage the opportunity by accepting responsibility for how we had previously failed one another by making everything else in life a priority except the core of what brought us together—our friendship.
Together, we decided to evolve as individuals first, by learning how our early wounds set us up to fail in love and then acquiring the practical skills to be able to love more profoundly.
Sometimes your barn has to burn to the ground in order to see the moon. Quite by surprise, following the devastation of an affair and divorce, we discovered the best part of who we were in our failed marriage. By using the pain of our failures as sober motivation, we made the necessary changes required of us to design the relationship of our dreams.
Instead of blame, we chose grace. Rather than vindictiveness, we loved each other from compassion for how we hurt one another. Instead of being self-righteous and "right" about our story of the other, we became curious about how who we had been in the old marriage had contributed to its failure. Only then, rather than hiding in resentment, were we able to embrace forgiveness as a pathway to a new future.
Beneath the ashes of our burnt lives and within the debris of divorce, the seed of a deeper, more mature love never before experienced was birthed. In so doing, rather than a legacy of divorce, together we created a legacy of love.