Few things are more painful than infidelity. The trauma of an affair feels like having open-heart surgery without the anesthesia. You may wonder not only whether you can overcome it, but whether you should even try.
I speak from experience, and from both sides of the equation: I’ve been unfaithful to my husband, and my husband has been unfaithful to me. Yet we survived. And today, believe it or not, our marriage is in a better place than it ever was before—not because of the infidelity, but because of how we worked through it.
If you find your marriage rocked by an affair, there is hope. There can be healing. It will take some work and it won’t happen overnight…but there is hope.
Here are some things you can do to help your marriage survive an affair:
Adultery can be a very isolating event. You may feel alone due to the broken trust in what is supposed to be your closest human relationship. But you don’t have to go through this alone—nor should you.
You are not alone in your circumstances. A lot of marriages are affected by infidelity at some point. There are different statistics that vary on the exact percentages of people who cheat, but even the lowest estimates would equate to tens of millions of unfaithful spouses. That doesn’t in any way make it OK, but it does mean that a lot of people have survived what you are going through.
You also never have to be alone in dealing with the hurt, pain, or shame you are feeling. God is always with you. He is an ever-present help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1) and His grace is sufficient for our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9-10). What may seem impossible is possible with Him.
One of the ways in which God can be present for us is through the love, care, and counsel of His people. So, one of the first things you should do is seek out help. Re|engage is one place you can start; the people we met there were a huge help to both my husband and I when dealing with each other’s infidelity. As iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17), we were sharpened by faithful believers who cared enough to confront us and hold us accountable when needed.
When getting help, be wise in who you run to. You want people who will be friends of your marriage, who want to see you succeed together. Often, people who have been cheated on will run first to their own parents or other close family members/friends. That’s not always a good idea, if it means that your family will turn against your spouse and no longer support your marriage.
Your circle of care should include spiritually and emotionally mature individuals who will counsel biblically. You should choose someone of the same gender, for somewhat obvious reasons, and one that your spouse considers safe/trustworthy.
For many (probably most) people who find out their spouse is having an affair, their first thought is that the marriage is over. They think they should move out and get a divorce; that this is the one thing that justifies such a move. But that’s not a decision that anyone should make in a moment, especially when it is the most emotionally charged moment of their lives.
The hurt and anger of infidelity can seem overwhelming, like it is more than you can process or cope with. But, however you feel, know that you will not always feel that way. Feelings change. You need to give them time to change, and make decisions guided by unchanging wisdom and truth.
So, when an affair comes to the light, don’t immediately call a divorce lawyer. Instead, press pause on any such decisions for 24 hours. Spend that time seeking God and seeking help from His people. Pray and study God’s Word to see what He has to say. And then, when you’ve successfully done that for one day, press pause for another 24 hours. And then another. Take it one day at a time, and see what God can do for your heart (Psalm 147:3).
Besides divorce, there is the question of separation. In some situations, it may make sense for you to be apart for that first 24 or 36 hours. One of you can go someplace else where you are going to be safe, cared for, and loved, and the other will stay in the home. But I would strongly caution you against separating for much longer than that. That’s because, the longer you are living apart, the easier it is to make the permanent decision to divorce. It is really hard to work on rebuilding trust and oneness if you are living separately.
Being back under the same roof doesn’t necessarily mean sharing the same bed. In the case of my husband and I, we slept in separate bedrooms for a while. But, even with separate bedrooms, I was able to see how he was studying his Bible, being open and honest with the guys in our re|engage group, and obediently listening to wise counsel. I knew that he was home with me while working to rebuild trust. The key to rebuilding trust is to do trustworthy things.
Secrets and lies are what got you in this place; the truth is what is going to get you out.
If you are the one who had the affair, you need to come clean. Tell your spouse about the affair and answer any questions they have about it. You committed to oneness with your spouse, and that means there are no unwanted secrets between you. They have the right to know. Confession is the first step toward healing, as James 5:16 reminds us.
However, if you are the one asking questions, be careful what you ask for. You have the right to know, but there are some details you might not want to know. Sex is sex, and it is enough to know that they have sinned against you by being intimate with someone else. Knowing all the nitty-gritty graphic details about how they had sex is unlikely to be helpful, and it is likely to be hurtful. It puts images in your mind that the enemy can play over and over. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it. Asking for lurid details can hurt and hinder healing.
One detail that you should ask about is whether they used protection, because that directly affects you. And, since protection is not 100 percent effective, it is advisable for both of you to get tested for STDs. That is part of the hurt and mess caused by any sex outside of marriage: from an infection standpoint, when you have sex with someone, you are essentially having sex with everyone they have ever slept with, and everyone that those people have ever slept with, and so on. That possibility of infection is part of the truth that you need to learn.
If you have kids, you will need to share the truth with them in an age-appropriate way. Kids are smarter than we often give them credit for, and they will know when something is not right. For young children in the home, what’s fair to say to them is just that “Mommy and Daddy are working on our marriage right now. We’ve done some things to hurt one another. But this is not your fault.” For older kids (including adult children) you can be more specific, but again, don’t get into the details that they don’t need to know.
Be wise about when you do have discussions with your spouse. These talks will always be hard, but they are harder at some times than others. One way that I’ve heard it described uses the acronym of HALT: don’t have deep discussions when you are Hungry, Angry, it’s Late, or you’re Tired. For example, one time I woke up at 1:30 AM and felt angry. In my brilliant wisdom, I thought this was a good time to address some things that I was angry about. So I woke up my husband to have that discussion right then. Needless to say, it did not go well. I was angry, it was late, and he was tired. We needed to have that talk, but we didn’t need to have it right then.
The pain and chaos of infidelity can lead to unhealthy habits. Some people stop eating as a way to exercise control; others go to food for comfort. Some people self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, or other unhealthy habits. But as you move through the healing process, you need to take care of yourself physically as well as emotionally and spiritually. Make sure you are getting adequate nutrition, with healthy levels of exercise and sunshine. Don’t use your spouse’s sin as an excuse to run to your own sinful coping mechanisms.
It can also be helpful to take some breaks away from talking about the affair. For my husband and I, dealing with our affairs just consumed us for a while. It became our whole life. We found ourselves wanting to talk about it, talk about it, talk about it, to the point where we were just wearing each other out. Although we needed to have those discussions, we also needed to take some breaks and do something enjoyable once in a while.
One thing we did that was helpful was to go on double dates with a mentor couple that was helping us through the healing process. On those dates, the one rule was that we were not going to talk about the affair. The goal was just to have fun and rest from our labors.
Finally, what’s important is that you try. Try to work through things with your spouse. Maybe you don’t feel like you can commit right now to the outcome of staying together, but commit to trying. You lose nothing by trying.
For the spouse who cheated, “trying” starts by immediately and completely ending the adulterous relationship. Whatever that requires, you do it. Sever all contact. I know of people who have had affairs with coworkers and ended up quitting their jobs because that was the only way they could effectively separate from the affair partner and build trust with their spouse. You might not have to quit your job, but if that is what it takes, it is worth it. Your marriage is worth more than your job.
If you are the one who has been cheated on, know that leaving doesn’t mean that you will leave the pain behind. You have to work through it. And when you both work through it together, it is possible to come out the other side with a healthy marriage. I know that’s hard to believe, but I’ve seen it happen with many marriages (including my own). It is possible, but only if you try.
Divorce doesn’t solve the problem, and it doesn’t heal the hurt. Because of that, divorce is never God’s best for your life (Malachi 2:16). God’s best is when people confess and repent from sin (Proverbs 28:13), forgive those who have sinned against them (Matthew 18:21-22), and live together with the kind of oneness that God intends for marriage (Mark 10:7-9). You can’t do it without God’s help (John 15:5), so when you are able to overcome serious problems in your marriage, it serves as a powerful story of what God can do—just like these stories.
It takes work, but it is worth it. To get help, you can start here.