If you suspect your partner has had an affair, you may be feeling a range of intense emotions – hurt, betrayal, anger, disbelief. Affairs can be devastating to a relationship, but recovery is possible with the right approach. Dr. John Gottman, a renowned psychologist and relationship expert, has developed a three-stage model for helping couples heal from the trauma of an affair: Atone, Attune, Attach.

What is an affair?

First, let’s define what we mean by an “affair.” An affair is a sexual or emotional relationship with someone other than your committed partner that feels like a betrayal of trust.1 Affairs can be physical, involving sexual contact, or emotional, involving feelings of intimacy and connection. Some common signs your partner may be having an affair include:

  • Sudden changes in behavior, such as working later hours or being secretive with their phone
  • Emotional distance or withdrawal from the relationship
  • Unexplained expenses or gifts you didn’t give them
  • Catching them in lies about their whereabouts or activities

Of course, these signs don’t always mean an affair, but they can be red flags to pay attention to. If you have a gut feeling something is off, it’s worth exploring further.

Stage 1: Atone

The first stage of affair recovery is atonement. In this stage, the partner who had the affair must take full responsibility for their actions.2 They need to express genuine remorse and regret, not just for getting caught, but for the pain they’ve caused. Some key steps in the atone stage include:

  • Cutting off all contact with the affair partner
  • Answering any questions openly and honestly, even if the details are painful to hear
  • Allowing their partner space to express their hurt and anger
  • Demonstrating commitment to change through actions, not just words

Jake’s refusal to own up to his affair would have seriously interfered with this first step of atonement.

Jake and Emily were high school sweethearts who had been married for 12 years when Emily discovered suggestive text messages on Jake’s phone from a coworker. At first Jake denied anything was going on, but eventually he admitted they had kissed on a business trip, though he insisted it hadn’t gone further than that.

In therapy, Jake had to come to terms with the full extent of his betrayal. Even though the affair hadn’t been physical, the emotional intimacy was still a violation of Emily’s trust. Jake wrote Emily a heartfelt letter expressing his deep regret and committing to total transparency going forward. He changed jobs to cut off contact with the coworker and started individual therapy to understand what led him to stray in the first place.

A small recent study4 sheds light on the factors that contribute to successful outcome in the recovery process after infidelity. Overall, the study suggested that the involved partners’ commitment, loyalty, open communication, and proactive engagement in the healing process emerged as key factors predicting success.

Jake’s refusal to own up to his affair would have seriously interfered with this first step of atonement. These findings underscore the pivotal role of the involved partner’s characteristics and actions in navigating the challenges of affair recovery and rebuilding the relationship.

Stage 2: Attune

Once the atone stage has been completed, the couple can begin to attune to each other’s feelings and rebuild their emotional connection. Key aspects of the attune stage include:

  • Sharing openly and vulnerably about the impact of the affair
  • Validating each other’s feelings without getting defensive
  • Spending quality time together doing activities you both enjoy
  • Expressing appreciation for positive actions and efforts

After being blindsided by her husband’s affair, Emily struggled with feelings of inadequacy and wondering what she did wrong. In therapy, Jake reassured Emily that the affair was not her fault or a reflection on their marriage. He validated how deeply the betrayal had shaken her sense of self-worth.

Jake and Emily started having regular date nights and check-ins about their feelings. Jake made an effort to be present and attentive, leaving his phone in the other room. Gradually, through many open and honest conversations, they started to feel a renewed sense of closeness.

Stage 3: Attach

The last stage of affair recovery focuses on reestablishing a secure attachment bond between partners.3 After an affair, it’s common for the betrayed partner to feel vigilant and mistrustful, while the partner who strayed may feel guilt and defensiveness. Some important goals of the attach stage are:

  • Responding to each other’s bids for connection consistently and positively
  • Rebuilding physical intimacy at a pace that feels comfortable to both partners
  • Creating a shared vision for the future of the relationship
  • Developing new rituals of connection and trust-building

As Emily began to feel more secure in Jake’s commitment, she was able to relax and be more present in their reconciliation. They started a nightly gratitude practice, sharing three things they appreciated about each other every night before bed. When Jake would reach for her hand or offer a hug, Emily could accept the affection without second-guessing his motives.

In therapy, they created a relationship mission statement that outlined their shared values and goals, including a commitment to honesty, teamwork, and making their marriage a top priority. They planned a vow renewal ceremony to symbolize a new chapter in their relationship.

Moving forward after an affair

Recovering from an affair is a gradual process that requires patience, commitment, and professional support. With the Gottman atone, attune, attach model, it is possible to not only heal, but create an even stronger relationship on the other side of this crisis.

If you are currently struggling with the impact of an affair, know that you don’t have to navigate this painful time alone. Seeking help from a qualified couples therapist can provide structure, tools, and support on the road to recovery.

With openness, empathy, and a willingness to do the work, you and your partner can survive an affair and build a more trusting, resilient bond. Remember, an affair is not the end of your story as a couple – in many cases, it can be the turning point that leads to deeper love and connection.


Here we’ve outlines the three stages of affair recovery based on Dr. John Gottman’s model: Atone, Attune, and Attach. In the Atone stage, the partner who had the affair must take responsibility, express remorse, and demonstrate commitment to change. The Attune stage involves openly sharing feelings, validating each other’s emotions, and rebuilding the emotional connection. Finally, the Attach stage focuses on reestablishing a secure attachment bond through consistent, positive responses to bids for connection, rebuilding physical intimacy, and creating a shared vision for the future. I emphasizes that recovering from an affair is a gradual process that requires patience, commitment, and professional support, but it is possible to heal and create a stronger relationship.


1. Gottman, J. M. (2011). The science of trust: Emotional attunement for couples. W. W. Norton & Company.
2. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2012). What makes love last?: How to build trust and avoid betrayal. Simon & Schuster.
3. Gottman, J. M. (2015). Principia amoris: The new science of love. Routledge.
4. Mitchell, E. A., Wittenborn, A. K., Timm, T. M., & Blow, A. J. (2021). Affair recovery: Exploring similarities and differences of injured and involved partners. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 48(2), 447–463.