Can Marriage Survive Betrayal?

When one partner goes outside of their marriage to seek extra-marital novelty, connection, or intimacy – it literally can destroy all sense of trust and commitment and the relationship basically crumbles. This betrayal happens often in sexual encounters. In addition, when one prioritizes friends, work, devices, activities, even children repeatedly and often, it can erode the connection with the partner. Expressing needs and bids to connect become less frequent. The relationship feels unreliable, closed, boring, or lonely.

Ten additional ways couples betray one another, Dr. John Gottman defines:

Conditional commitment, a non-sexual affair, lying, forming a coalition against the partner,
absenteeism or coldness, withdrawal of sexual interest, disrespect, unfairness, selfishness, and breaking promises are additional ways betrayal occurs.  Cumulative moments of turning away or against and rejection leave a relationship hollow and at high risk.

As a marriage counselor in Boulder, Colorado, The number one question I help couples with after an affair or betrayal of any proportion face is, is this the end? How can I possibly forgive you? How could you? Why did you? Why couldn’t you come to me with your restlessness, loneliness, needs, or desires for greater intimacy?
It literally brings the marriage as both partners have known it “to its’ knees.”

The sense of security vanishes and is replaced with the myriad of questions and the need to put all the pieces together. It leaves the hurt partner feeling lost, and confused.

Dr. John Gottman defines the needed work as a three-part process:

Atonement: The betrayer needs to take full responsibility for their choice of turning away and against the partner without excuse. The betrayer needs to allow the hurt partner to work through their sense of abandonment, voice questions, ask for any needed information as they put the story together.

Attunement: The feelings that ensue are deeply grievous and traumatic. These include shock,  denial, anger, bartering (what if I had done this, or we had done that) depression, and sadness and are critical to express. Empathy between partners is needed to create greater honesty and understanding. Acceptance,  greater understanding, and meaning is a preferred outcome during this phase

Attachment: The rebuilding of the relationship is the next stage. This process is not linear. In my experience, the willingness and commitment toward the rebuilding process waxes and wanes. It takes patience and time. Positive experiences and day-to-day small moments building trust, and nurturance eventually can heal the marriage. It is common to continue to have waves of fear, doubt, hurt that can be triggered by a myriad of experiences. Love is a healing, daily practice that increases presence and fulfillment.

Discernment Counseling:

One approach in clarifying direction for couples is a process of slowing down the decision whether to go or stay and work on the marriage. This is known as discernment counseling and it enables the couple to:
*Understand what brought them to the point of crisis.
*Allow time for the ambivalence to be brought to the table.
*Create a vision of what it would take to be happy again as well as rebuild commitment.


Building a positive sense of the relationship, regaining security and safety, requires daily sharing of affection, time, support, words, and small gifts. Couples can transform and create a new narrative over time. Increasing honesty, transparency, infusion of values, strengths, integrity, reliability, cherishing, fun, humor, vision, and dreams for the future can empower the couple toward renewal and resilience.

The road is not easy and there will be setbacks. Support from family, friends, and community, as well as self-care, is immeasurably important. Healing is a daily practice infused with compassion and empathy for one another.


What Makes Love Last, John Gottman, Ph.D., and Nan Silver

Not Just Friends, Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D.

Sharla Macy, LMFT is a Level 3 Gottman Therapist. She has been in private practice for over 35 years. She has worked with numerous couples in all stages of a relationship.