Charity Craig tells PEOPLE that spouses need to look beyond the "other woman" in order to heal a challenging marriage
Valentine’s Day 2013 marked Charity and Matt Craig’s first date after his affair during their marriage.
“It was awkward, but it was part of a healing process,” Matt, 41, tells PEOPLE. “You can’t expect things to go back to the way they were. And I didn’t want things to go back, and neither did she.”
The Florida couple not only survived Matt’s affair in 2012, but Charity, 46, says it made their relationship stronger after she decided to work on herself.
“It dawned on me he’s not my enemy," Charity, now a marriage coach, adds. "We’re both just humans with deep wounds, and that’s where we started healing.”
Sharing advice for others who might find themselves in similar spots, she says getting hyper-focused on the "other woman" gets in the way of healing a relationship.
“Affairs don’t happen in a vacuum,” Charity says. “Once you heal yourself and your marriage, 10,000 women can walk past my husband, and he’s not going to blink an eye because he’s not looking for an escape.”
Dr. Talal H. Alsaleem, author of Infidelity: The Best Worst Thing that Could Happen to Your Marriage, and the founder of the Infidelity Counseling Center, agrees that infidelity can result from circumstances that generally have little to do with "the third party," no matter which partner cheats.
He points to three main factors that can result in infidelity: First, the person may have a personality disorder, sex addictions or past trauma. Second, environmental issues — such as having a stressful career — can increase the likelihood. But the most prevalent is how happy people are with their partner.
"It's like having a heart attack. The trauma of infidelity forces the couple to look at those issues that led them to this point," Alsaleem tells PEOPLE. "Either they address those issues in a healthy, successful way or realize this is a relationship they should have exited a long time ago."
While he says dealing with infidelity by either gender is essentially the same, traditionally women have carried more blame.
"There is a huge gender bias towards women when it comes to infidelity," Alsaleem says.
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He also cautions couples not to go public with their situation.
"It adds a layer of complications for couples later, especially if they decide to stay together," Alsaleem says.
The Craigs discovered well-meaning friends and family did not help the core problems in their marriage by wanting them to divorce and move on.
“They acted more hurt and betrayed than I did,” Charity says. “People hate seeing how broken and shattered you are.”
Yet they both saw value in a relationship that spanned most of their lives. The two met at a St. Louis church youth group when Matt was 13 and Charity, then a college freshman, became a friend of his family.
Their feelings evolved after Matt invited her to his 18th birthday. They dated for about three years before getting married on Jan. 17, 2004.
“Anytime you get married, you’re taking a chance. Something tells you you don’t want to live without that person,” Matt remarks.
Charity was a teacher, and Matt had tested his hand at a music career in Nashville before settling into a more secure job. They had four children in five years, beginning almost exactly two years after they were married.
“We were in survival mode," Charity remembers.
About eight years into the marriage, things seemed to be looking up. “It was the pivot point of our lives,” Charity continues. “Matt had gotten his dream job.”
The pay was good, but Matt points out that “it was also the most stress I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
He had a team of musicians and creatives and was in charge of mentoring and shepherding a flock of about 12,000 people. It came with midnight texts from his boss, constant work and time away from home.
“He kept telling me, 'I’ve got to get out of here,' but I didn’t listen,” Charity explains. “I wasn’t dealing with the toxic behavior behind the scenes.”
Home stopped being a safe place for him because he couldn’t vent or talk about it, she says.
Matt says he can’t quite pinpoint the exact time he began sliding down a slippery slope with a woman he knew from his church duties, but he recalls how the affair started with group texts, and then individual texts.
“And there comes a time when you cross the line and then start rationalizing it,” he says. “But once you cross the line sexually, you think you have screwed up too bad to be a good husband, and you walk away.”
Alsaleem says couples need to take time to process and assess the damage done to determine if they should take the path of healing together or separately.
Matt left for about six months before he and Charity decided to work it out. First Charity had worked on her own issues with a therapist, then both used therapy to sort through their issues. But mainly, they opened up and started talking about the whys.
“You want life to be perfect, but life is life and people are people,” he notes. “You are going to run into the same issues when you run from yourself.”
The affair has taken a backseat over the past decade, and they are at a comfortable and loving place in their now 20-year marriage.
“We talk about the affair in a more retrospective way now,” Matt says. “We’ve actually been married longer after the affair than before it.”
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