RECOVERING FROM AN AFFAIR, PART 1
by Mike Sorenson [download printable PDF version]
“Therefore, since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because those who have suffered in their bodies are done with sin…”
Betrayal is not something anyone would like to become familiar with at any point in their life. Once acquainted with it, though, a person will have a hard time forgetting the raw emotions, the vivid mental images, the destruction of trust, and the disorienting confusion of recovering from a partner’s affair. One cannot help but be changed by the experience. Both personally and professionally, I have become well acquainted with the destruction infidelity brings into a relationship. It has forced me to go back to the Scriptures again and again to reevaluate convictions as tough decisions had to be made. I have walked numerous individuals and couples through the long, winding path of recovery, helping them to navigate its twists and turns. Some have done the hard work to repair their marriage and found a level of intimacy that never existed before in their relationship. Others have had to face reality and start over, realizing their spouse is unwilling or incapable of doing the work required to move forward. While the results have varied greatly depending on the situations and parties involved, all who have embraced the process have grown tremendously through it. This article is the first in a series that will give an overview of what is required to grow out of the deepest betrayal that a couple can face. I am starting with the assumption that for most who are reading this, the affair has already been discovered and confronted or confessed. If this has not occurred, and one spouse is still in the dark, no other relationship work can be undertaken. This can be a difficult process in and of itself and can get ugly. Do not hesitate to seek help with a counselor or pastor before confronting or confessing so as to handle it well and have support throughout the process. For those who have already faced the destruction of that revelation, though, your life likely feels like it is in shambles and you may not know where to go next. We will start charting the course by examining the attitude that will be necessary from the outset of this process.
One thing that has become painfully clear from immersing myself in the ugliness of these relational wounds is that there is no easy, pain-free path to recovery from an affair. In the wake of such overwhelming heartache, grief, anger and betrayal, human nature is to do anything that offers the promise of relieving that pain, and the quicker the better. It’s overwhelming and disorienting. It feels like your whole life, everything you have hoped for and built your life upon is falling apart around you and you are helpless to stop it. The one person you have always depended on in your life has now wounded you so deeply that you don’t know if you will ever be able to recover. Some respond to this pain by trying to deny it. They may spiritualize their forgiveness or excuse the affair, but they won’t let all that pain sink in because it is too much to handle. I find these couples tend to look really good at first, but usually never fully recover. Some level of bitterness and distrust always permeates their relationship and true intimacy is never restored. Others will try to quickly divorce and run away from their betrayer, often running immediately into another relationship. The leaving seems justified and most friends and family are rooting for the offended spouse to find a better relationship, so this response is often encouraged. However, if the emotional baggage is not worked through, I commonly see these people years later, ravaged by deep resentment, unable to trust those close to them, and often in an even more destructive relationship than the one they left. Leaving and staying can both be good choices, depending on the situation, but neither should be used as a shortcut to dealing with the emotional destruction of the affair.
Rather than avoid the pain, if you have been wounded by your partner’s affair, you must resolve that you are going to embrace the pain, feel it, and work through it until it is completely healed. God has a purpose for you in this heartache and wants to do a work in you through it. The pain won’t heal if it is ignored or numbed. You must be willing to walk down a painful path, one that will require you to dig deep into the depths of your heart and face your own demons. You must be willing to embrace a process that will likely take longer than you are comfortable with and will require more of you than you thought you could give. You will have to grieve, face embarrassment and shame, endure the critical eye of those who disagree with your decisions, and, possibly hardest of all, you will have to forgive the worst betrayal you have ever faced. It may sound counterintuitive to seek out a path so riddled with pain and suffering, but it is the path that will bring the most long-term growth and healing. I have yet to meet someone who embraced the process and later regretted it. Rather than leaning on avoidance to bring you hope, trust in God’s pattern for suffering and promise of restoration in 1Peter 5:6-10 (see my previous article, Embracing Brokenness, for a more detailed treatment of this topic). True joy, peace, contentment and restoration can be yours on the other side of this trial, but you will need to work through the painful parts first, so prepare yourself.
Continuing down this painful path is going to require tremendous endurance and patience. These wounds don’t often heal quickly. If you are going to be able to persevere through it, three things are going to be necessary. First, you are going to need support. The Bible calls the church to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2) and this is such a time that you should put some weight on their shoulders. You will need a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear to which you can vent, and some wise counsel to help you make the right decisions along the way. Ideally, I would recommend having a good Christian counselor, a discerning and caring pastor, and at least a couple of close friends who are readily available and know everything that is going on in the process. Second, you will need to leave yourself space to grieve. Holding these emotions in will only work for so long. Eventually they will come out, usually at an inopportune time when you are working or at a social function and cannot properly resolve them. Be intentional and proactive about giving yourself a time and place to be a wreck and fall apart emotionally. Weeping is healing and should bring some relief when it is done. Stoicism is not a spiritual gift. Take a cue from the psalmists who so vividly pour out their grief, whose “tears have been [their] food day and night” (Psalm 42:3), and pour out your heart to God. Thirdly, you are going to need to lean heavily on your faith and God’s presence. He knows better than anyone the pain of betrayal. You may find comfort in identifying with His heart-wrenching laments in Jeremiah 2 and 3 and Ezekiel 23, amongst other places, as He expresses His grief at Israel’s spiritual adultery. Look to Jesus, who was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). He alone is equipped to do the kind of deep healing your heart needs through this process. He can speak to the longings of your heart in ways that no other person could and will strengthen your walk with Him throughout this painful process. If these three parts are in place, then you are ready to start down this ugly path. Take heart. There is joy and restoration on the other side, no matter what your partner chooses. This pain is only temporary and has the power to cleanse you and to heal you.
If you were setting out to build a house, you would have to start with a solid, level foundation. It is no different with this process of rebuilding your relationship. Without the right foundation, no amount of good technique, conversation skill or great compatibility will accomplish anything of value. Your marriage has been torn down to the ground and it is time to rebuild. This article has hopefully helped you to get a picture of the kind of attitude and support you will need in order for this rebuilding of your hope, trust, and intimacy to succeed. If you are prepared to embrace painful emotions and your spiritual and relational supports are in place, then you are ready to get started with the work of rebuilding. The next step will be determining whether to stay or leave - a complicated decision that I will explore in more depth in the next article.