Can you rebuild a relationship after an affair?

Sexuality expert Esther Perel on what to do if your partner is cheating, and how to recover from an affair


Can you rebuild a relationship after an affair?

What happens when your partner has an affair? It’s not easy, but it is possible to overcome the hurt and betrayal and rebuild your relationship

Kevin and Alice are sitting in my therapy room, looking very glum. ‘Every time I can’t get Kevin on the phone, I am immediately reminded of how he wouldn’t answer when he was with the other woman,’ says Alice, still bitter and hurt three years after she discovered his affair.

Married to Kevin for 14 years, Alice made the decision to stick with her husband to keep the family together. However, she constantly tries to make him feel that he is very lucky she didn’t kick him out. Believing that Kevin has never fully owned up to how much his behaviour hurt her, Alice assumes a sense of moral superiority. As far as she is concerned, forgiving him wouldn’t repair the marriage but would instead effectually give him an undeserved clean slate, allowing him to feel that he no longer has any reason to feel guilty. ‘I want to make love to him, but that feels as if I’m telling him that everything is OK now – and for me, it’s not,’ she explains to me.

‘I find it hard to persuade Alice of my renewed commitment to this marriage because she is constantly condescending and sarcastic,’ counters a clearly frustrated Kevin. According to him, Alice brings up his affair every time she is unhappy about anything, regardless of what it is. ‘She ruins what might otherwise be perfect moments between us – our daughter’s piano recital for example or a dinner with friends. I don’t know what to do,’ he says. So what does he do? I ask him. He alternates between justifying and blaming himself, he replies. Kevin believes that his wife was not an innocent bystander before his affair. However, he says that Alice flatly refuses to take any responsibility for her part in their relationship – in the past or the present, for that matter. He thinks that he has expressed shame, guilt and remorse, but it just won’t ever be enough.

Infidelity underlies every argument

I can see that this infidelity remains at the epicentre of their relationship and they tag it onto every disagreement between them. They are sharing a cell in this marital prison. To Alice, Kevin has become the sum total of his transgressions while to Kevin, Alice has become the sum total of her vengeful fury. So where does that leave them? In therapy, I help Kevin respond to Alice’s grief and turmoil by taking full responsibility for his actions and expressing true remorse for hurting her.

Simultaneously, I challenge Alice’s insistence on viewing herself as the victim and Kevin as the perpetrator. Typically they tend to accuse and point fingers at each other: ‘So what if I want nothing to do with you sexually? I refuse to take the blame for your cheating,’ she’ll say to him. I urge them to self-reflect rather than look at everything as a personal attack. Alice needs to admit she pushed Kevin away for years and even though it doesn’t justify his cheating, it helped set the stage for what happened. Kevin, meanwhile, needs to be accountable for his actions.

Both of them are responsible for their relationship, even if one of them bears more responsibility for indulging in the affair.

So we address the obsession that sits at the core of their relationship. Rather than replaying the story in her head and interrogating him on all the sordid details, I suggest that Alice tries to ask questions and have discussions with Kevin that will help rebuild trust and understanding: ‘What did this affair mean for you? At what point did you realise you wanted to stay? Why did you give up the affair?’ for example.

In so many marriages, affairs become a black hole, trapping the couple in an endless round of pain, bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. To get out of it, they need to shift their focus from tragedy to triumph and use this experience as an opportunity to create positive changes in the relationship.

Being confronted with an affair forces every couple to re-evaluate their own marriage, but in turn every marriage determines the legacy of the affair. The way that Kevin and Alice will resolve the crisis of infidelity will define their futures as well as their pasts.

More inspiration:

Read After The Affair: Healing The Pain And Rebuilding Trust When A Partner Has Been Unfaithful by Janis A. Spring (Harper Collins, £9.99)

Read We Love Each Other But by Dr Ellen F. Wachtel (Saint Martin’s Press, £9.99)

Read Mating In Captivity: Sex Lies And Domestic Bliss by Esther Perel (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99)


ESTHER PEREL is a psychologist, author and speaker regarded  as one of the world’s most insightful voices on sexuality. GOT A QUESTION FOR ESTHER? Email, with ‘ESTHER’ in the subject line 

Photograph: Christopher Lane

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