I’m not talking about people who simply stay together for the kids, resenting each other the whole way. I mean partners that come together after an affair and manage to restore the relationship to its previous — and sometimes even better — working condition. As the immensely quotable author of the advice column Dear Sugar once wrote, “Sometimes the thing you fear the most in your relationship turns out to be the thing that brings you and your partner to a deeper place of understanding and intimacy.”
It’s near impossible to say just how often this actually happens. Even numbers on the percentage of couples who stay together after an affair is revealed is sketchy (let alone how many actually get to a better place): Estimates range from 35 to 75 percent. (There is a similarly yawning range of estimates of how many marriages experience infidelity.) But, as many couples’ counselors tell it, it comes as a shock to many that it ever happens.
The story leading up to Dan’s affair is a familiar one: They had both become so bogged down by financial stresses and caring for their two kids that they didn’t have time for each other anymore. Out of desperation, Dan took a seven-day-a-week job overhauling a flooded mall. His absence wore on Carissa, who was then eight months into a painful pregnancy. Whenever she asked him to spend more time at home, he assumed that she just wanted a break from the kids. They had become so distant from one another that, as he told me, “I thought our marriage was over.”
Around this time, an ex-girlfriend got back in touch with him and after some back-and-forth, they met up, twice, he says. The second time, they were hanging out at her house when, without much fanfare, she leaned over, unbuttoned his pants and gave him a blow job.
Carissa was devastated when she found out about his cheating — as a result, she says she barely even remembers the first months of her son’s life. Just over a year later, though, things could not be more different: She says their marriage is better than it ever was.
Unbelievable as it sounds, Esther Perel, a therapist and author of “Mating in Captivity,” has seen this unexpectedly positive post-infidelity transformation before — although it often takes a lot of work and a lot of time.
Curious about how those who attempt to stay together fare “once out of the therapist’s benevolent gaze,” she spent years interviewing couples whom she previously treated. “I already knew the marriages I was tracing in these follow-up interviews had survived; now I wanted to assess the quality of that survival,” she wrote in an article for the Psychotherapy Networker. Plenty manage to stay together without ever transcending the affair – some “never really get past the affair” or “they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and let it go.” For a third group, though, “the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change.”