What Couples Do in the Aftermath of an Affair
Can Determine Whether They'll Have a Future Together
By Elizabeth Bernstein
It was just before midnight one night in October when Hillary Rothrock, a 30-year-old stay-at-home mom, discovered a side of her husband she'd never known existed.
The Lancaster, Pa., couple had been to an exercise class at the YMCA, then took their two small daughters for ice cream. When they got home, Ms. Rothrock put the girls to bed, took a shower and decided to check Facebook.
"Hey, can I look at your computer for a sec?" she asked her husband, Paul Rothrock, a 30-year-old product-support representative for a social-media ad company. He was in the living room, on his laptop, and his reaction stunned her. "No!" he hissed, pulling the computer to his chest.
Confused, she asked him again, and he became even more agitated. "You are not looking at this!" he insisted, gripping the computer tightly.
That was when Ms. Rothrock realized what was wrong.
There are few moments more painful than the disclosure of an extramarital affair, an event that provokes stress and anger in both the betrayer and betrayed. What each spouse does and says in the aftermath will reverberate a long time.
It is critical to stay calm, counselors say. The realization "felt like being punched in the chest," Ms. Rothrock recalls, of the moment her husband wouldn't surrender his laptop. Her training as a mental-health crisis counselor served her well when, as calmly as she could, she told her husband to hand over his computer-and his phone-or they were "done."
Counselors say it is possible to repair a relationship after infidelity, but only if both parties are willing to work hard and honestly acknowledge shortcomings in the relationship and in themselves.
Some 20% of men and 14% of women who have ever been married have had extramarital sex, according to federally sponsored research conducted since 1972 by the social-science research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. (Reliable statistics about infidelity are scarce, largely because many people won't own up to an affair.) Mr. Rothrock's affair took place by video chat and other electronic means, but it was no less sexual or emotional, he says.
How many marriages survive infidelity? Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego researcher who runs the website Dearpeggy.com, surveyed 1,083 people and found 76% of those whose spouses had affairs were still married and living with the spouse. That figure may skew high, though: Respondents were self-selecting visitors to Ms. Vaughan's website, an "extramarital affairs resource center." Estimates from a sampling of marriage therapists range from 30% to 80%.
Several studies indicate couples in marital therapy dealing with infidelity were just as successful as couples for whom no cheating was involved, says Jay Lebow, psychologist and clinical professor at the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who published a review of couples-therapy research in the January 2012 issue of the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy.
Whether a marriage survives an affair depends on how healthy the marriage was to begin with, how long the affair lasted and the manner in which it was discovered.
"The couples who have a real chance of making it are the ones who are committed because they really want to be with each other, not because of the kids or because they feel obligated," says Joan Sherman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Lancaster, Pa.
For years after their wedding in 2004, the Rothrocks had fun. They went camping and to concerts and enjoyed their children. But with Mr. Rothrock working days and his wife working nights, they were exhausted and rarely saw each other. Their sex life suffered.
"We were in a mommy-and-daddy rut," Mr. Rothrock says.
Ms. Rothrock quit her job last year to spend more time with the kids and found it difficult to adjust. Mr. Rothrock began going to Washington, D.C., twice a week for business.
When he was home, he found the din of family life hard to take. He started to think of his wife as a mother. When she became irritated with him, he felt scolded like a child. He withdrew emotionally and began to snap at her. When Ms. Rothrock asked him what was wrong, he replied: "I don't know what you mean."
In his Washington hotel room, Mr. Rothrock went to a social-networking site and communicated with people online, including an attractive single woman in the Midwest. She was about his age, and she was a flirt.
Soon, he was spending several hours a day talking with her on Facebook, via text and in private video chats. He told her he felt disconnected from his marriage. He sent her a birthday present and made plans to meet her at a tech conference. They had virtual sex, via instant message and video, but it was more than physical.
"It was definitely an emotional affair," Mr. Rothrock says.
While re-establishing trust and communication, each spouse has a difficult task, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and Rutgers University research professor. The betrayer has to be willing to answer questions honestly. The betrayed has to stop asking questions eventually and never mention the affair again.
Ms. Rothrock spent hours reading her husband's correspondence with the other woman, at times crying, while he sat by her side, she says. "I was completely devastated."
The two stayed up the entire first night talking. Ms. Rothrock asked her husband questions about the affair, which he answered honestly. They talked about what they had each done wrong and what they wanted in their marriage. Mr. Rothrock apologized. And, perhaps for the first time, they openly discussed their sexual desires. In the morning, they took off their wedding rings.
"We both said, 'We burnt down the house,' " Ms. Rothrock says.
And yet they kept talking. They got a therapistMs. Rothrock found a man, so her husband wouldn't feel outnumbered. Mr. Rothrock cut ties with the other woman. The couple decided to tell their family and friends about the affairwhich they feel helped a lot. "They gave a lot of feedback, like 'Paul is a great guy, he made a mistake,' " says Ms. Rothrock.
The Rothrocks decided to start over-together. They treated each other as if they were the people they would date if they had divorced. They wrote a "constitution" to express what they each wanted: "A partner who trusts me to take care of things," Mr. Rothrock says. "A partner who tells me what he's thinking," says Ms. Rothrock, who is now wearing her wedding band again.