When a Spouse Cheats—Does infidelity always lead to divorce?

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A spouse’s unfaithfulness can be devastating to their partner and the marriage. An affair breaks the marital vows, shatters trust, and erodes intimacy in the relationship.

Perhaps you’re the partner who feels betrayed or the one who has cheated and wonders whether your marriage is irreparably damaged or automatically over.

The hard truth is that infidelity is not an easy thing to get past—and yet, many marriages do survive it.

Melinda Gates recently shared how her billionaire ex-husband’s affair led to the end of their 27-year marriage. The 57-year-old philanthropist told CBS Mornings that once trust is broken, “it’s very hard to get it back, in any relationship.”

The statistics on infidelity and divorce are somewhat ambiguous—they vary widely, depending on several factors, and are based primarily on self-reporting. Overall, research shows that somewhere between 15-50% of divorces are due to infidelity, although the American Psychological Association narrows that estimate to about 20-40%. The NIH reports that 88% named cheating a significant factor among divorced couples, but Divorce Magazine found that 60-75% of marriages held together after an affair. Of course, not getting divorced doesn’t necessarily mean happiness and healing.

For couples in this challenging situation, it isn’t numbers that matter. It’s taking stock of the details of your specific situation and feelings, assessing how—and if—you can ever rebuild trust, and whether you’re both ready, willing, and able to put in the hard work it will take to get through this.

Here are some important considerations:

In California, a no-fault divorce state, adultery is neither illegal nor grounds for divorce. No-fault divorce means that you don’t need to prove wrongdoing of any kind; if one or both of you believe your marriage is beyond saving and want out, you can get divorced.

The consensus among legal experts is that adultery is defined as a married person voluntarily engaging in sexual relations with someone outside the marriage. But in a no-fault state, the court will not consider adultery when granting a divorce.

When thinking about divorce after infidelity, it’s essential to know that marital misconduct will have no impact on your settlement. It may feel unfair, but cheating will not affect the division of assets, spousal support, or custody. Rare exceptions include infidelity, which has been directly harmful to the children (cheating spouse has involved or endangered the children with the affair), or when you can prove your cheating spouse spent significant marital funds on the liaison.

As difficult as it may be, if you’ve decided to end the marriage because of infidelity, it’s probably best to set aside emotion and negotiate an equitable settlement.

On a more personal level, as you sort through whether the marriage is salvageable, you will likely need to ask some tough questions that only you (or the two of you) can know the answer to:

What was the actual betrayal, and what does being unfaithful mean to you in your relationship? Was the affair a one-night stand or a long-term romance? Was there sex or was it an emotional entanglement? Is one of these more of a deal-breaker than the others?

Apart from any official definitions of adultery, cheating, at its root, is about deception and unfaithfulness. Is there a history or pattern of the dishonesty of other kinds? Is infidelity a symptom of a broader problem?

Is the affair absolutely over? Have all ties and contact been cut? Is there genuine remorse? Is the cheating partner accepting responsibility—not offering excuses or shifting blame? Are they signaling deep commitment and a desire to do the healing work to restore trust and intimacy?

If you are the partner who was betrayed, are you willing to forgive? Are you so preoccupied with mistrust, anger, and hurt that you find fault even where there isn’t any, or feel you’ll never be able to get beyond nagging doubts?

Can you both agree to do the necessary work on yourselves? Will you seek counseling and stick with it (perhaps together and on your own)? None of this is easy—and these considerations are the tip of the iceberg. Seek professional help.

Suppose you’ve come to the difficult decision that it’s time to end your marriage. In that case, the experienced attorneys at Schoenberg Family Law Group can help you work through and streamline the divorce process that best fits your circumstances. Choosing the right family law firm can have an enormous impact on the outcome of your case. Our firm’s commitment to professionalism, civility, and open and honest communication allows us to provide our clients with the highest level of professional service.

by Debra Schoenberg

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