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Can Your Marriage Survive Cheating?

Relationship experts reveal the truth.

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Wedding Cake with 3 toppers, a couple and a 2nd woman.
Jamie Chung/Trunk Archive
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You caught your partner flirting, sneaking out, sending illicit text messages. Or perhaps you were the one who couldn’t resist the temptation.

You won’t be the first, nor will you be the last couple to be ensnared in an affair: Recent data from the General Social Survey found that 20 percent of men and 13 percent of women have had an affair during their marriage — and these were just the people who admitted it.

That’s doesn’t mean it’s acceptable, however. In fact, 99 percent of people in an OKCupid poll said cheating is not acceptable, and 34 percent said they wouldn’t take a partner back who has cheated.

But you still love your partner. And he or she still loves you. Are you doomed?

“While not all marriages survive an affair, it is possible if both partners want it to, and are willing to work hard to get there,” says Katie Godfrey, licensed marriage and family therapist with the Catalyst Center in Denver.

First, Godfrey says, the unfaithful partner needs to be completely transparent, and has to take full responsibility for their actions.

“This may include giving the faithful partner access to emails and text messages moving forward so that they can see for themselves that their partner is being honest and upfront,” she says.

The goal is for the unfaithful partner to fully understand all the ways they hurt and damaged their partner and marriage — and be able to share this with them, Godfrey says.

This means telling the entire story of the affair, even if it hurts, says Caroline Madden, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and author of Fool Me Once: Should I Take Back My Cheating Husband?

That’s because she will dig through the dirt post-discovery to make sure what he has told her is the entire truth — and every time she finds something that her husband neglected to share, this sets the healing back to square one, Madden says.

“I call it the ‘drip, drip, drip of truth,’ ” she says. “Every time she thinks she knows the whole story, some new detail is discovered, and she feels emotionally like she has been hit by a 2-by-4.”

Next, the couple needs to examine their own relationship: Is there something missing? Are there sexual problems? Are there power differentials?

Often, there is a lack of emotional connection within the couple that both parties need to take responsibility for — and the couple will need to learn how to be emotionally vulnerable and open with each other so that the marriage can thrive, Godfrey says.

But, the unfaithful partner must acknowledge that even if there were issues in the marriage, the decision to cheat was 100 percent his decision, Madden says.

“He can’t start affair recovery by blaming the wife for not meeting his needs,” Madden says. “He must be humbled and grateful that he is being given an opportunity to stay in the marriage.”

The cheating partner should also take a leadership role in helping the couple to recover: He should read books and book an appointment with a therapist.

By cheating, he destroyed her sense of trust — and she is intensely looking into all of his behavior for signs that the affair is still going on.

“He should text if he is going to be late; if he says he is going somewhere but ends up somewhere else, he needs to let her know,” Madden says.

Don’t expect the pain or aftereffects of an affair to go away anytime soon.

It usually takes two years to get over an affair — if they do survive, Madden says.

It’s the worst for the first three months, and then the pain should dip out from month six until the first anniversary of D-Day.

It’s an affair you don’t want to remember.