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How can you know if an affair is worth ending a marriage over? One of the first things to do is to ask if, and why, it happened. Though the cheating spouse may be hard-pressed to be honest initially, a conversation about the reasons for the affair may be able to jump-start the healing process. It's also important to try and deal with the range of powerful emotions like shock, rage, and depression that often come with learning that a spouse has cheated, and to take time to reflect on the situation before taking actions you might regret later.
If you opt to try and save your marriage, experts say both of you need to make a commitment to the union and, of course, the affair–whether it’s a one-time fling or a series of one-night stands--has to end. Next comes the difficult task of re-establishing trust and intimacy. “Marriages don’t end overnight and they can’t be repaired overnight,” says Houston.
Houston recommends seeing a licensed counselor, someone trained in marital therapy. A therapist typically won’t make the decision for the spouse on whether to stay or go. That decision is entirely up to the couple, Gordon says. But therapy, while it can be time-consuming and painful, often helps couples who want to stay together deal with the issues they must overcome in order to move forward.
Of course, it's a lot less painful to try and prevent an affair in the first place. Houston recommends having a regular relationship check-up. “Every month we do a breast exam--why don’t we do that with our marriages?” she asks. That means having an honest talk about the relationship, in terms of where it stands now and what your hopes are for the future. It's also important, she says, to establish what constitutes cheating. Is looking at porn okay? What about Internet chat rooms? While some people may view sex as the only definer of infidelity, others may believe that Internet friends or emotional attachments with an old flame are markers of infidelity. It's important to discuss what's acceptable and what's not early on in the relationship, so you don't learn the hard way.
Houston points out that many spouses who cheat say they are in happy marriages. (Of course, respondents on marital surveys could be lying.) “So talking about a relationship in good times and talking about infidelity, what it would mean if it happened in your marriage, is smart,” says Houston. “ Talking early on can help save a lot of pain (later).”