Infidelity can be devastating to marriagesÃ¢â‚¬”no surprises there. One line of thinking about infidelity holds that sometimes it's more selfish to confess your sins than it is to keep them a secret. But it turns out that keeping infidelity a secret is actually more toxic to a marriage than when the affair comes to light, new research finds. While infidelity increases a couple's odds of divorce either way, the marriage has a greater chance of survivingÃ¢â‚¬”and surviving happilyÃ¢â‚¬”when the affair is exposed than when the cheated-on partner never finds out, according to a recent study in the journal Couple and Family Psyhcology: Research and Practice. Yeah, think about that one for a second.
The New Science on Straying
This recent study, which came out of the University of Washington and the University of California Los Angeles, followed 134 couples who were recruited from a larger, randomized clinical trial on couples therapy. Out of the whole group, 19 of the couples contained at least one cheating partner. Some of those were "secret infidelity couples" (ones in which a partner did not disclose their cheating) and some were "revealed infidelity couples" (where one partner did disclose itÃ¢â‚¬”either by confession or discovery). Over the course of five years, the researchers examined the couples' relationship satisfaction and marital stability, as well as whether or not they stayed together.
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It turns out that the highest divorce rate was among couples who had secret infidelity, with an 80 percent divorce rate at the five-year follow-up. In contrast, in couples where the affair did come to light, the divorce rate was 43 percent. The couples that did not have infidelity had a 23 percent rate of divorce.
But here's the good news: For the couples who stayed together, infidelity and noninfidelity couples alike had similar low levels of marital instability at the five-year mark. They were also indistinguishable when it came to relationship satisfaction. Plus, after accounting for divorce, the researchers found that both cheating and non-cheating couples' relationship satisfaction continued to increase, even after counseling treatment ended. Meaning: Cheating can be devastating. But it isn't necessarily devastating for the long haul, especially if both partners are aware of the situation.
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It's worth noting that the sample size of this study, with only 19 unfaithful couples, was super small. And obviously, there's a third possibility that the study didn't find within these 19 couples: the case where a couple stays together after cheating, but remains miserableÃ¢â‚¬”maybe even continuing to cheat. Sadly, there are obviously couples like this out there, even though the researchers didn't find any in their limited study.
That said, this research suggests that there's hope for some couples after infidelity. Here's what you need to know if it happens in your marriage:
Moving On When It Happens to You
So is it possible for spouses to move past an infidelity? "Absolutely," says relationship expert Wendy Walsh, Ph.D., author of The 30-Day Love Detox, who was not involved in the study. "An affair is a pretty big rupture. But if you can get through it and do the repair process on the other side, then you can be stronger than ever."
Of course, that's much easier said than done, and so the best place to come clean and work on your marriage is often in therapy, says Walsh. (And interestingly, the couples in this study were all involved in some type of therapy during the study.) That way you have a mediator who can guide you in the right direction and make sure you stay on track.
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Overall, the most important step in moving past an affair is knowing that both parties in the marriage are open to fixing things, says Walsh. For example: If a husband cheated on his wife, and she is now positive that she'll never be able to trust him again, that he's bound to do this again and hurt her again, there's not much he can do or say to convince her otherwise. Or, on the flip side, "if he's still saying, 'It really wasn't my faultÃ¢â‚¬”this just happened,' and he's not really taking responsibility for his piece in it, then you're going to have a hard time working through stuff," says Walsh.
By the same token, if you had an affair and realize that, deep down, you did it because you're unhappy in your relationship, then it might be time to move on rather than go through couples therapy. "Coming clean only matters if you want to reestablish your marriage," says Walsh. Essentially, it's only worth it to keep trucking when you and your partner both want to and are working together as a team to move forward.
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