Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Why Couples Fail After An Affair

Part 1 - Knowing What Happened

When I was five going on six, I asked my mother, “Why do people smoke?” To this day I remember clearly what she said, “People think it makes them look pretty.” Now maybe that seems like a good answer for those of us who are adults, but as a child, I was totally confused. Problem is, at age five I was limited to concrete thinking. My little five-year-old brain had no way of conceptualizing what she said. I spent the next six years doing a comparative analysis of people who smoked to those who didn’t, and for the life of me I was unable to tell if other people who were smoking looked any better than those who didn’t. In fact, according to my research not only did they not look better, I actually thought they looked worse. There is no telling how many hours I wasted trying to understand my mother’s age inappropriate explanation for why people smoked.


I believe something similar happens to someone who has been betrayed after an affair. People naturally try to understand the events of their life. Until we are able to make sense of these events, there remains a part of us which continues trying to solve the mystery. If I spent 5 to 6 years trying to understand what my mother said to me, how long do you think someone who’s been devastated by betrayal would spend trying to find the answer to their questions after an affair? Solving this mystery is a key success factor in re-establishing trust and surviving infidelity. Apart from understanding what has happened, there is no way for the betrayed spouse to assess the level of damage and the probability of future success. Until the unfaithful spouse extends trust to their mate by sharing what happened, it is difficult indeed for the betrayed spouse to rebuild trust. People are more than capable of getting over a betrayal, but continued deception leaves no path for trust.

A substantial difficulty for couples recovering from infidelity is the emotional flooding created by the trauma after an affair. Infidelity creates a pain like no other, and the difficulties regulating the ensuing emotions are common. People say, behave, and feel things they’ve never before experienced. Emotional regulation and stability are created through what is called a coherent story. Up until the point where “what has happened” makes sense to the hurt spouse, emotions run rampant. Understanding what happened provides a safe foundation on which they can begin to rebuild.

To move forward, couples need to come to an understanding of their history. Regardless of the type of affair (i.e. emotional affair, office affair), the story of what has happened needs to make sense to both husband and wife. As I work with couples that have been stuck, not knowing what happened seems to be the number one culprit. I appreciate the work done by Peggy Vaughan in her e-book.


She hypothesized: A couple is more likely to stay married after an affair when they thoroughly discuss the whole situation.


55% of those who discussed the situation very little were still married (living together)

78% of those who discussed the situation a good bit were still married (and living together)

86% of those who discussed the situation a lot were still married (and living together)

She concluded that the amount the affair was discussed with the partner was significantly associated with present marital status.

A second hypothesis stated: a couple is more likely to stay married when the spouse answers their questions.

59% of those refused to answer questions were still married (and living together) 81% of those whose partner answered some of their questions were still married (and living together)

86% of those whose partners answered all their questions were still married (and living together)

She concluded that the extent to which the partner answered questions was significantly associated with present marital status.

Research clearly supports the benefit of couples exploring what has happened. Understanding what occurred allows both parties to rally around solutions.

But not only does the hurt spouse have a need to know what happened, the need for those who were unfaithful is as great. Speaking from personal experience, I can attest to the benefit I received from discussing the events of my infidelity. There is a strong tendency to be self-deceived when it comes to our situations where we betray ourselves as well as others. Exposing what happened has a unique way of providing clarity not only for one’s mate but also for those of us who’ve been unfaithful. I hate to admit it, but I wasn’t thinking clearly right after the affair ended when it came to many of my decisions. It wasn’t just my mate discovering what happened, I also began to understand things I had not seen.

At the same time, knowing what happened isn’t the same as knowing every detail about everything that happened. Too much detail creates additional problems with intrusive thoughts. The hurt spouse might want to know what happened, where it happened, how often it happened, if there are potential health risks, and when it began and ended, but questions comparing themselves to the affair partner serve little or no benefit. It is these comparison questions that ultimately create intrusive thoughts and complicate the healing process and getting through an affair.

  • For those who want to help their mate heal by sharing their story, here are some words of advice. Begin by asking your mate if he or she wants to know. If the answer is yes, then tell them the story. I find that carefully telling the story from beginning to end is the best way to relay the information. Far too often the story is told piecemeal, as the hurt spouse ask questions and the unfaithful spouse tries to answer. This leaves gaps in the timeline causing problems later. When you finish telling the story, please don’t say "that’s everything". You’re far better off realizing that you’ve told everything you remember at that moment, but there’s always the possibility that other memories will come to mind and/or your mate may not have heard everything and will later be devastated if more information comes to light. Tell them you’re committed to honestly answering their questions and exploring not only what happened, but also why it happened.




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I followed you right up to

I followed you right up to the last sentance. Why is the bottomless pit that can never be satifactorly answered. Better to stick to understanding, what, when, how, where, who and leave why alone. Otherwise you will wake up 5 to 6 years later wondering why your spouse's explaination does not make sense.

Rick, I am so very grateful

Rick, I am so very grateful for your emails and the info you provide. It has helped me tremendouly as my husband of 20 years has abandoned me and our children for his affair partner and I am truly healing on my own. Since he was completely unwilling to discuss a thing when the affair was discovered and we've had almost no contact since he left 18 months ago, it is in part by these emails and your website that I am able to find peace and understanding. God Bless You and Stephanie!

Disease, etc.

Rick, As a betrayed spouse, I'd like to add these insights. 1) IT IS A PERFECTLY LEGITIMATE QUESTION AS TO THE RISK OF DISEASE. I contributed to a marital environment that was predisposed toward adultery. My wife was absolutely right for wanting a divorce. She was absolutely wrong the way she went about solving the issues of the marriage. She had no right to expose our marriage to disease (we're still married and disease free). 2) Aside from those first shocking weeks after discovery, my problem was not and is not the affair. I'm not and will never be happy about it, but three years of introspection has made me understand that when we fail to support our spouses emotionlly and physically,this is what happens. My particular issues are this: a) my wife keeps those promises she feels she should keep b) she had no problemsfalling in lust with this filthy piece of sleaze but had problems falling in lust with me c) she had no problems seeing the best in him and the worst in me d) I saw warts and flaws the paramour was never exposed to

I'm pretty late in the game..

I'm pretty late in the game.... but I'm totally struggling with this post. My husband of 23 years, literally, got up and walked out of our marriage and MOVED IN with the AP in a totally different state. I did NOT see this coming...and I'm NOT stupid. He made me think for the past two months that he was going through a mid-life crisis.. then when D-day hit... it was more than over. He refuses to talk to me (other than through the attorney) and even that is nill.... how can I provide myself with a "foundation" when I do not...nor will i EVER know what has just happened. I could go on and on... we didn't even argue or fight-- to where you know the end is coming...it was a .. wake up-- leave... never come back. Living two separate lives for sometime now I guess... I search for answers... and yes, I love God with all my heart and will HAVE to totally trust in Him. I have many many very bad days (d-day was august 20, 2015) but I'm in HH and I'm wanting recovery... I'm WANTING help and I'm wanting to work through the pain (not really, but I know I have to)..



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