TODAY   |  November 19, 2012

How can a marriage survive an affair?

So far, personal repercussions of Gen. David Petraeus’ admitted affair have remained behind closed doors, but the scandal has presented a major relationship question: Can a marriage survive infidelity? TODAY’s Natalie Morales reports and psychologist Dr. Judith Sills describes the three stages required to work it through.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> that's come up a lot in the wake of david petraeus ' affair. can marriage survive infidelity? his former mistress paula broadwell and her husband returned home after spending time together in washington, d.c. people close to the couple tell us it's been an extremely difficult time for them, and paula is focusing on her family. what was once a rare event.

>> i have sinned against you, my lord.

>> reporter: now seems almost commonplace.

>> indeed, i did have a relationship with miss lewinsky that was not appropriate.

>> i'm deeply sorry i did not live up to what was expected with me.

>> i've not been honest with myself, my family, my constituents, my friends and supporters and the media.

>> reporter: but what may surprise some how many of these marriages have stayed intact.

>> i think the marriages that survive are the ones that were not already in trouble leading up to the affair.

>> reporter: ever since it was revealed that general petraeus , director of the cia , was having an affair with his biographer paula broadwell , questions about the future of his marriage to his wife of 38 years holly petraeus have gone unanswered.

>> you have to realize, these are people who have been together a long time. they have invested a lot, and she has a lot to lose, too, if the marriage ends.

>> reporter: someone else with a lot to lose, paula broadwell , the woman at the center of this scandal. also married with children and a career on the rise.

>> married women cheat, too, not just men. married women cheat because either there is something going on in their marriage that isn't working and it's sort of a stepping stone or they feel they need more emotional connection than they are getting.

>> reporter: and while we might never know the reasons petraeus or paula broadwell stray from their marriages, one thing is almost certain in these modern times as pointed out by "saturday night live."

>> loser, people trying to have affairs in the digital age. it's official. you can't get away with it. the head of the cia couldn't get away with it.

>> a clinical psychologist joins us, judith, good morning.

>> good morning.

>> 65% of marriages that are struck by infidelity end up in divorce. how can a marriage survive infidelity?

>> walking through a tunnel of emotional hell. some couples get to the other side, and they really do three difficult things. first of all, the affair has to stop. no contact.

>> seems like an obvious.

>> seems like an obvious, but people are attached. it's very hard to break that off, and the person who had the affair is grieving. they are having a loss, and they don't know how to end it, so that's very tough to do, and the spouse is not sympathetic to that grief. that spouse is filled with rage and pain and misery. the second thing that has to happen, that spouse has to be able to say here is how you hurt me. here is what you did to me over and over again, and if you did it, you have to be able to take that in and not defend yourself.

>> the trauma repair, as you say, yeah.

>> a lot of people are basically having tsd, they are having thoughts, a horrible experience and the other people wants to say, wait a minute, it's not all my fault. you didn't show me affection.

>> that's not the time.

>> that's not the time. we say fly into the storm of that anger and receive it. it's very hard to hear how you hurt someone so people try to avoid it, and they need to have courage, and the third thing, also very tough. transparency. we advise a couple tell it all and tell it now.

>> i mean, how much detail are you giving away though. here's what you are doing, you are avoiding sexual detail, but you are telling all the deception detail. yes, this is where i really was on your birthday. yeah, i wasn't really working late on valentine's day, and here's how much money i spent. here's the truth. that is an ugly thing, but it is -- it is so healing can take place later. since months later you said you didn't love her, and i just found the e-mail. put it on the table transparency at this moment.

>> and third then is moving on which seems like it would be hard to do and letting all go. how -- how does the person who has been cheated on stop from just wallowing in what happens?

>> you know, there's a process to this and can you hear it with a couple. after i've expressed this rage, after i've racked my mind out of what happened, now we can talk about the marriage, what is it that we were avoiding? why aren't we spending time together? whatever happened to our sex life ? we are rebuilding, and then the offending spouse asks for forgiveness which is a spiritual process. i have a more realistic view of you. now i have a sense of who we are in a more mature way. can i find it in my mind to forgive the way you hurt me?

>> and that's the silver lining , as you're a stronger couple perhaps on the other side.

>> and people get there, and they stand on their anniversary, and they say, wow, look what i made it through.

>> judith sills, thank you so