Even though I’ve worked with many couples to help them find a healing pathway after an affair, I recognize there is no foolproof measure for determining whether or not a marriage is going to “make it” in the end. There are certainly indicators, but there are really only two steps a couple must take on their way to marriage recovery.
When I say recovery, I don’t mean simply avoiding divorce. I mean the kind of healing that allows two people to return to a place of connection, intimacy, and trust even after a deep wound was inflicted in the marriage.
The first necessary step must be taken by the one who had the affair. The unfaithful spouse must be willing to STEP BACK. Everything in them wants to move forward and forget the affair as soon as possible, but for the sake of their spouse who needs to process the pain of the affair, the unfaithful spouse must be deliberate in turning back and joining their partner in the fire of the pain they have caused.
They must be willing to endure with the injured spouse until there is enough stability to begin moving ahead again. Enduring means witnessing the resolute spouse’s pain and resisting their own defensiveness. The unfaithful spouse usually wants to put it all in the rear-view mirror but it may take weeks or months to understand what happened and look for evidence that there is and will be a change. It is only by standing on the fire that it will reduce to embers.
The second necessary step is that eventually, the resolute spouse must be willing to STEP FORWARD. It will feel like a tremendous risk and it is common to cling to the affair as a way of protecting from future pain. At some point the affair must be left in the past. Forgiveness may be a long-term goal but is not immediately necessary. A reasonable short-term goal is acceptance. This allows the focus to shift to the present and future issues of the relationship.
Both steps require a willingness to be vulnerable: the unfaithful spouse must face their shame and forgive themselves and the betrayed spouse must face their fear and acknowledge that perfect safety is never possible. If either step is left out, there is no dance of recovery together.
When a couple comes in for help after discovering an affair I try to be reassuring and calmly lay out the structure of what needs to happen to ‘get over’ this crisis.