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Recovering from an Affair

Every couple has a stated or assumed contract that determines what is and is not okay when attracted to other people. Cheating is when one member of a couple unilaterally decides to break or change the contract they have with each other instead of talking about it with the partner. Once the break is discovered, the trust between the couple is badly damaged. The result is a constant undercurrent of suspicion, anxiety, insecurity and even fear. The behavior of both people gets twisted.

I’m using the pronoun “she” for the following description of the consequences of cheating to couple dynamics, but it is just as likely to be a “he.” Men and women are equally capable of taking either role.

The cheatee, the person hurt by the betrayal of trust, is likely to become self-protective. She becomes hyper-alert for any indication that trust has again been broken. She may insist on going over and over what happened in her efforts to understand it and to be sure it won’t happen again. She may start to check up on her partner by snooping on his cell phone or monitoring his emails. She may shut down and become less loving and less caring. She doesn’t like herself for how suspicious she has become. She may hate that she is playing detective. But she doesn’t want to be hurt again.

The cheater also is on edge. She may become hyper-reactive to confrontations and accusations. She may minimize the behavior or hide it or rationalize it as the other person’s fault. Lies tend to multiply. Rationalizations are paraded out as “reasons.” She feels that every encounter requires walking on eggshells, so she becomes less available to her partner. If she does acknowledge the guilt, she may not like herself very much for hurting the person she most loves. She may try hard but feel like she can never do enough to win back the comfort and trust that once existed between her and the person she loves. She may feel that her only course of action is to pack up her emotions and leave.

When someone cheats, that is, violates their couple contract, the couple can end up in a negative spiral that looks something like this:

Person A cheats.

Person B finds out and is terribly hurt, sad and angry.

Person A denies, defends and rationalizes or apologizes.

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Person B doesn’t trust Person A’s response so starts snooping, second-guessing and grilling Person A.

Person A tries hard to make up for the cheat but hates being under a microscope.

Person B is too anxious to be forgiving.

Person A gives up trying.

Person B says “I knew it” and believes worst suspicions are confirmed.

Person A says “If you weren’t on my tail all the time,….”

And so it goes. (Which is nowhere.)

At this point, they may give up and separate, often with unresolved anger and grief; sometimes with relief. Hopefully, they each take the time to understand his or her piece of the problem and finds a way to recover from the disappointment. Hopefully they each eventually open themselves up to trusting and loving again.

If, however, the couple decides they do want to be together, they must engage in many frank, even painful, conversations about what caused the rift and how to heal it. If they find they can’t do it on their own, they often come to therapy to get out of the spiral.

The cycle of betrayal can be interrupted. The aftermath of betrayal actually can become an exercise in strengthening the relationship. The cycle of healing often goes something like this:

Person A cheats.

Person B is told or finds out, is terribly hurt, sad and angry but is open to talking about it.

Person A feels terrible, sincerely apologizes and takes responsibility for acting up instead of confronting problems in the relationship directly.

Person B listens, expresses hurt and anger but also looks at what (if any) part he or she played in the situation.

Person A listens to the hurt and anger (without justifying or denying) and reassures.

Person B works on forgiving and moving forward.

Person A works on being worthy of forgiveness and communicating more.

Person B works on reaffirming trustworthiness and communicating more

Both members of the couple reinvest in the relationship and are able to get past a painful event. They revisit their couple contract and decide whether to reestablish it as it was or change it in light of what they have discovered about themselves and each other.

Couples who commit to saving their relationship after an affair have work to do in order to recover from the disruption. They have learned a hard lesson about the consequences of breaking trust and the importance of better communication. Healing requires that they really, truly confront the issues that led them to such a dark, untrusting place. Both need to find a way to forgive and be open to each other again. It’s usually worth the effort. The outcome can be the creation of a deeper and stronger relationship than ever.

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Sad couple photo available from Shutterstock

Recovering from an Affair

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Recovering from an Affair. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.