Updated 12/16/2023

When infidelity comes to light, couples often find themselves grappling with intense emotions and a sense of betrayal. The discovery of an affair can be a devastating blow to a relationship, leaving partners struggling to find effective ways to cope with the fallout. As a clinical psychologist, I’ve observed that couples tend to adopt one of three distinct coping styles in the wake of infidelity. Understanding these coping strategies and their potential pitfalls is crucial for couples seeking to navigate this challenging terrain and ultimately heal their relationship.

The resentment-focused approach

Brandon and Danielle

Brandon, a 26-year-old software engineer, and Danielle, a 24-year-old graphic designer, had been dating for three years in Omaha, Nebraska. They were a young, ambitious couple with no children, focusing on their careers and enjoying the vibrant city life. However, their relationship took a turn when Danielle discovered that Brandon had been having an affair with a coworker.

Danielle was devastated by the betrayal and found herself consumed by resentment. She constantly reminded Brandon of his infidelity, using it as a weapon to maintain a sense of control in the relationship. Whenever they argued, Danielle would bring up the affair, making Brandon feel guilty and ashamed.

As time passed, Brandon grew increasingly tired of the constant reminders and the emotional toll it took on him. He felt that he could never truly make amends, and the relationship remained stuck in a cycle of bitterness and resentment. The once-loving bond between Brandon and Danielle had been replaced by a constant power struggle, with Danielle’s pain overshadowing any attempts to rebuild trust and intimacy.


The Resentment-focused Approach is a common coping style where the betrayed partner remains mired in resentment, using their hurt as leverage to maintain a superior position over the involved partner.1 While this may seem like a way to regain a sense of control, it can actually hinder the healing process. By constantly reminding the involved partner of their transgression, the hurt partner inadvertently keeps the wound fresh and prevents the relationship from moving forward.2

Research has shown that dwelling on negative emotions and engaging in rumination can lead to increased distress and poorer mental health outcomes.3 In the context of infidelity, the Supplicant Approach can breed bitterness and resentment, making it difficult for couples to rebuild trust and intimacy. Over time, the involved partner may grow weary of the constant reminders of their mistake, leading to further strain on the relationship.4

The status-quo approach

Kenneth and Cynthia

Kenneth, a 58-year-old corporate executive, and Cynthia, a 56-year-old university professor, had been married for 30 years in Weston, Massachusetts. They had two adult children who had already left home to pursue their own lives. From the outside, Kenneth and Cynthia appeared to be a picture-perfect couple, with successful careers and a comfortable lifestyle.

However, their relationship was rocked when Cynthia discovered that Kenneth had been involved in a long-term affair with a younger colleague. Instead of confronting the issue head-on, Kenneth and Cynthia chose to sweep it under the rug, prioritizing their social status and the image of a perfect family over their emotional well-being.

They continued to attend social events together, maintaining the facade of a happy marriage. They focused on their individual pursuits, with Kenneth dedicating himself to his work and Cynthia immersing herself in her research. While they managed to keep up appearances, the lack of emotional intimacy and unresolved pain from the affair created an undercurrent of tension in their relationship.

As the years went by, Kenneth and Cynthia grew increasingly distant, living parallel lives under the same roof. They had successfully maintained their status quo, but at the cost of genuine connection and happiness. The affair remained a taboo subject, never truly addressed, and the couple continued to navigate life together, bound by social expectations and a fear of disrupting the carefully constructed image they had built over the years.


At the other end of the spectrum lies the Status-Quo Tactic, where couples sweep the affair under the rug and prioritize maintaining social status and routines over addressing the emotional fallout.5 This approach, exemplified by the coping mechanisms of some high-profile families, emphasizes external achievements and appearances over genuine connection and healing.

While this strategy may allow couples to present a united front to the outside world, it often comes at the cost of emotional intimacy. By focusing solely on careers, reputation, or material wealth, couples risk neglecting the deeper issues that led to the affair in the first place.6 Research suggests that avoiding or suppressing emotions related to the infidelity can lead to unresolved feelings and a lack of closure, which may resurface later and cause further relationship distress.7

Trust is built in very small moments, which I call ‘sliding door’ moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner. 15

John Gottman

A systemic strategy for coping

In contrast to the Resentment-focused Approach and the Status-Quo Tactic, a systemic strategy for coping with infidelity involves an introspective journey aimed at understanding and repairing the relationship.8 This approach, often employed in science-based couples therapy, encourages both partners to engage in open, blame-free dialogue about their thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

For the hurt partner, this means approaching the situation with curiosity rather than outrage, seeking to understand the context and underlying factors that contributed to the affair.9 Instead of fixating on explicit details that may trigger painful emotions, the focus is on asking conversation-generating questions that promote deeper insight and empathy.10

The involved partner, in turn, is encouraged to lean in and provide support when their partner is distressed, fostering a sense of attunement and rebuilding trust through their actions.11 By engaging in honest, vulnerable conversations, couples can begin to unpack the complex dynamics that led to the infidelity and work towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

Research has shown that couples who undergo science-based therapy to address infidelity often emerge from the crisis with a stronger, more resilient relationship.12 By taking a systemic approach, couples can identify vulnerabilities in their relationship and take concrete steps to build a deeper, more intimate bond. Studies have found that couples who successfully navigate the aftermath of an affair report increased moments of closeness, improved communication, and a renewed appreciation for their partnership.13

The goal of therapy is to help the couple either recover from the affair and rebuild their relationship, or to make the difficult decision to end the relationship in a way that will enable both partners to function more effectively in the future.”4

Baucom, Snyder, and Gordon – Helping couples get past the affair: A clinician’s guide

Contemplating expectations

When it comes to coping with infidelity, the role of expectations in relationships cannot be overstated. Thought leaders like Esther Perel and John Gottman have differing perspectives on this issue, highlighting the tension between the ideal and the reality of long-term partnerships.

Perel argues that managing expectations is key to avoiding resentment and disillusionment in relationships.14 She suggests that holding our partners to unrealistic standards can set us up for disappointment and make it harder to weather the challenges that inevitably arise over the course of a long-term relationship.

Gottman, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of expecting kindness, affection, and loyalty from our partners.15 He argues that these expectations are not unreasonable, but rather form the foundation of a healthy, fulfilling relationship. From this perspective, lowering our expectations too much can lead to settling for less than we deserve and tolerating behavior that undermines the relationship.

[Love:] It’s a verb. That’s the first thing. It’s an active engagement with all kinds of feelings—positive ones and primitive ones and loathsome ones. But it’s a very active verb. And it’s often surprising how it can kind of ebb and flow. It’s like the moon. We think it’s disappeared, and suddenly it shows up again. It’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm.

Esther Perel

Balancing cultural perspectives

The debate around expectations in relationships is further complicated by cultural differences in how we approach love, commitment, and infidelity. Perel, who has worked with couples from diverse cultural backgrounds, notes that the American approach to infidelity treatment differs from that of other cultures.

In the United States, there is often a greater emphasis on individual fulfillment and personal growth within relationships. This can lead to higher expectations for what a partnership should provide, but also a greater sense of entitlement and a willingness to walk away when those expectations are not met.

In other cultures, there may be a greater emphasis on preserving the family unit and maintaining social harmony, even in the face of infidelity. This can lead to a more pragmatic approach to dealing with affairs, one that prioritizes stability and tradition over individual happiness.

Navigating these cultural differences and finding a balance between personal fulfillment and relationship commitment is an ongoing challenge for couples dealing with infidelity. It requires a willingness to examine one’s own expectations and assumptions, as well as an openness to understanding and respecting the perspective of one’s partner.


Infidelity is a complex and emotionally charged issue that can rock the foundation of even the strongest relationships. As couples grapple with the fallout of an affair, they often find themselves resorting to coping strategies that may provide temporary relief but ultimately hinder the healing process.

The Resentment-focused Approach, where the hurt partner uses their pain as a means of control, and the Status-Quo Tactic, where couples prioritize appearances over emotional intimacy, are two common but problematic ways of dealing with infidelity. In contrast, a systemic strategy that involves open, blame-free communication and a willingness to understand and forgive offers a more promising path forward.

As couples navigate this difficult terrain, they must also contend with the role of expectations in relationships and the ways in which cultural differences can shape our approach to love, commitment, and infidelity. By taking an introspective, compassionate approach and seeking the guidance of science-based therapy, couples can emerge from the crisis of infidelity with a stronger, more resilient bond.


  1. Glass, S. P., & Wright, T. L. (1997). Reconstructing marriages after the trauma of infidelity. In W. K. Halford & H. J. Markman (Eds.), Clinical handbook of marriage and couples interventions (pp. 471-507). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  2. 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(2), 213-231.
  3. Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Wisco, B. E., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). Rethinking rumination. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 3(5), 400-424.
  4. Baucom, D. H., Snyder, D. K., & Gordon, K. C. (2011). Helping couples get past the affair: A clinician’s guide. Guilford Press.
  5. Perel, E. (2017). The state of affairs: Rethinking infidelity. Harper.
  6. Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.
  7. Allen, E. S., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., Markman, H. J., Williams, T., Melton, J., & Clements, M. L. (2008). Premarital precursors of marital infidelity. Family Process, 47(2), 243-259.
  8. Snyder, D. K., Baucom, D. H., & Gordon, K. C. (2007). Getting past the affair: A program to help you cope, heal, and move on – together or apart. Guilford Press.
  9. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon and Schuster.
  10. Zuccarini, D., Johnson, S. M., Dalgleish, T. L., & Makinen, J. A. (2013). Forgiveness and reconciliation in emotionally focused therapy for couples: The client change process and therapist interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 39(2), 148-162.
  11. Greenberg, L. S., Warwar, S. H., & Malcolm, W. M. (2010). Emotion-focused couples therapy and the facilitation of forgiveness. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 36(1), 28-42.
  12. Atkins, D. C., Marín, R. A., Lo, T. T., Klann, N., & Hahlweg, K. (2010). Outcomes of couples with infidelity in a community-based sample of couple therapy. Journal of Family Psychology, 24(2), 212-216.
  13. Heintzelman, A., Murdock, N. L., Krycak, R. C., & Seay, L. (2014). Recovery from infidelity: Differentiation of self, trauma, forgiveness, and posttraumatic growth among couples in continuing relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(1), 13-29.
  14. Perel, E. (2013). Mating in captivity: Unlocking erotic intelligence. Harper Paperbacks.
  15. Gottman, J., & Gottman, J. (2015). 10 Principles for doing effective couples therapy. W. W. Norton & Company.