Cheating usually spells death for a relationship. While infidelity isn’t the top reason for divorce, it’s among the most common reasons. And even if couples try to repair their marriage after infidelity occurs, it’s a tough road ahead. In one survey of 441 people who were unfaithful to their partners, less than 16 percent of respondents said their relationships survived the infidelity.
This isn’t surprising. For the person being cheated on, learning of an affair is emotionally devastating. Moving on from such a breach means repairing trust between someone who no longer seems trustworthy and another person reluctant to trust that person again. But while rebuilding a marriage after infidelity is difficult, it’s not impossible. Couples can rebuild trust with patience and careful, hard work. That hard work becomes far more so if you accidentally make one of these common reconciliation mistakes.
1. Trying to Stay Together In the First Place
Not all couples bounce back from cheating. And often the ability to recover depends on the nature of the infidelity itself. Stepping out on your spouse could be a crime of opportunity that occurred in a moment of bad judgment. Or it could be a sign that the marriage was built on a poor foundation. Dr, Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, notes that cheating can reflect not just a desire for sex but a desire to end a relationship. “Sometimes the person who cheated did it, consciously or not, as a means of leaving a relationship,” she says. “Sometimes that person was going to leave anyway and that is their step out the door.”
2. Going it Alone (Or Seeking Help Too Late)
After a spouse cheats, every marital conversation can seem like walking through a minefield. Because of the fraught emotional landscape and the potential for explosions, an objective third party can play a critical role in leading couples to safer ground. “An outside therapist who is well versed in such dynamics can be really helpful to mediate and point out where the issues are, the things that need to happen, and where you have blind spots,” Saltz says. She adds that unfortunately, couples may only turn to therapists as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage. But at that point, resentment has eroded the chances for reconciliation. “When so much disdain or deception or contempt for each other has already occurred, it’s really hard to come back from,” she says. “So earlier is better.”
3. Staying Under the Same Roof When the Infidelity is Discovered
The first night that the affair becomes public is tense. According to Lisa Concepcion, a life coach specializing in divorce and infidelity issues, a common mistake is sweating it out together in close quarters.
“Emotions are elevated and rightfully so,” she says. “People aren’t thinking right because they are in fight or flight mode.” For the health of the marriage, it’s important to put some distance between the people in the marriage. “The best thing to do is find a friend or a hotel to stay at for a cooling-off period so both parties can have the freedom to gather their thoughts and assess their feelings without any outside influence,” she says.
4. Telling Friends and Family Right Away
Concepcion says that while the hours and days following the revelation of infidelity can be lonely and confusing, both spouses need to resist the urge to reach out to their social networks for support until they figure out how they plan to go forward with the relationship.
“It is important that you first assess where you are with everything,” she says. “Perhaps you have a firm boundary regarding infidelity, haven’t been happy and want to divorce. Or perhaps you want to try to repair the relationship. It’s best to come together on next steps and be on the same page before sharing personal business with family.”
5. Sharing Every Detail About the Cheating With Your Partner
Sexologist and sex educator Susanah Weiss warns that too much disclosure about the affair can spell doom for the relationship. While it’s critical to be forthcoming, it’s crucial to keep track of the motivation for confession. “It’s important to ask yourself if this desire comes from a desire to help your partner recover from the incident or from a desire to alleviate your own guilt,” she says.
The important thing to focus on is the cheater’s feelings and motivations for cheating, not the cheating itself. “Hearing all about the other person or the sex may unnecessarily exacerbate feelings of jealousy,” Weiss says. And just as the cheater shouldn’t overshare, the person cheated on needs to discern which details are important for them to understand. They deserve an honest account of what happened and why it happened. They don’t need to hear a detailed play-by-play about how it happened.
6. Lack of Full Disclosure
While it can be a mistake to indiscriminately dump all the details of an affair onto your spouse, withholding information can be just as bad. The challenge for couples trying to reconcile after cheating is in striking the right balance of information.
Naomi Yano, a couples therapist who specializes in infidelity recovery, says that couples she works with often get caught in communication loops that prevent their relationship from recovering. Common elements include what she calls “trickle truth,” where the cheater tries to protect their partner by selectively revealing the truth about their affair.
“They usually mean well when they don’t disclose details, believing it will hurt their already hurting partner,” she says. “This actually has the opposite effect. Every time the hurting partner learns again that something was concealed, they return to ground zero with rebuilding trust.”
7. Trying to Recover Too Quickly
Marriage coach and relationship expert Lesli Doares says couples who rush through the reconciliation process won’t achieve the results they want. Repairing the marriage after infidelity is slow, difficult work but, she says, it has to be done, for the sake of both parties.
“There is often a rush to get through it and have things go back to normal,” Doares says. But normal was part of the problem.” Doares notes that going outside the marriage is a sign of troubles elsewhere in the relationship. “Infidelity just compounds whatever the issues were, it doesn’t make them go away,” she says. “Healing is a slow process and, often, an uneven one. It’s like peeling an onion—there are often several layers for both partners.
The bottom line is that reconciliation after infidelity isn’t possible unless both parties commit to doing the work needed to build back trust and repair the relationship. But if each person isn’t committed to that goal, they’ll only patch things up on the surface level. The underlying problems will remain. “They may appear to be trying to patch things up, but really one of them doesn’t want to,” Saltz says. “And then it’s probably not going to happen.”