- For a new study, couples were recruited who had endured infidelity and experienced meaningful healing.
- Researchers divided the healing process into four stages.
- Forgiveness, rebuilding trust, and deep communication are essential for healing.
If your relationship has endured an affair, can your partnership recover? New research suggests that your relationship can not only survive but also thrive.
In a new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers Fife and colleagues (2023) from Texas Tech University studied the healing process in couples who had experienced infidelity in their romantic relationships.
Importantly, all of the couples involved in this research project also stated that they had "experienced meaningful healing," and some couples even reported relationship growth following the affair.
Based on this research, the authors proposed a tiered model for healing following infidelity.
The authors defined infidelity as "a violation of sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries." Infidelity is typically categorized as sexual infidelity (ranging from kissing to intercourse) or emotional infidelity (ranging from sharing private thoughts with someone else to falling in love with someone else).
Although research on infidelity is common, the present study is one of only a few studies to address the perspectives of both members of the couple, the "straying partner" and the "non-straying partner." Both straying and non-straying partners typically experience adverse outcomes following infidelity, such as relationship distress and depression.
The researchers recruited an ethnically diverse sample of heterosexual couples (11 White couples, five Latinx couples, five African American couples, and four couples of other ethnic backgrounds). These couples were young, with an average age of 27 and an average relationship duration of 7.6 years.
The average relationship length at the time of the infidelity was three years. Nine of the couples were married, while seven were in committed relationships. All of the couples in this sample reported sexual affairs on the part of one or both partners.
In 10 couples, the man was the straying partner. In three couples, the woman strayed, and in three couples, both partners were unfaithful. The researchers conducted in-person or videoconferencing interviews with both couple members together.
Most couples also sought both individual and couples therapy following the infidelity (outside of the context of the research project).
The researchers developed a tiered model for the healing process consisting of four stages, which build upon one another: the revelation of the infidelity, initial reactions, stabilizing the relationship, and revitalizing the relationship.
Revelation of Infidelity: Discovery or Disclosure
In the first stage of the model, the researchers distinguished discovering the infidelity (the non-straying partner discovers the affair) from disclosing the cheating (the straying partner confesses to the affair). In this sample of couples, only three partners disclosed their unfaithfulness, while 13 partners discovered it on their own.
When the infidelity was discovered, straying partners reported feeling intense shame and regret. When the affair was disclosed, non-straying partners reported somewhat less intense feelings of betrayal, anger, and hurt because of their partner's honesty and apologies. Both suspected and actual infidelity can impair mental and physical well-being.
Initial Responses: Assessing the Damage and Affirming Commitment
The second stage of the model involves acknowledging the damage to the relationship and, for couples who choose to stay together, affirming their commitment to one another and their relationship.
Most participants reported intense negative emotions following the disclosure of the affair, including feelings of pain, betrayal, anger, sadness, and a loss of trust. The authors of the study suggest that understanding the details of infidelity may be crucial for partners to determine whether they can continue in the relationship.
Having open and honest conversations about what led to their unfaithfulness and the emotional impacts of the infidelity may help to facilitate future healing.
The researchers also found that the straying partner usually expresses remorse for the affair, and the non-straying partner may express their willingness to attempt forgiveness for the relationship's future. Because both partners may feel uncertain about whether their relationship can recover following the affair, most couples reported expressing and affirming their commitment to repairing the relationship within a few days of the revelation of the affair.
The couples regarded their re-commitment to their relationships as an essential part of the healing process.
Stabilizing the Relationship: Reconnecting, Accountability, Forgiveness
In the third stage of the model, the researchers highlighted the importance of prioritizing relationships and increasing shared time together while emphasizing the importance of rebuilding trust and intimacy.
Couples in this study reported conscious efforts to reconnect with one another and strengthen their relationships. Some couples also mentioned that they tried to "date" as they did when first forming their relationships. The researchers noted that, at first, many couples employed checks to ensure that the straying partners had changed their behaviors, such as checking phone calls, texts, or sharing their locations.
The couples stated that, over time, feelings of trust increased, and these checks became less critical. Many of the non-straying partners began to forgive their partners for the affairs, emphasized putting the experience behind them and committed to moving forward in their relationships.
Revitalizing the Relationship
This stage of the model emphasizes deepening emotional connections, offering forgiveness, and enhancing trust. Couples reported that in their conversations, they expressed their emotions regarding the infidelity as well as their relationship needs.
In this sample, every couple conveyed the need for forgiveness in the healing process, a "continual choice to extend a second chance to straying partners, rather than defining them by the infidelity."
Forgiveness helped the non-straying partners to let go of their feelings of resentment and anger. Straying partners may also need to forgive themselves, but the researchers stated that self-forgiveness was only sought after the non-straying partners had experienced meaningful healing.
The couples stated that restoring trust was the most difficult part of the healing process. Many couples revealed that although trust increased with time, even years later, they continued working to reestablish trust. Non-straying partners reported seeking frequent reassurance from their mates.
In this final stage of the model, many couples focused on the relationship's growth, identifying ways they had grown as a couple and had become closer following the infidelity. Their affairs had inspired some couples to strengthen their marriages and deepen their commitments to one another.
Individuals who attended therapy also reported growth through learning better communication techniques and appreciating their partner's perspective via individual and couples therapy sessions.
The authors acknowledge that their sample of couples was small, that the couples were young, highly educated, and religious, and did not include couples in non-heterosexual partnerships. The researchers stress the need for future research involving older couples, couples with longer relationships, and LGBTQIA+ couples.
Facebook image: PeopleImages.com - Yuri A/Shutterstock
Fife, S. T., Gossner, J. D., Theobald, A., Allen, E., Rivero, A., & Koehl, H. (2023). Couple healing from infidelity: A grounded theory study. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075231177874