Does an affair automatically mean divorce? Or can a relationship recover from betrayal?

Cheating can mean the end of the relationship but before you kick your partner out, there may be another option. Claire Mason looks at what triggers infidelity and if therapy can help

We all know it happens, but we never expect it to happen to us. When we discover that our lover is being unfaithful, it’s jarring to the core. The instinct is to hurt the cheating partner as much as they’ve hurt us, and to get as far away from them as possible.

Divorce (or separation for unmarried couples) seems the only course of action.

Andrew Marshall, a marital therapist, says this kind of emotional maelstrom is entirely understandable. Therapists have even coined a phrase for it, post-infidelity stress disorder. It has the same characteristics of other stress-induced disorders and can include flashbacks, anxiety and rage.

“We believe good things happen to good people, and an affair challenges our world view,” explains Marshall. “Suddenly, nothing makes sense and the world feels dangerous. We also see our partners as possessions. It’s terrifying if someone takes them from us.”

Cheating, as we know, has been with us since time immemorial, but in today’s climate it’s even easier to start an affair with the rise of social media and our ever-more interconnected world.

There are also certain life phases that can make a relationship more vulnerable to infidelity.

New parenthood is a well-known trigger as couples have to recalibrate themselves to make space for the new arrival. Once over this hurdle, and later on in life, massive changes such as redundancies, loss of parents, illness or a job change could create the kind of conditions where cheating can easily arise.

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The moment you forgive someone, you lose your bargaining power

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It’s devastating but does it have to mean the end of the relationship?

That depends on the couple in question and is not a simple answer.

The two biggest relationship mistakes 

Marshall warns against the two biggest mistakes partners make when they discover an affair. The first error is to forgive your partner immediately and the second is to kick them out straight away.

“The moment you forgive someone, you lose your bargaining power,” he says, “while if you throw your partner out too quickly, you won’t be able to make sense of it all.”

It’s no use believing that the discovery of an affair is best dealt with in a calm and considered manner. A period of ranting and recriminations is the most common reaction, and could even be necessary for the hurt partner to release their shock and betrayal.

It could even help them get to a place where they’re able, even if only slightly, to consider staying in the relationship.

Of course, this is only with an intense overhaul of the relationship. Pretending that things are normal only sets up more problems for later. Resentment can turn to bitterness and a whole host of toxic emotions that prevent any kind of forward movement. Pretence can also provide the grounds for the same behavior to happen again.

Therapists agree that infidelity is seldom caused by sexual problems. For some people, relationships might feel restrictive and they go in search of an illicit thrill by cheating.

For most others, though, communication problems within the relationship create the circumstances for an affair to take place.

This might not seem like good news, but it does mean that with robust and honest engagement between the couple in a therapeutic setting, the relationship has a fighting chance to be saved.

Divorce isn’t the only option

It’s not a quick fix, but it does mean that there could be an alternative to divorce.

Rachel*, 56, discovered her husband was having an affair with a colleague at his office. “Not only was I heartbroken to discover he was cheating, but I was also so embarrassed by the cliché. Here I was, in my fifties, and my husband was pursuing a younger woman,” she says.

She confronted him and threw him out of the family home. “I even had the locks changed!” (One of Marshall’s two deadly sins but it worked for her at the time.)

Their shared lives, however, were something she couldn’t detangle herself from; shared mortgage, offspring at university, combined interests.

Apart from these tangible remnants of a relationship, she also discovered that emotionally she was still involved with her separated husband: “I was confused. I was so hurt but still cared about him. I just didn’t know how to reconcile all I was feeling.”

Her partner desperately wanted to save the relationship. She suspects he was ashamed of the cliché himself: “Four months after the discovery of the affair, he said he would do anything to fix things and this time I didn’t bite his head off but suggested we speak to someone,” Rachel says.

Their therapy sessions were volatile initially. “But a skilled therapist knows how to unpeel all the emotions on top to get to the crux of the matter, and very deep emotional stuff arises,” she says. “That’s when you can start working in a positive way to address problems and make your relationship stronger.”

Therapy saved our marriage 

Rachel credits their therapist with saving their marriage, but also says that it was her husband’s commitment to the process that gave her the first piece of hope she’d felt since she found out he had an affair.

“There is no way one person can save a relationship, and his commitment showed me I was still important to him. I needed that. Without it, I would have moved ahead with a divorce.”

No doubt, there are times when a parting of the ways is the best course of action. Serial cheaters are not worth the emotional upheaval that comes with each betrayal.

Yet for couples who truly wish to work together to rebuild trust, it’s heartening to know that a recent survey conducted in the UK showed that among couples whose relationship recovered after an affair, 65 per cent felt that it was stronger.