Marriage + Infidelity = Divorce? Not so fast.

Last fall, I read an article about infidelity in Divorce Magazine by Steven D. Solomon, Ph.D. and Lorie J. Teagno, Ph.D., clinical psychologists who had just released a book, Intimacy after Infidelity: How to Rebuild & Affair-Proof Your Marriage. They shared an interesting statistic: that 60 to 75 percent of couples who experienced a betrayal stayed together.

As a divorce attorney, I work hard to help my clients navigate through a complex process that is usually the result of a very difficult decision. On a personal level, I wish they didn’t have to endure the pain of breaking up. But I know that sometimes, all other channels toward saving a marriage are exhausted.

Which is why that statistic got me thinking: Does infidelity always mean divorce? Apparently not, according to Solomon and Teagno. But why – or why not? What steps should a couple that has experienced infidelity take before looking at divorce as an option? How can a couple overcome a break in the most basic tenet of matrimony – staying faithful – to save the marriage? And at what point should a couple call it quits?

I turned to a few experts, who shared some practical advice:

Why doesn’t infidelity always mean divorce?

Dr. Ramani Durvasula, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving A Relationship with a Narcissist, explained that there are myriad reasons people stay in marriage after infidelity. “It can be a wakeup call for the couple who decide to learn from it. It can also be for practical reasons – financial, cultural, religious, children, and for psychological reasons – fear of being alone, fear of starting again,” she said.

She also added that California is a no-fault state so there is not an additional fiscal “benefit” to leaving a marriage due to a cheating spouse, unless it impacts a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreement in some way.

Dr. Gary Brown, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, made a good point in explaining there are different types of affairs. “One of the first questions I ask is, ‘Why did this happen now?’ The timing of affairs can often help to understand why they occur. Perhaps one partner simply became bored. Or maybe it was a ‘revenge affair’ in which one partner had an affair to ‘even the books’ after a spouse cheated. That doesn’t excuse the affair at all, but it may explain why.”

“We know that when people make life-changing decisions in the heat of emotion, sometimes they later regret those decisions,” said Dr. Brown. “What I recommend is that you allow yourself the grace of feeling everything, but that you don’t make any decisions right now. If you wait and process what has happened in the coming days and weeks, you may be in a better position emotionally to make the right decision to stay or leave.”

What steps should a couple take before ending their marriage?

As you might expect, couples therapy was at the top of the list – for good reason. A licensed therapist is an excellent sounding board and a third party who can stay objective as a couple processes emotions and next steps.

The point at which someone calls it quits is very individual, explained Dr. Ramani. For some people, it’s “one and done,” and for others, more than once is a “first time, shame on you; second time shame on me” scenario.  But there are also people who stay with serial cheaters. “And many times we may not understand the backroom deals that are being made within those marriages,” she added.

Dr. Fran Walfish, a child, couple and family psychotherapist said, “If the person cheated only one time, and demonstrates genuine remorse, regret, empathy, and apologizes solemnly, promising to never ever cheat again, a ‘sex pass’ can be allowed and the breach of trust can be repaired when there are two willing partners. Based on my professional experience, a small percentage of those who have cheated more than once reform. I have, however, seen a positive turnaround occur when the cheater demonstrates genuine remorse for hurting their spouse and immersing themselves into psychotherapy treatment in a completely committed fashion.”

When should a couple call it quits?

“If the infidelity is part of a larger more narcissistic pattern of entitlement, grandiosity, repeated violations of trust, lying, lack of empathy, gaslighting – this can become very challenging as the cheater is not likely to change his/her ways. This means the other spouse either has to adjust, or get out,” said Dr. Ramani.

“I would definitely call it quits immediately if you are the victim of domestic violence, in addition to your partner having one or multiple affairs,” said Dr. Brown. “Your spouse clearly has problems with impulse control and staying in this particular situation is simply not healthy for you. If you have children involved, you have to ask yourself if this is what you want them to grow up seeing as the model for marriage.

“You should also call it quits if your partner refuses to get help – either individual and/or couples counseling,” Dr. Brown advises. “If they perpetually blame you for the affair, if they continue to lie about the affair, and certainly if they brazenly continue to have affairs. You have to ask yourself, What is the price for my self-esteem if I am will to remain with someone who continues to disregard my basic needs for trust, companionship, and empathy?

In the end, the decision to divorce (or not) is an intensely personal one. Just because you or your spouse were unfaithful doesn’t mean that you have to divorce – remember, 60-75 percent of couples that have experienced a betrayal end up staying together. If your marriage is worth saving, I hope you do everything you can to save it.  

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