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Overview

Hurt, lack of trust, fear, anxiety, worry, arguing, fighting, feelings of betrayal—these and many more challenges are present when infidelity occurs in a committed relationship. Initially, most couples do not know how to respond to an affair. What do you do when the person you trusted most in the world betrays that trust? Can your relationship survive? Where do you go from here? Can you go there together? It is simply too much to comprehend. There are no easy answers and critical decisions regarding your relationship have to be made. Both partners have to ask themselves very difficult questions like:

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  • Should I stay with him even though he cheated on me?
  • Can I ever trust her again?
  • Do I really want to be with him anymore?
  • Can she change?
  • Did I do something wrong?
  • Can she ever trust me again?
  • Why did this happen?

These questions and many more will be asked throughout the recovery process. Since affairs create so much emotional trauma, it is important to slow down and consciously engage your mind so that you can make sound decisions. Many couples make it through the initial discovery stage of infidelity and stay together for a while. But they often struggle to recover completely because they don't take the steps necessary to heal; they don't deal with the core issues. As a result, many couples eventually end up divorcing, or they stay married but live in conflict. There are also many couples who do manage to navigate through this challenging and turbulent time and actually improve their marriages. How do they do it? This guided solution offers information and exercises to help you understand and assess where your relationship is, and it provides direction for couples who want to attempt to make it through this difficult time.

Did You Know

Couples who discuss their affair "a lot" remain married 86% of the time. Couples who discuss the affair "very little" remain married only 55% of the time.

Before you continue with this guided solution, it should be clear that it is impossible to move forward if the individual who had the affair is not willing to stop all forms of contact with the third party. In some situations this may be difficult (for example, if the affair occurred at work), but no matter what the situation, this contact has to stop (e.g., asking to be transferred to a different office, changing companies, or avoiding contact as much as possible).

This guided solution offers a few basic steps to help you and your partner understand the stages that you will go through in the recovery process. It also offers strategies to help couples learn how to reconnect in a meaningful way. If you want to recover from infidelity, the following steps can help you reach that goal.

Step 1 - Take the Infidelity Recovery Evaluation

In an effort to help you understand where you are in the process of recovery, we have developed the infidelity recovery evaluation. If you have not already done so, we encourage you to start this process by taking this evaluation. It has 20 questions and the results will help you know how to proceed in an effective way.

Take an Evaluation

Step 2 - Understand the First Stage of Recovery

When infidelity enters marriage, there are some common stages that emerge in couples who attempt to save their marriage. The first (and possibly the most traumatic) of these stages is discovery.

The discovery phase begins with the discovery of the affair. In this phase, the details of the affair begin to come out. The person who was cheated on has a thousand questions as he/she tries to make sense of what happened. In the discovery phase, emotions are often very intense as both individuals try to figure out how to respond to the affair and each other's responses. How much should be shared? Do I really want to know the details? What am I supposed to do here? Exactly how should I respond to this? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. There are still too many unknowns. Assuming the person who had the affair is willing to end it, how will the offended party know that the affair has ended? Can the person who was cheated on forgive the offending partner? Are both partners willing to make an effort to improve the relationship? Do they understand the time and commitments involved?

the early part of the discovery stage, these questions are hard to answer. Time is required to develop a better understanding of what has happened and how each partner is going to respond. Because there are no easy answers to these questions, emotions remain high. Consequently, just after discovery it is normal to see couples respond with the following:

  • Intense fighting
  • Long conversations
  • Discussions of what happened
  • Constant questioning
  • Blaming
  • Increased sex or no sex

This can be a time of great exploration and increased understanding for couples, or it can be the beginning of the final phase before divorce. The difference depends on how couples work through some serious issues:

  • Has the affair ended?
  • Do we want to stay together?
  • Are we willing to work together to understand, resolve, forgive, and learn from the affair?

Critical Questions to Ask During the Discovery Phase - This exercise is designed to help you address the most critical issues before you make decisions regarding your relationship.
Exercise

Once you have discussed some of the core issues surrounding your relationship, your desires, the affair, and your future, you can begin to progress through the next stages of recovery. While these critical questions must be dealt with in the first stage, you will probably find yourself revisiting these questions often during the recovery process. Often you will want to validate that your initial thoughts are still the same. You may find that some of the answers to these critical questions change over time.

Step 3 - Ride Through the Emotional Roller Coaster

In the next stage, emotions are intense and range from extremely positive to extremely negative. From moment to moment there can be a wide range of emotions; thus, it is called the “Emotional Roller Coaster” stage. With all its ups downs, this can be a confusing period of time. There are good times that give the couple confidence that they can pull through the challenges. But simple triggers—like driving past the hotel where the affair occurred, a text message, an anniversary, a television ad, music, or any number of other things—can create an unanticipated argument or fight.

This stage is filled with tremendous mood swings and unpredictability. The person who was cheated on is likely to experience sudden and unexpected periods of sadness or anger. This causes a lot of uncertainty for both of them. The person who cheated may feel defensive, or think that his/her spouse is taking too long to get over the affair. Ultimately, both individuals feel like they are walking on eggshells because they never know what is going to set off the next explosion in their relationship.

For couples who are attempting to survive the affair, this stage also offers some hope because positive things do begin to happen. They begin to have good experiences together again. There number of explosions or all-night marathon conversations will decrease. As the number of good times increases, the couple begins to feel like they are going to make it. This lasts until the next trigger sets off another period of emotional instability. Then they feel like they are back at square one. This stage truly is a roller coaster.

The things to look for in this stage include:

  • More days that are good than bad
  • Talking about your future together
  • Less fighting
  • Trust beginning to grow
  • Meaningful conversations
  • Good times that remind you of the past
  • Bad times that make you feel hopeless

This stage can be gut-wrenching because just when you think you're seeing progress, something happens that feels like a major setback. During the more difficult times in the roller coaster stage, it is common to feel like you want to give up. The ups and downs are difficult to cope with. However, most couples make it through this stage because of the increased duration and frequency of good experiences.

Progressing through the Emotional Roller Coaster - During this emotional roller coaster stage, the ups and downs can prevent you from seeing the progress. The following exercise will help you assess what progress you are making.
Exercise

In order to help you better deal with these emotional swings, Dr. Kevin Skinner, LMFT, has created a short video titled “How to Deal with the Emotional Roller Coaster.” In this short presentation, you will learn how to better understand yourself and your partner during this time.

Watch Video

Step 4 - Attempt to Regain Normalcy

As couples move out of the roller coaster stage, things begin to even out. They have longer periods of time without conflict. At this point, they have worn out the discussion. They are emotionally tired of rehashing “the problem.” Things begin to feel normal again, almost like they used to be. Unfortunately, there are almost always lingering unresolved issues. It is very important to understand that after infidelity the relationship will never be the same. In fact, you don't want it to be the same. If it returns to exactly what it was before, there is a higher risk of an affair happening again. True recovery requires discovery, awareness, recommitment to the relationship, and a deep commitment to each other. What many couples learn after infidelity is that they actually improve their marriage. They feel better about their relationship because of what they have learned about themselves and one another.

Let's reiterate this core concept: Do not expect to return to the way things were. Instead, work to create a better relationship than the one you had before.

We strongly caution couples who try to skip past the earlier stages identified above. Some couples hope that by acting as though nothing has happened they can return to the way things were before the affair. When couples ignore the first phase of discovery (“Let's just not talk about it”), and then try to avoid the emotional roller coaster (“Let's pretend everything is fine”), they are ignoring some critical issues that must be addressed. Doing this results in even more problems. Ignoring the difficult topics is dangerous and is something that has been described as “cheap forgiveness.”

In fact, to return to any real normalcy, forgiveness must be addressed. A wound has been inflicted and forgiveness is needed for healing. If your spouse cheated on you, you cannot move forward if you are saying one thing and thinking another. You can't, for example, say, “Hi, Honey,” while you think, "You scummy, low-life sleaze.” Healing cannot happen without forgiveness.

If you would like to understand more about the process of forgiveness and moving on, you can watch a short video presentation called “Four Types of Forgiveness.” When you are done, you will be able to identify which type of forgiveness you and your partner are trying to implement in your recovery.

Watch Video

How Do I Forgive? - After reviewing the video “Four Types of Forgiveness” you will have a clearer picture of how you and your partner are approaching the topic of forgiveness. This exercise will help you understand how your approach to forgiveness is influencing your recovery.
Exercise

Understanding real forgiveness can mark turning point in the process of recovery. You now know that the future does not mean returning to the past, but creating a better future.

Step 5 - Dance toward Recovery

In the previous stage, you learned about couples making progress to the point where things seemed to settle down and recovery began to look promising. You also learned about different types of forgiveness. In this step, you will learn about the recovery dance. This stage is referred to as a dance because both partners play a very important role. It takes two people learning to move together to make the dance work.

The good news is that when couples reach this point they are learning to move on, solving problems, seeing progress, and feeling better about their relationship. However, they aren't out of the woods yet. This step will describe important dance steps that both partners will need to take to make their recovery complete.

In order to dance together, you need to learn to how pay close attention to your partner's emotions. When dancing, you have to become familiar with how your partner moves. In couple recovery the same principle applies; you have to learn how to genuinely listen and understand where your partner is coming from. You have to ask yourself some difficult questions like, “If I were my partner right now, how would I be feeling?”

Focus on the Things that Really Matter - Recovering from an affair is very challenging. However, couples who learn to attend (give attention) to their partner's emotions, thoughts, and feelings make good progress. In this exercise you will be asked questions that will help you better identify how to respond to your partner's needs.
Exercise

While dancing with a partner is always a team effort, one partner generally leads. Since many who are cheated on feel like their life is out of control, they will often take the lead in the recovery dance. At the beginning this is normal since the person needs to feel like he/she can manage something. For example, he/she may check the phone records or make a point to determine when and if sex occurs. Often the person who had the affair will let the spouse take the lead in deciding the course of recovery. The one who was cheated on may insist that the couple seek professional help, read books, or talk to a religious leader. However, this approach has some disadvantages since the offending party may end up watching his/her partner take over entirely while they cease to be fully engaged in the recovery process.

While the partner who was cheated on may lead the recovery at the beginning, to be successful, the person who had the affair must ultimately take the lead. This means he/she takes responsibility for recovery, for building trust, and for creating the circumstances under which their partner can feel safe and confident in the relationship. To lead, the offending partner will have to work hard to earn back their partner's trust. This includes being accountable for their time, being clear on how the affair was ended, and being willing to say “I'm sorry” over and over again without begrudging the fact. As trust is rebuilt, eventually the offended party relinquishes the need to lead and will allow their partner to take the lead in recovery..

Once this transition begins, the person who was cheated on is beginning to trust again, allowing their partner to lead. This is easier to do when the offending party is engaged in the healing and recovery process, actively working to earn back the trust that has been lost. The challenge that most people have who have been cheated on is the tendency to hold back their trust. They want to take over and make sure that it doesn't happen again. However, true change comes when the offending spouse learns to take responsibility and leads them on the dance floor. This is a very hard step and takes time to implement in the recovery dance. As couples make this transition, they begin to make good progress and become more confident in the relationship.

The Recovery Dance - During the recovery dance, couples have to learn how to pay more attention to each other. Generally speaking, one leads and one follows. By doing this exercise you will identify how you are dancing, recognize who is leading, and learn a few new “dance steps.”
Exercise

Infidelity is never an easy thing to overcome. It is filled with a tremendous amount of hurt and pain. You become acutely aware that you are vulnerable. However, by understanding the steps outlined above and working to openly communicate with each other, you can recover from infidelity. Here are few final suggestions that you can use to help you through this difficult time:

  • Do an honest search inside yourself to determine how committed you are to the relationship. Avoid stepping in with one foot. If you are going to commit to the relationship, jump in with both feet.
  • Genuinely try to understand each others' pain.
  • Earn trust by being accountable, open, honest, and committed.
  • Forgive by choosing to believe in each other.
  • Learn to have fun together again (e.g., laugh, play, tease, nurture each other).

Step 6 - Learn More about Infidelity Recovery

Now that you have completed the earlier steps, you have a better idea about the pathway to recovery. It is a process and not an event. It will take time and energy. It won't happen quickly. However, your relationship can improve and recover.

The purpose of this guided solution is to help you get started in the right direction. We encourage you to continue to seek answers. You may discover additional stages or phases. You may find that you have more questions, or more specific questions, about the recovery process. Please feel free to browse all of our resources here at MyExpertSolution. We have identified our best resources below that have been helpful to others who have been down the difficult path of recovering from infidelity. In addition, we add new resources often, so check back periodically.

MyExpertSolution's Top Choices for Infidelity Recovery:

Are you struggling to figure out how to deal with infidelity in your relationship?

“Affair Recovery: Betrayal and Hope” Audio by Kristen Lamb with guest Rick Reynolds, LCSW.
“My wife just found out about my affair. I want my marriage to work, but she is so angry...” - Question answered by Dr. Kevin Skinner LMFT

Are you a man trying to make sense of your wife's infidelity?

“I found out my wife of nine years was having an affair with a coworker...” - Question answered by Dr. Kevin Skinner, LMFT
“Infidelity: Common Explanations for Why Women Cheat” - Article by Dr. Kevin Skinner, LMFT

Trying to deal with the aftermath of an affair?

“My husband cheated on me a few years ago and I still find myself checking anything that looks suspicious...” - Questions answered by Geoff Steurer, LMFT
“My wife had an affair. I think I will file for divorce. However, before I do...” - Question answered by Brett Williams, LMFT
“Insights that My Clients Have Taught Me: On Forgiveness” - Article by M. K. Downing, Ph.D., LMFT

See all resources on affairs
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