There may be nothing so devastating to a marriage as infidelity. The eradicated trust, the deep wounds of betrayal, and the feelings of shame create a perfect storm, wreaking havoc from which many never come back. If this is your current situation, know that through the pain there is hope.
Some couples recover, rebuild, and are stronger and happier than ever after an affair. It may seem impossible now, but there is healing on the other side of this—if that's what you both want.
Based on years of research, my experience as a licensed marriage counselor, and the doctrines of the Lord, these five steps are crucial if you are to heal your home, hearts, and lives.
Step One: Seek Counseling
"Members [sometimes] expect too much from Church leaders and teachings—expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities. . . . If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you.” —Elder M. Russell Ballard, BYU Devotional
A well-trained, compassionate, tough therapist will be necessary, more than in any other marriage situation, to navigate the complex landmine of heartbreak and anger, push for accountability, help with empathy, and guide you to a place of trust, hope, and healing.
Step Two: The Affair Has to Be Over
"By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold he will confess them and forsake them." —Doctrine and Covenants 58:43
An affair is any relationship with a potential romantic competitor which crosses boundaries that ought to be reserved for the marriage relationship. In this sense, there is a spectrum of behaviors that might be considered an "affair," from having an emotional confidant to keeping secrets to "sexting" to actual physical intimacy.
If you're going to rebuild your marriage, that entire other relationship has to be broken off. There's no "toe in the pool" and no "we can still be friends." If your spouse wants to send one final brief communication along the lines of "I need to save my marriage, so this will be the last time we communicate. Please do not contact me. I'm blocking your number" (or email, or social media, or all of the above), they may do so if you agree to it (you certainly don't have to) and if they do it under your supervision. No long goodbyes.
If your spouse is unwilling to break off communication with the other man or woman, that may be all the answer you need to know.
Step 3: Your Spouse Takes Responsibility
"Every man expressed a willingness to take accountability for his own sins." —Mosiah 29:38
It takes two to create most marriage struggles, but in the case of infidelity, the affair itself was the choice of just one of you. Whatever issues you had in your relationship, there were other ways to handle it.
While you can both be responsible for marital hardship, the partner who had an affair needs to own that choice, 100 percent, without trying to pass the blame for their actions. Again, a good counselor can help with this.
A professor of mine once said about a couple in your situation, "Until his remorse equals the pain he's caused her, she can't 'get over it.' If his remorse doesn't equal her pain, she'll worry that he's not taking this seriously and cannot trust that he won't do it again."
The spouse who had the affair needs to apologize, sincerely and completely. How many times? As many as it takes. Being fully responsible means sacrificing privacy, being totally honest and transparent, and being committed to understanding how this happened so that it will not happen again. It also means living with the guilt of breaking a spouse's heart and striving every day to make that right.
Step 4: You'll Need a Forgiving Heart
"He that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive. But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out."—Doctrine and Covenants 42:25-26
Let's be clear: forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. You should forgive your spouse. Whether or not you stay together, carrying hurt, anger, and bitterness inside of you will only hurt you. It's been said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
That said, forgiveness is a process. It's a daily walk. It's an intentional push-back against the voice inside you screaming for revenge, for justice, for retribution. It takes time. Generally, it's not a one-time thing.
Forgiveness can be freely given, but trust has to be earned. Your spouse has to be humble, accountable, transparent. They have to prove their trustworthiness to you. The hard part for you will be opening your heart to trusting them in time. It will still be a scary, vulnerable choice that you'll need to make. But it will be necessary if your marriage is to heal.
Step 5: You'll Need to Fortify Your Marriage (and Yourselves)
Clear boundaries. Improved communication. Elevated intimacy and connection. Understanding what went wrong and how to intervene and redirect far earlier. Rock-solid conflict resolution. Overcoming affair trauma and rekindling sexual desire. All of these, and more, will be necessary mileposts on the journey from devastating betrayal to secure, united married life.
As you can see, there's a lot of work ahead to be done. My online course "Healing From Infidelity," paired with professional counseling services, provides a system to help you pull your marriage back from the brink.
Jonathan Decker is a licensed family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. His wife, Alicia, is the CEO. He offers online relationship courses for couples and families worldwide, along with in-person and online counseling for persons in the state of Utah. He is also a husband, father, author, actor, television personality, and motivational speaker. For daily guidance from Jonathan, join his Facebook group Ask a Mormon Therapist