Moving on from infidelity requires going through a process of grieving that consists of the same stages that accompany any type of loss. Whether forgiveness and recovery are possible outcomes for a couple will be determined by the individuals as they work through these stages separately and together. Eventual success is contingent on both people possessing a strong commitment to work on their relationship with the shared goal of reestablishing trust, respect, and intimacy—which form the foundation of strong and happy marriages. The following do’s and don’ts are useful guidelines for couples as they move through the denial, anger, bargaining, depression and (hopefully) acceptance that lies ahead.
For the spouse who cheated
Don’t try to hurry your partner’s feelings and decision along
Your feelings of guilt, remorse, and embarrassment may lead to attempts by you to speed up the process. Your spouse’s anger, rejection, and up and down moods and feelings will leave you in a very uncomfortable limbo, unsure of what you should say or do. What you should not do is push them to make a decision before they are ready. Doing so says that you are thinking more about yourself and what is best for you. You need to listen, not make excuses or defend anything you have done, and don’t ever attempt to minimize the affair—even in an effort to make your spouse “feel better.”
Don’t have any contact with the other man/woman
Under no circumstances should you have any contact of any kind with the other man or woman. Even if you left things unsaid or unfinished, they would need to be left there, and you will have to seek closure in other ways. If the other person attempts to contact you, tell your spouse and show them the text/email if possible. Then ask them how they would like you to handle it—and then do it. Should you be contacted by the irate spouse of the other person, the same guidelines apply. Full disclosure to your spouse, then handle it in whatever way they ask you to. Make sure you delete all social media contacts and contact information stored on your phone.
Do be as transparent as possible
You will be asked a lot of questions about your illicit “relationship”—some may be asked over and over again. The reason this happens is usually due to a sense your partner has that you are being less than completely honest. The truth is that this does happen because the partner who cheated fears that any new information or any specific and/or graphic details, will push their partner away for good. There is always a chance of this happening. However, when the partner strives to be transparent by patiently answering all questions without holding back or attempting to minimize—they will communicate sincerity, remorse, and a desire to do whatever it takes to save their marriage. These are all necessary for forgiveness to happen, even if there are no guarantees of success even when they do.
Do keep defensiveness in check
Defensive behavior communicates guilt. When you get defensive, your behavior will create a wall between you and will push your spouse away. They will conclude that you care more about your feelings and needs than you do about theirs, and you resent having to go through what is necessary to get your marriage back and on the right track. If you send this message, you won’t have to deal with all the difficult feelings and interactions that working on your marriage requires—because your marriage will die a quick death.
For the cheated on spouse
Don’t make any major decisions right away
The urge to flee may be overwhelming. Your anger may be to the point that you feel only hatred and disgust, and can’t name even one positive quality about your spouse or good thing about your marriage. You are grieving, and anger is the second stage—just after shock/denial. This is a process, one filled with many ups and downs. Your feelings could change on a daily basis and regardless of the day—you will be raw and getting by in survival mode. It is not the time to make any important decisions. And think about it. Why should you hurry, and what are you hurrying toward? Until you know for sure, take it one minute, one hour, and one day at a time.
Don’t say “never.”
Never implies just what it states—there is no going back, no second chance, no road but forward to something else. While this might be what you ultimately decide, you want to keep your mind and options open until that decision can be made with confidence that it is the best one for you. It just makes it harder when you give ultimatums that later on you want to back down from. The only NEVER you should utter is when you are outlining what you will not tolerate going forward in the relationship. On this point, you need to be clear and firm. Otherwise, keep all your options open until you have had time to search your soul and decide what you really want, if it is the right and best thing for you—and if it is even realistic in this relationship/marriage.
Don’t give into a desire to act out or take revenge
Your anger could lead to dark thoughts and a desire for revenge. While this is not uncommon, few people (fortunately) act on it. Those who do only harm themselves and lose their moral edge in the relationship—giving the spouse a reason to justify their cheating in the first place. Remind yourself who will get hurt if you act on those thoughts. Do a cost/benefit analysis—will what you get from acting on your revenge outweigh the negative consequences of doing so? It’s highly unlikely this could ever happen, as some spouses have discovered after the fact. Take the high road—it will pay great dividends over time, regardless of what decision you make regarding your marriage.
Do chose those you confide in with care
This can be one of the hardest things you will have to decide and navigate following a spouse’s infidelity. If you confide in your mother and/or father—what will their relationship with your spouse and with you as a couple be if you decide to reconcile? What about your best friend who is herself divorced? Will she push you hard to “leave the loser,” and be unable to remain open, objective, and focused on what is best for you? Then there are your other friends, extended family, and/or neighbors to consider. Everyone you tell is now involved in a very intimate part of your life, privy to your most vulnerable feelings, needs, and relationship. Few will be able to remain objective and avoid taking sides. Some may even use it to act out their own residual anger over failed relationships or a failed marriage. Be careful and be discreet, carefully considering how telling that person could impact your friendship and possible future relationship with your spouse and nuclear family.
For the couple
Don’t say or do anything you can’t come back from
Words cannot be erased, once uttered they will always be there between you. While there is usually at least a little truth to what we say in anger, it is often missing enough that it is a partial truth at best, which is not the truth at all. Therefore when you have said something in anger that you don’t mean, you will have to deal with the consequences of your partner believing it is the truth, and potentially acting on it in a way that is destructive to the relationship and takes you further away from what you really do want. When you open your mouth to speak in anger, close it quickly and remain silent. After going back later on to what you were feeling, you can carefully craft words that reflect your true feelings/intent.
Do seek out professional help
Meeting with a competent counselor is like taking out insurance on your relationship—you offer yourself some protection that whatever happens, you will be OK. You will also know with confidence that you gave it your best, and came to the right conclusion. An experienced and competent counselor will help you to address the underlying issues that helped to set the stage for infidelity. You will learn new ways to talk about these issues and to communicate in general—so that you both feel truly heard and better understood.
Do set realistic goals
This is very important, and a good counselor can offer a lot of assistance in goal setting and helping you move successfully towards them. No relationship or partner is perfect. Your partner will always have flaws and so will you—and yes, you will both have to live with these and live well together around them. However, within a realistic framework, you can set goals for what you want from your relationship and marriage, make a commitment to work on them together, and hold one another accountable. There is no such thing as a perfect marriage or relationship—but there are many perfectly happy relationships and marriages.
Toni Coleman possesses a master’s degree in Clinical Social Work, a certificate in family therapy from the Family Therapy Institute in Alexandria, VA, a certification in Neuro-Linguistics Programming Techniques (NLP), and is a certified life coach.