During a prospective client consultation, I was asked: “If your partner cheated on you, would you immediately leave? Would infidelity be a deal-breaker for you?” I’d actually never been asked this by a client - what I would do in my personal life - and I was momentarily taken aback. After taking a moment to gather my thoughts, my answer was: “No. Infidelity by itself would not be a deal-breaker.” (And if my husband is reading this, I hope he does not take this as a free pass!)
If you had asked me when I was a teenager or in my 20s, you would have probably gotten a resounding “yes!” from me. I had seen firsthand how a betrayal like that can break a person’s spirit, wreak havoc in a family, and have lasting impact on the children involved. The idea that my own partner would violate my trust that way terrified me, and when a boyfriend did cheat on me, it felt like my worst fear had come to life. And yet, decades later, I no longer see infidelity, by itself, as a deal-breaker. My clinical work working with couples struggling with infidelity, the training I have received to work with this population, and the literature I have consumed on this topic have confirmed one thing for me: the pain of infidelity is real and raw - it is indeed an interpersonal trauma - but it does not have to, on its own, automatically signal the end of a relationship. If the relationship has otherwise strong legs to stand on, so to speak, it is possible that it becomes an opportunity for growth.
Of course, just because it can be an opportunity for growth, it does not mean it necessarily will be - both parties need to be committed to putting in the work. It also does not mean that it will be an easy, straightforward path to growth. The process of recovering from infidelity can be agonizing for both parties, inciting some of our most visceral reactions. But if the process of repair is successful, at the end of it, a more robust relationship can emerge. As Julie and John Gottman, pioneers in the field of relationship therapy, have said, Marriage #1 may be gone, but a stronger and deeper Marriage #2 can be built, if the couple is willing to put in the work and if there is a strong foundation to build off of. At the same time, as noted by the psychotherapist Esther Perel, in an age and culture where it is considered almost shameful to stay in a relationship after the discovery of an affair, staying and working on the relationship can feel particularly hard.
Whether you choose to stay or walk away from a relationship is clearly up to the couple and their unique circumstances. There is no one right answer. Maybe the relationship was already crumbling for other reasons, and the infidelity merely accelerated the process. Whether the relationship has enough legs to stand on outside of the infidelity is something that the couple has to search deeply within them to determine. It’s also worth noting that infidelity comes in all sizes and shapes - from a one-time transgression after decades of loyalty in a momentary lapse of judgment to a long-standing and systematic deception that spans years. It can be an emotional affair, without the exchange of any physical touch, or it can be an affair that is physical and all-consuming, even producing a second family. They are not all one and the same - important distinctions exist and the nature of the affair does matter.
But the bottom line that I have come to believe is that infidelity, by itself, does not have to be a deal-breaker. If the couple is able to fully engage in the repair work, there is hope.