Should Infidelity in a Marriage Signal a Need for Divorce?

Here's an interesting statistic: Between 60% and 75% of couples who experience a betrayal stay together. This information comes from an article about infidelity in Divorce Magazine by Steven D. Solomon, Ph.D. and Lorie J. Teagno, Ph.D., clinical psychologists who recently released a book, Intimacy After Infidelity: How to Rebuild & Affair-Proof Your Marriage.

Divorce is a complex process that usually results from a very difficult decision. It often occurs when all other channels toward saving a marriage have been exhausted. Hence, the question: Does infidelity always mean divorce? Apparently not, according to Solomon and Teagno. What is the reasoning behind this? What steps should a couple who has experienced infidelity take before considering divorce? How can a couple overcome a break in the most basic tenet of matrimony – staying faithful – to save their marriage? And at what point should a couple call it quits?

We turned to the experts, who shared their answers to some of our burning questions. Let's see what they had to say.

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 a marriage after infidelity.

"It can be a wake-up call for the couple who decide to learn from it. It can also be for practical reasons – financial, cultural, religious, children – or for psychological reasons such as fear of being alone, fear of starting again," – Dr. Ramani Durvasula

She added that in no-fault states like California, there is no 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, explained that there are different types of affairs. Sometimes, people make life-changing decisions in the heat of emotion ... decisions which they later regret.

"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, but it may explain why. Allow yourself the grace of feeling everything ... but 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." – Dr. Brown

What steps should a couple take before ending their marriage?

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

The point at which someone calls it quits is very individual, explained Dr. Ramani. For some people, it's "one and done." For others, more than once is a "First time, shame on you; second time, shame on me" situation. 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. We spoke with Dr. Fran Walfish, a child, couple, and family psychotherapist on the issue.

"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." – Dr. Walfish


When should a couple call it quits?

Dr. Ramani suggested there are times when a cheater is unlikely to change their ways. For example, if infidelity is part of a larger, more narcissistic pattern of entitlement, grandiosity, repeated violations of trust, lying, lack of empathy, or gaslighting, the other spouse may need to "adjust or get out."

Dr. Brown added that for victims of domestic violence with partners engaging in multiple affairs, it may be a good idea to "call it quits immediately." He speculated that a spouse like this clearly struggles with impulse control and that the situation is just not healthy. Further, if children are involved, you should ask yourself if this is what you want them to witness as a model for marriage growing up.

"You should also call it quits if your partner refuses to get help – either individual and/or couples counseling. 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 remain with someone who continues to disregard my basic needs for trust, companionship, and empathy?'" – Dr. Brown

The decision to divorce (or not) is an intensely personal one. Just because you or your spouse were unfaithful doesn't mean you have to divorce. And if it's a marriage worth saving, we hope you do everything you can to save it.

Founder, CEO & Certified Family Law Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Insights, Legal Insights
After over a decade of experience as a Certified Family Law Specialist, Mediator and law firm owner, Erin was fed up with the inefficient and adversarial “divorce corp” industry and set out to transform how consumers navigate divorce - starting with the legal process. By automating the court bureaucracy and integrating expert support along the way, Hello Divorce levels the playing field between spouses so that they can sort things out fairly and avoid missteps. Her access to justice work has been recognized by the legal industry and beyond, with awards and recognition from the likes of Women Founders Network, TechCrunch, Vice, Forbes, American Bar Association and the Pro Bono Leadership award from Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Erin lives in California with her husband and two children, and is famously terrible at board games.