By Mike Genung
Christian answers to healing a marriage that been’s shattered by adultery (yes, that includes porn)
Picture taking a 9” stiletto knife, and then plunging into your wife’s back, all the way to the hilt. Then as she screams in pain and horror at the recognition that you, her best friend have stabbed her, you say “I’m sorry. Can you please get over this quickly?”
Adultery cuts into the fragile and vulnerable places of the heart causing indescribable pain and trauma. It annihilates trust, destroys self esteem and severs the bonds of love with the cold steel blade of betrayal. It is only a loved one, who was trusted with the deepest joys, fears, hopes and dreams that can hurt another so deeply. Porn with masturbation, by the way, is adultery, and it can hurt our spouses just as deeply.
In 1991, 2 years after I married my wife, I had sex with a prostitute in a hotel room while on a business trip. Overwhelmed by guilt and knowing our marriage covenant was broken I told Michelle what I’d done a few days later. I’ll never forget her reaction. She fell apart crying with deep, heart rending sobs, repeating my name “Oh Mike, Mike, Mike….” When I heard the pain pouring out of my wife I realized I’d hurt her deeply and inflicted an enormous amount of damage to our marriage. I was terrified that she might leave me.
In the following weeks our marriage teetered on the brink of disaster. Michelle would be ok one moment, and then something would trigger in her and she’d either start crying or go off on a burst of anger. Our married life became a volatile emotional roller coaster that I couldn’t fix, and in fact my presence made it worse; all Michelle had to do was look at me to be tortured with the reminder of what I’d done. I couldn’t comfort her because I was the one who’d hurt her, and when I touched her physically, even if it was just holding hands, it was as if I was rubbing salt in her wounds.
At a loss for what to do I sought the advice of another Christian brother. John had committed adultery on his wife several years earlier, and his marriage had made it. When I asked John how long it took his wife to heal from his betrayal, John’s response was short and to the point: “years.”
My mouth dropped. “Years ???” I said in disbelief. “Years ??? I thought surely you were going to say a few weeks or maybe even months… but… years??!!”
“Yes, years” John repeated firmly. “The old marriage you had is dead and you have to build a new one. This is going to take a lot of time and effort on your part; you’ve got to kill her with kindness and win her all over again.”
Today I know that John was right. It took two years before my wife was able to feel completely at ease when I traveled again. My all out efforts to break free from lust were critical; if I’d have continued to slip with porn or committed adultery again then she would have had no reason for hope, and our marriage would have been over.
To rebuild a broken marriage takes solid commitment in the midst of what at times can be a red hot boiling pot of emotional turmoil, from both partners. For the marriage to find healing, the wife, when she’s ready, (not when she’s been manipulated, guilted, or cajoled into it), must come to the place of forgiveness. The husband must build a new foundation of trust and be willing to walk with his wife as she heals. He will have to choose between the marriage and his pride, meaning he has to be willing to allow her the complete freedom to express her rage and hurt without defending what is his indefensible position. In other words, the husband has to die so the wife and their marriage can live. For this article I’m taking the approach that the husband is the betrayer, but the reverse happens as well. The principles are the same either way.
First, we’ll address the one who has committed adultery
The big question after adultery has been committed is “do I tell my wife what I’ve done?”
Both answers to this question are fraught with problems. Hiding adultery doesn’t change the fact that the marriage covenant has been shattered, and the husband who has betrayed his spouse will be haunted by the truth as long as he keeps it a secret. On the other hand, telling the spouse is a journey into the unknown; no one can predict how their wife will respond when betrayal is revealed. She could immediately file for separation or divorce, or she might try to work it out. If she agrees to stick it out the couple will be in for months of emotional strife and pain. There’s no easy way out.
After I’d committed adultery and was pondering whether to tell Michelle I asked John whether I should tell her or not. I knew John and his wife had gone through a rough time keeping their marriage together so I was hoping he’d say “ there’s no way I’d tell her again”, as I didn’t want to tell Michelle what I’d done. John’s response rang in my ears: “you have to tell her or there will never be true intimacy in your marriage again, because the person you committed adultery with will always be between you and your wife.”
Before I told Michelle of my betrayal, when we talked on the phone and she would cheerily tell me how much she loved me, the images of what I’d done tormented me. My wife was loving and trusting a liar, me, and I had a hard time accepting her love after knowing what I’d done to her. It would be like the president of a bank giving me money to live on after I’d robbed his bank. I owed Michelle a tremendous debt and needed to make my crime right; to continue accepting her love felt too much like stealing. There was also the issue where I’d physically soiled our marriage after having had sex with the prostitute; I didn’t know whether I’d picked up an STD and if Michelle got it… shudder. For me to withhold the truth would be like keeping the prostitute in our marriage bed.
There can be no doubt that the cost for telling the betrayed spouse is extremely high. My biggest hurdle in telling Michelle was the fear of losing her, in addition to knowing she would he deeply hurt – and mad.
My opinion is that the large majority of those who have committed adultery (I’m talking 95% here) should reveal the truth to their spouse so the marriage can be healed.
The times when adultery shouldn’t be revealed, I believe, are extremely rare. Some examples might be if a wife has gone through a stressful time, perhaps with a loss of a parent, or if they were dealing with some sort of trauma such as childhood sexual abuse or rape. To tell her when she was broken already would border on abuse. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the spouse should never be told, but that telling her at the present time may not be wise.
Before your wife is told you should have the men in your support group (you are in a support group by now, right?) pray for the Lord’s hand on your marriage. Spend a few days asking the Lord to heal your wife and lay the outcome at His feet. God’s involvement in what will be a bloody process at best is critical.
Once she knows the situation:
- Expect an emotional roller coaster that could last for months. It won’t be easy and you need to be prepared for the long haul. This race is a grueling marathon, not a sprint.
- If she asks you questions about the details of what you’ve done, answer them truthfully and carefully; try to avoid being overly graphic. Your words will paint the scenes of a video in her mind that she will run over and over again. Answering her questions truthfully are an important part of the process of rebuilding trust. (Wives, please see my comments below on asking the details).
- When she expresses her pain and/or anger to you over what you’ve done, realize that it’s a necessary part of the healing process. You want her to open up and talk with you about her feelings and disappointment so she can purge her hurt. The worst thing you can do when she expresses herself is defend yourself or try to cut her off. Be quiet and listen; allow her to express herself, no matter what she says. That includes swearing and even name calling; if she goes that far just keep your mouth shut. She needs to express the pain and anger to process the poison out of her system. If she does call you names ignore it for the present time; do not fight back. Remember, you’ve hurt her and all that she’s going through is because of what you’ve done. You need to give her the complete freedom to express the pain within.
If she withdraws from you for an extended period of time then gently coax her to talk to you; ask her to tell you how she’s feeling. You want to encourage her to express her feelings as much as you can without being pushy or nagging. There will be times when she just needs some space; pray for discernment in this area and when the Lord shows you she needs some time to herself, let her have it. Give the crushed flower the loving water and sunshine it needs to heal and grow again.
- If you haven’t done so already, take 100% responsibility for your betrayal. Make no excuses; it’s your sin, and don’t add any barbs like “if you were having more sex with me then I wouldn’t have been unfaithful.” That’s a big, reeking, truckload of youknowwhat. My adultery with Michelle was the result from me indulging in lust for many years, and it was my choice alone. You alone chose to commit adultery; own up to it.
- Give up your right to sex. Tell your wife you realize the damage you’ve done and that you’ll back away from all demands for sex until she’s ready. You’ve raped your wife emotionally and it will take some time for her to feel secure enough in the relationship to open up to you again this way. Crushed flowers need time to heal and bloom. Giving up your right to sex will show her you care about her and that you aren’t trying to make everything right just so you can get what you want.
- As soon as possible, start praying with your wife once a day, every day. Pray for each other in specific ways; ask the Lord to cleanse and heal your marriage; ask Him to bless your wife. Confess your sin to Him in front of her and ask Him to heal her from it. You both need to bring the Lord into your marriage as quickly as possible; your time praying together will be a soothing balm for both of you. Remember that He must rebuild your marriage and you both need Him.
- Realize that the old marriage is dead and you need to build a new one. Start by courting your bride all over again. Ask her to go on a date with you, again, with zero expectations of sex. Get to know her as a friend as you did before, and let her do the same with you. Listen to her. Do the things you know she likes that you’ve probably neglected long ago, such as opening the door, bringing her flowers, giving her cards with heartfelt words of love, or showing her simple kindness. Pour the ointment of grace and love on her and let her see by your actions that she’s precious to you.
- Remember the simple instructions from the Lord on how to make a marriage work: “Husbands love your wives.” Not husbands, preach to, manipulate, fix or control. Work at accepting and loving her as she is and letting the Lord take care of her defects.
- She will begin to trust you again when she sees you’re making consistent efforts to stop acting out with all forms of lust. Action and results speak louder than words here. If you’re still acting out with pornography, or if you’re isolating a lot, or if you haven’t broken off contact with the person you had the affair with then you give your wife no reason to stay married to you. You can’t have your wife and lust; you’ve got to choose which one you want. If you’re still playing around with porn or dabbling in an inappropriate relationship then she has every right to ask for a separation until you get your priorities straight.
- If the two of you are missing each other and finding communication too difficult, get marital counseling from a Christian counselor or pastor with experience in these issues ASAP. Ask the counselor if they’ve had experience helping couples heal from adultery before and if they haven’t, keep looking until you find one. Getting marital counseling can be a safe way to work through sensitive issues that may be too emotionally charged for you to deal with at home.
- Stay close to the Lord and pray for your wife every day. Ask Him to guide you with the right word and deeds to rebuild your marriage, and give you discernment in understanding when she needs to be left alone and when she needs to talk.
- A traumatic event like adultery often has the effect of exposing unhealthy communication and relational habits in the marriage, such as dependency, out of balance power/control issues and inappropriate boundaries. Dealing with these issues on top of trying to rebuild a broken marriage can be overwhelming. Again, if communication becomes strained or stifled for extended periods of time, see a Christian marital counselor.
- Have those in your support group hold you and your wife up in prayer often. I’ve seen the Lord bring marriages back from the dead, even after the wife had told the husband she’d wanted a divorce. Prayer plays an enormous role in the healing process, and the more people you can have praying for you and your wife, the better.
Now we turn to the spouse whose been betrayed
- For you who have been betrayed, realize that adultery is a painful, traumatic event. In the beginning your emotional state can bounce violently between from a state of shock, to blistering anger and then to tears of grief. This is normal, and you’re not nuts; it’s what happens when you get hurt deeply by a loved one. What happened is not your fault. Your spouse’s choice to sin against you was his alone; don’t take the blame, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
- You have every right to ask your spouse to tell you every detail of what happened. Having said this, consider that knowing the color of the other person’s hair, or what your spouse did with the other person sexually will add vivid color to a video that you can use to torture yourself repeatedly with. Asking questions like how long an affair took place, how often and with what number of persons (which should be asked) are different from asking every intrinsic, gory detail. Consider what you should ask, as well as what you shouldn’t; what’s healthy and needed to rebuild trust, vs. what will only hurt you more. Wounds need to be cleaned out, not rubbed with salt or cut deeper.
- The worst thing you can do is to try to make sense of this on your own without help. You need at least one other person who you can talk to and pray with on a consistent basis who is not your spouse to get you through this. It’s important that you express your anger and pain and avoid holding it in at all costs. Unresolved pain and anger ferments into the poison of bitterness over time, and it will eat you alive. You need someone you can trust (who’s not your husband) to keep the things you share confidential; discussing your hurt with your husband alone puts enormous pressure on an already stressed to the max marriage. You might seek the help of a Christian counselor, or you could meet with a trusted friend. You should meet at least once a week in the beginning with another person and they should pray with you. The more people you can get praying for your marriage, the better.
If you can’t think of anyone to turn to then ask the Lord to show you the person or group He wants you to go to, and be flexible and open to where He leads you to. It may not be to someone you would have originally thought of.
- The second worst thing you can do is open up with the wrong person. Telling Aunt Betty the Blabber or Hurricane Henrietta who has it in for your husband is a big mistake. Instead of serving as a conduit for healing, people like this will pour gasoline on the fire of your anger and sabotage the healing process. Telling family, at least in the beginning, often isn’t a good idea. The last thing you need are your relatives adding pressure to the cooker by pushing you to divorce your husband every time they see you. Worse, some family members even blame the wife when a husband falls into adultery with statements like “Oh Dearie, it’s all in your head; you just need to live up to your wifely duties.” Laurie Hall described the hell of telling the wrong people in her book “An Affair of the Mind.” Proceed carefully and probe the person you might talk to for their attitudes about adultery before you open up with them.
- The goal you’re striving for, when you’re completely ready, is to forgive your husband from the heart. The road to forgiveness isn’t easy and it involves pain, anger and grieving what was lost. Forgiveness will cost you a lot because it means you’ll be letting him off the hook for a tremendous debt that he can never repay. Forgiveness of betrayal parallels what Jesus did on the cross for all of us. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you turn into a doormat, or allow him to abuse you, or accept his actions if he continues to keep messing with porn or any other manifestation of lust.
- You have every right to demand that any and all pornography be removed from the house, or if he had an affair that your husband permanently sever contact with the other person. If he won’t or he delays then he’s just playing games and you should seriously consider a separation until he’s willing to make that commitment to you. Decisions like this should be made carefully, with much prayer and the counsel of others. Separation is not divorce, and it’s a valid way of sending your husband the message that you’re not going to accept anything less than complete commitment to you on his part. Unfortunately there are some men who need this kind of tough love before they “get it.” You wouldn’t have accepted another woman in your husband’s life when you were engaged, and you shouldn’t now. This is another reason why you need other strong Christian women who don’t have an axe to grind surrounding you. The Godly counsel of other Christian women will be a life preserver in the storm.
- In the midst of all the pain and trauma, there are some silver linings the Lord weaves in. Some wives make their husbands out to be their god, when it is the Lord alone Who should hold that place. We men are broken vessels, and we’re not meant to be worshipped. The searing pain of betrayal can break many women loose from this unhealthy dependency and turn their hearts in a fresh new way to the Living God.
Although we’ve focused on recovering from the physical act of adultery, those marriages that are affected by a husband’s porn addiction often have the same struggles. Masturbation with porn is adultery. The pain and rejection women experience from their husband’s porn addiction is just as real and can go just as deep as if he had committed the physical act.
In the rebuilding process a new, truer marriage is often built to replace the old one, which was often marked by emotional imbalances. When a marriage is torn apart and built up again from the ground up, the exposure of faults and weaknesses that were hidden before can foster deeper communication that didn’t exist before, binding the couple together in new and wonderful ways.
There is hope; as the Lord has been setting men free from sins of all kinds since the beginning of time, so has He brought many marriages back from the dead. I’ve been privileged to see some of His work, both in my marriage and in the marriage of others. I can tell you from experience that a couple who have made it through adultery can have a stronger marriage than those who’ve never been tested by the fires of betrayal.