Infidelity and Couple Therapy Outcomes

Infidelity and Couple Therapy Outcomes 5 Years Following Therapy

Infidelity is a common marital problem in the United States, with prevalence rates estimated between 20-40% (Atkins, Baucom, & Jacobson, 2001). Approximately 42% of all divorcees reported more than one extramarital affair during the course of their marriages (Janus & Janus, 1993). Infidelity is linked to increased marital distress, conflict and divorce (Amato & Rogers, 1997). Moreover, there is a correlation between infidelity and increased anxiety and depressive symptoms in the noninvolved partner (Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2004) as well as increased psychological distress for the perpetrator (Hall & Fincham, 2005). It is not surprising that couple therapists often consider extramarital affairs to be one of the most damaging problems to treat (Whisman, Dixon, & Johnson, 1997). Approximately 50% of first marriages in the United States end in divorce (Bramlett & Mosher, 2001). Couples often seek help late, only when their relationships are in distress and they are on the verge of separation or divorce. However, research shows that approximately two thirds of couples improve in therapy, with at least half of them being classified as recovered. The other one third of couples do not benefit from marital therapy (Jacobson and Addis, 1993). Furthermore, as much as one third of couples do not maintain the improvements they achieved in therapy (Snyder, Wills, & Gardy-Fletcher, 1991).

Infidelity has been demonstrated to deteriorate intimate relationships on an interpersonal level (Allen et al., 2005). Despite the devastating effects infidelity can have on a marriage, studies also suggest that couples can be successfully treated in marital therapy (Atkins et al., 2010). Couples with a history of extramarital affair(s) have been shown significant improvements during therapy leading to increased marital satisfaction, reduced psychological trauma symptoms, and forgiveness in the uninvolved partner. However, what is not clear from the research is whether these gains can be maintained past 6 months after treatment (Atkins et al., 2005).


The Study

A study in 2005 aimed to examine therapy outcomes for infidelity couples 5 years post-treatment (Christensen et al., 2004). It focused on three main issues. First, it compared the divorce rates for infidelity couples who revealed the infidelity, the secret infidelity couples and non-infidelity couples. Second, it examined marital stability (steps taken toward divorce). And last, it looked at relationship satisfaction at the 5-year mark.


Divorce & Marital Stability

Similar to all couples pursuing therapy, there are two ultimate outcomes for the marital relationship following an affair – remaining together or getting divorced. Previous research studies found that 6 months after treatment infidelity couples sustained improvement from therapy and experienced reduced anxiety symptoms, increased forgiveness (Gordon et al., 2004), as well as less depression and higher relationship satisfaction (Atkins et al., 2010). The study conducted 5 years post-treatment found that infidelity couples had more than double the divorce rate of non-infidelity couples. More specifically, though, 57% of those couples who revealed the infidelity stayed married, while only 20% of couples with secret infidelity did. As a comparison, 77% of non-infidelity couples were still married 5 years after treatment. These findings suggest that many revealed infidelity couples were able to sustain the gains from therapy and preserve the integrity of the relationship.

It is important to mention that divorce is not the only indicator of a distressed relationship. Many couples choose to stay married despite the infidelity for various reasons such as their children, religious beliefs or financial situation. The current study also suggests that the couples who do stay together, independently of their infidelity status, have generally low levels of marital instability 5 years later.

Relationship Satisfaction

Relationship satisfaction seems to follow a similar pattern to relationship stability. Infidelity couples, who stay together, and non-infidelity couples do not differ in terms of their relationship satisfaction. In fact, these relationships continue to improve over time well beyond the end of treatment, which indicates that the improvement is not solely the result of a temporary boost from marital therapy.

Overall, it seems that infidelity couples’ relationships usually follow one of two trajectories. They either steadily deteriorate and end in divorce or if the couple manages to work through the infidelity, the relationship continues and improves over time. Another important finding is that it can be important to disclose the affair and work through it in therapy, even though the disclosure is not a guarantee of a positive outcome. Over 40% of couples who disclosed the affair and worked through it in therapy still ended up divorcing. It is also possible that some members of non-infidelity couples did have extramarital affairs that were never disclosed and they still remained together and improved their marriage. Besides the actual disclosure, the timing and method of disclosing may also play a role in the outcome of the relationship. For example, if the affair is confessed vs. discovered, both partners may be more willing to work on the relationship. Moreover, the decision to get divorced may also be influenced by the type of infidelity (sexual vs. emotional; single vs. multiple), involved partner (husband vs. wife), and length of affair (one-night stand vs. ongoing). It is possible that interventions specific to the type of infidelity could affect the outcome for these couples.



Infidelity is a pervasive problem in American marriages and it can have devastating effects on an individual, relationship and even societal level. Fortunately, infidelity does not have to be the end of a relationship. Many couples are able to work through their problems in marital therapy and enjoy and improve their relationship well beyond the end of therapy.

Infidelity and Couple Therapy Outcome References

Marin, R.A., Christensen, A., & Atkins, D.C. (2014). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Relationship outcomes over 5 years following therapy. Couples and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3, 1-12.

Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., & Jacobson, N. S. (2001). Understanding infidelity: Correlates in a national samples. Journal of Family Psychology, 15, 735–749.

Amato, P. R., & Rogers, S. J. (1997). A longitudinal study of marital problems and subsequent divorce. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 59, 612– 624.

Janus, S. S., & Janus, C. L. (1993). The Janus report on sexual behavior. New York, NY: Wiley.

Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2004). An integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30, 213–231.

Hall, J. H., & Fincham, F. D. (2005, November). Psychological distress among perpetrators of infidelity. Poster session presented at the annual convention of the Association for Behavioral Cognitive Therapies, Washington, DC.

Whisman, M. A., Dixon, A. E., & Johnson, B. (1997). Therapists’ perspectives of couples prob- lems and treatment issues in the practice of couples therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 11, 361– 366.

Bramlett, M. D., & Mosher, W. D. (2001, May). First marriage dissolution, divorce, and remarriage: United States (Advance data no. 323). Hyattsville, MD: Centers for Disease Control.

Jacobson, N. S., & Addis, M. E. (1993). Research on couples and couple therapy: What do we know? Where are we going? Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 61, 85–93.

Snyder, D. K., Wills, R. M., & Grady-Fletcher, A. (1991). Long-term effectiveness of behavioral vs. insight-oriented marital therapy: A 4-year follow-up study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 59, 138 –141.

Allen, E. S., Atkins, D. C., Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., Gordon, K. C., & Glass, S. P. (2005). Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and contextual factors in engaging in and responding to extramarital involvement. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 12, 101–130.

Atkins, D. C., Eldridge, K. A., Baucom, D. H., & Christensen, A. (2005). Infidelity and behavioral couple therapy: Optimism in the face of betrayal. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 144–150.

Atkins, D. C., Marín, R. A., Lo, T. T. Y., Klann, N., & Hahlweg, K. (2010). Outcomes of couples with infidelity in a community-based sample of couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 24, 212–216.

Christensen, A., Atkins, D. C., Berns, S. B., Wheeler, J., Baucom, D. H., & Simpson, L. (2004). Integrative versus traditional behavioral couple therapy for moderately and severely distressed married couples. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 176 –191.

Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2004). An integrative intervention for promoting recovery from extramarital affairs. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 30, 213–231.

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