Column Can a relationship really survive if someone is unfaithful?

Like a car crash, an infidelity causes trauma, writes Lisa O’Hara. Is it possible to get past that?

ANYONE WHO HAS ever been rear ended in a car crash will tell you how traumatic it can be. Although they may walk away from it without a physical scratch, its mark can be left in other ways leaving the victim(s) feeling quite unsettled for some time afterwards. They may feel nervous about getting into a car again, or any car coming near to them will trigger anxiety about another crash happening – they might also be feeling angry and guilty or having weird dreams – all normal reactions to an abnormal experience.

In a similar vein, when an infidelity has been disclosed, the betrayed person’s world will experience it as a trauma - something that is psychologically damaging as a result of extreme stress or threat and for a long time they may become re-traumatised, for example, by seeing something on TV or the beep from the phone.

Even if the infidelity was suspected, there will be some doubt lurking there to protect them from the pain of reality. When reality presents itself that, yes indeed, their partner has been having a relationship with someone else, initially there may be a desire to pretend it never happened. They might say: “I’m okay, we’re okay’” but most will at some point begin to unravel emotionally and fall apart inside. Feelings such as numbness, anger, fear/anxiety, depression, hopelessness, relief are all in the mix, often at the same time.

Why? How? When? Where?

It’s hard to cope, to think of anything but what has happened, you can’t sleep, you can’t eat and obsess about the infidelity.  They might want to talk to their partner about it all the time, asking why? How? When? Where? Yet nothing will satisfy or bring any peace.  The betrayer may become frustrated and start avoiding the conversations or telling the minimal truth so as not to cause any deeper hurt.  They may well be carrying huge guilt even if it is masked by blaming the other – “you weren’t that interested in me so I went elsewhere”.  It is a very difficult time for both.

Many betrayed partners will still be in love and may be slow to show anger because they fear losing the relationship and that would just be too unbearable.  They hope they can work through it and everything will be back to normal again. The truth? That old relationship is gone. If you decide to stay together, the relationship you have will be different to what was before, because the old relationship didn’t work well enough for at least one of you.

At Relationships Ireland, between 25 per cent – 30 per cent of clients will bring in infidelity, with men being twice as likely to be the perpetrators. Do they get caught out quicker than women do? Research carried out by Manchester Metropolitan University suggests that women are better at covering their tracks being more psychologically sophisticated, whilst men are more impulsive and not necessarily as mindful of the consequences.  So perhaps women are just as likely to be having affairs. Also, not everyone gets caught or comes clean so in fact, infidelity might be greater than the statistics would state.

There are many reasons why people turn outside their primary relationship but broadly speaking one or both will have stopped investing in each other emotionally, physically and or/sexually and there may be unresolved fear, hurt and/or anger between them and the relationship is just not meeting their needs. Fear of intimacy and commitment can manifest itself in infidelity (and this can include problematic behaviour with porn).

Can a relationship survive infidelity?

Many people who have been unfaithful say they feel they didn’t have any choice. But the reality is, they did make a choice, one they believed at the time to be the easier/right one for them. The aftermath is devastating and many clients have admitted to me that in hindsight if they had known the damage it caused, they would have made a different decision. Trust has been destroyed and anxiety is ever present. It is a long road back with many symptoms of trauma taking at least 9 months to recede. Some relationships will not survive it, but those that do and where the couple have honestly faced what has happened, end up having a better relationship than before. It has given them a chance to deepen their understanding of each other and figure out the relationship they want for the future.

Finally, as a couples counsellor, I would recommend anyone who is going through this to get professional help, whether you go on your own or together. It is one of those problems that is particularly complex, where emotions are heightened and is challenging to work through on your own.

Lisa O’Hara is the author of ‘When a relationship ends – surviving the emotional rollercoaster of separation’ and a counsellor for Relationships Ireland. Relationships Ireland offers confidential counselling and support services that offer you the opportunity to understand and resolve difficulties in your relationship. For more information or to book a consultation you can contact 1890 380 380 or email

Read more articles by Lisa O’Hara here>

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