Who could have known it would come to this – that the person with whom you’ve pledged your life, shared your bed and bared your soul would be unfaithful? Couples speak of infidelity as a nuclear bomb that ravages both marriage and spirit. The emotional fallout can last for years.

Having worked with dozens of couples "nuked" by infidelity, I have observed the devastation from ground zero. Even though the path to healing is long and arduous, couples can and do rebuild what was destroyed.

While every marriage is unique and every story of broken vows has its own plot and characters, restoration typically goes through three stages. Missing any stage results in incomplete healing.

Stage one: Repair

Marital infidelity results in trauma similar to that experienced by many battlefield survivors. The injured spouse feels hopeless, confused, grief-stricken, defiled and furious. He or she can swing from self-loathing to hatred and back to piercing pain in just moments.

Emotions can be maddeningly unpredictable and excruciating. This is understandable. After all, the world as you know it has just been blown to bits. Trust is gone, the future is bleak and life has become a surreal blur of uncertainties.

During the repair stage, you normalize and stabilize emotions. Rather than filing for divorce, plotting revenge or considering self-harm, it’s best to make no major decisions at this point. Life is distorted when seen through the lens of shattered dreams. Waiting for emotions to level out before making irrevocable judgments is difficult but prudent.

The unfaithful spouse must be patient during this stage. He or she cannot control how long it will take for you to recover from such a numbing crisis.

Repair involves talking with a friend or counsellor for support, prayer and reassurance. It means naming the wild emotions you experience. It also means proper sleep and diet. The temptation to obsess – Why did this happen? – is understandable but exhausting. Tapping into God’s strength will help ease your mind and soothe your emotions.

Once you gain a healthier perspective, which could take months, it’s time to consider stage two – deciding whether to stay married.

Stage two: Regroup

Healing after adultery occurs more quickly when both spouses arrive at a decision to remain committed to the marriage. But this is not easy. There are risks to staying in a broken marriage and risks to calling it quits, but the ideal goal is marital restoration, healing and forgiveness. Most often, the assistance of a competent Christian counsellor will be vital. Here are a few questions to consider as you assess your relationship and make a decision:

  • Is your unfaithful spouse repentant, willing to explore why the adultery happened and willing to tolerate your understandable lack of trust?
  • Does your spouse take ownership of the damage that the infidelity caused?
  • Has all contact with the other person ended? Are boundaries in place?
  • Is your spouse being honest? Confessing sexual sin without confessing the sin of deception is short-sighted.
  • Is your spouse willing to rebuild trust, answer questions and disclose cell phone bills, Internet history and credit card expenditures?
  • Are you willing to forgive? A lack of forgiveness becomes a festering sore in the relationship.
  • Do you desire to move on? Wallowing in pain is unhealthy. Self-pity grows like a monster when fed.
  • Are you willing to evaluate your role in the breakdown? The unfaithful spouse is 100 per cent responsible for his or her choices, but both of you are responsible for the health of your marriage. It might be tempting to focus on the sin of adultery while neglecting your contributions to a weak marriage.
  • What are the costs of divorce on your self-image, your children and your community?

Stage three: Rebuild

Once you make a commitment to stay in the marriage, it is time to rebuild. With the help of a marriage therapist, couples eliminate barriers to a healthy relationship, learn new skills and work to create a marriage that’s better than before.

Many couples come to see healing from adultery as an opportunity to explore the deeper meaning of love, commitment, passion and intimacy. When couples navigate carefully and deliberately through the three stages of recovery, there is life after adultery.

Erik Johnson was a family counsellor and founder of Family Challenge Ministries at the time of publication.

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by ermission.

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