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Can Your Marriage Survive An Affair?

Here's what my own relationship looks like seven years after my husband cheated.

After an affair, the decision of whether to stay in the relationship or leave it is so intensely personal and uniquely nuanced that you don’t really need advice on which choice to make. You need support and understanding for your chosen way forward.

At the fork in the road of infidelity, it matters not which road ahead is less traveled. What matters is feeling justified in your decision between the hard way forward and the other hard way forward. What can be helpful is hearing from others who’ve gone before you in order to know it’s possible for you to successfully traverse the road ahead. It’s a pick-your-poison situation at first. The thought of leaving your relationship can taste bitter and sap your life force, same as the thought of staying. I chose to stay. Or, to try to stay.

And the seven years since then have affirmed my instinct to end the decimated marriage to my husband — but begin a brand-new one with him.

If you’re leaning that way as well and it’s early days after the betrayal, know that it won’t always feel as hopeless and uncertain as it does in the beginning. In fact, if you both do the years of work it takes (our therapist said on average it takes two years) to repair and rebuild, you can build the marriage you’d always hoped for but never knew how to construct.

“Once a cheater, always a cheater,” is something the ignorant say. For in fact, each of you can heal and grow through the trauma of infidelity and develop a new and improved sense of self. If you and your partner are both all-in, it can happen that way.

You can arrive at a sacred, safe and protected place in your relationship even while hating the way you got there. It’s that bittersweet dichotomy that seems to always exist. The sweet and salty. The hot then cold. The lacking and the abundance. The desperation laced with joy, perpetually tethered together in life’s three-legged race.

There are no guarantees for any of our hopes and desires if we stay, nor are there any if we leave. It’s that dreadful sense of uncertainty that stalls us out. We want to know for sure what’s right, what’s best, where we’ll find our happy and wholeness again. But it doesn’t work that way for any distance past each singular next right step we take.

Seven years later, my husband and I have each owned our role in the eroding of our marriage. We’ve both done the therapy and made amends with each other. Rather than play the zero-sum blame game, we worked to bond again by fixing what was broken — in ourselves and in each other.

Because — hear me clearly, here — while I’ll never condone cheating and I’ll never own any part of that choice, a long-term, monogamous marriage is so hard it’s a wonder anyone can do it well. We’ve both been terrible at it at times, in differently destructive ways.

While attempting to stay, there were years of aftershocks — triggers and trauma resurgence — that sent us reeling. Then followed years of peace and calm, allowing us to clear the rubble and build a new foundation for our future.

We are not defined by our mistakes in this life, but more so by what we do after. I’m not sure if trust will ever be restored; for me trust presents as a one-time gift I gave and don’t have in me to give again. But what took trust’s place is hope. A fraternal twin.

Because of what we’ve been through together and as a result of what I witnessed my husband do after, I have tremendous hope that he won’t betray me again. That he’ll make better, more constructive choices for dealing with future discord.

Our marriage isn’t impervious or perfect now, but we’re better at being married now than we ever were. That took stripping ourselves bare of any defense or pretense. It took rendering ourselves so utterly vulnerable in our truths that the only option seemed to be to love each other better because of those truths, not in spite of them.

Once the deep work is done and both of you are satisfied that staying with each other is your way forward, what’s deeply unhelpful is bringing up the past. You will want to. You will feel certain you need to, that you’re justified in doing so. And you’ll be right. You just won’t be helpful.

William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past becomes a part of us, and we can’t change it. Those of us who’ve suffered through an affair hate that maxim with our entire being. It’s the one thing we’re left wanting when all is said and done, to wipe the affair from the record. For it to have never happened. And it’s the one thing we can’t have.

Instead, we can take the unchangeable past and let it inform our future. One of my best, unexpected takeaways from the nightmare of infidelity, the hazy dream of healing from it and the bright vision for the rest of my marriage is that through staying and recovering together, I’ve come to know that I can be on my own as well. I would survive and flourish on this path too.

A bonus byproduct of rebuilding my marriage is that I, too, came out the other side rebuilt. My marriage isn’t what makes me feel steady, whole or protected today; my sense of self does. Though I did the right thing for me by staying and got the results I was hoping for, I’ve also realized I’ll be fine should I ever find myself alone. It’s the bittersweetness again. It’s always there. A strange comfort I’ve learned to welcome and depend on. Because it means that either way, things will eventually be more than OK.

Do you think a marriage can survive an affair? Let us know in the comments below.

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