RECOVERING FROM AN AFFAIR, PART 2
by Mike Sorenson, LPCMH [download printable PDF version]
“Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.”
You likely can remember a time in your life when your mind was sharp, your thoughts were clear, and you had a straight path which God had lain out before you. This is not that time. A small percentage of those who have been betrayed by a partner’s infidelity have obvious paths to take – their spouses have left or repentance is so clear that they feel certain God wants them to reconcile. For the vast majority, however, decisions about their most important relationship and the rest of their life must be made with incomplete information and an uncertain future. Some of the most distressing parts of the process of healing are related to the lack of clarity most people have in deciding what to do with the relationship. Should they start over with a divorce, disrupting their lives and the lives of their children? Should they attempt to repair their marriage, considering the risk that they might have to go through this gut-wrenching pain again in the future?
There are no easy answers to these questions, for each decision carries with it painful consequences. Most people feel like they are being tossed around by stormy seas, frantically grasping for anything solid to keep them afloat until the storm passes. Many will look to Scriptural commands for a definitive answer, but the Bible is equally ambivalent about the issue. Jesus specifically named sexual immorality as an exception to the prohibition on divorce (Matt 5:32), but God has previously commanded the prophet Hosea to repeatedly reconcile with an adulterous wife (Hos 3:1). The Father is justified in “divorcing” unfaithful Israel (Jer 3:8), yet he openly speaks of later restoring His relationship and covenant with them (Jer 30:3, 22). Unfaithfulness really only makes the decision more difficult Biblically, as it puts divorce on the table for discussion where it was not previously. There is no replacement for discernment and hearing God’s whispering voice in the midst of your particular version of this trial. In my experience, though, the most important factor to consider is the authentic repentance (or lack thereof) in the life of the offending spouse.
Surprisingly, many spouses are open to the idea of reconciling, even after this most devastating form of betrayal. To start over relationally seems equally devastating, and most still hold out hope that their marriage could recover. Aside from the anger of betrayal, the most difficult obstacle is the fear that they will have to endure this heartache again in the future and look like a fool for forgiving. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee either way on this issue, which is exactly why many people are paralyzed by indecisiveness at this point. There are good indicators, however. First, let’s start with the heart of a repentant spouse. What would that look like? 2Corinthians 7 gives a great description of what it looked like in a corporate church setting, since Paul had previously had to rebuke them for issues of sexual immorality within their congregation. Within this letter, Paul praises them for their change of heart:
“See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done. At every point you have proved yourselves to be innocent in this matter.”
Notice first that Paul’s confrontation of them brought about a deep sorrow that led to genuine repentance. When confronted, a sincere partner should be grieved by the things they have been doing. Most people caught in an affair have been hounded by guilt and shame since the beginning, so they initially feel some relief after it is discovered or confessed. However, they are soon faced with the consequences they have dreaded for a long time. They fear losing everything that is important to them from a relationship perspective. There is no need to rescue them from this fear, since it is the very thing most likely to motivate them to work on the problem they have created. With time, this fear should shift into a sorrow over the hurt they have caused their partner. I have found that the most powerful deterrent to having another affair is the grief a person feels when he is able to put himself in the shoes of his spouse and understand the deep wound he has inflicted. That kind of empathy may not be there initially, so you might have to wait. If it does not develop, the likelihood of true repentance on a deeper heart level is unlikely. If it does, though, the ground will be fertile for some really important growth and change.
The fertile ground of godly sorrow is not in and of itself repentance, but merely the prerequisite for the changes that need to happen. You will never have a guarantee of what path your spouse is going to take, but if this sorrow begins to give birth to some specific, genuine character change, your odds of success have increased tremendously. Does Paul’s description of the Corinthian church sound like your husband or wife? Notice the characteristics of their repentance: they fought back against the sin (the “eagerness”), grew indignant about it, feared its grip on them, developed longing and zeal for change, and were ready to make things right and make amends (“to see justice done”). Paul used very vivid language to describe the changes in their hearts because there was a tangible difference in the way they related. It was obvious to Paul, even from afar, that they were able to see their fault and were prepared to do the difficult work of changing. A person with these qualities in them will be willing to work and persevere, even though he will not be getting much in return for a while. He will be willing to endure shame, loneliness and hardship because it is the path to getting rid of the sin he now sees and hates in his own heart.
The heart change in a spouse who has had an affair must start internally, deep within the recesses of the heart, but it should quickly become visible if you are watching. Your husband or wife might vary in personality, so the expression could vary as well, but there should be behavior that serves to reveal the heart change. She should be prepared to definitively cut off the offending relationship, choosing the feelings of her spouse over the feelings of her affair partner. He should be determined to change his patterns of behavior no matter what the cost, seeking help from counselors, support groups, pastors or books. She should take initiative to set up boundaries regarding conversations and time alone with members of the opposite sex. He should be willing to endure the shame of recounting his failures in order to more fully understand his wife’s heartache and rebuild her trust. These changes should not just be a reluctant attempt at appeasing the offended spouse, but sincere attempts to change, even if they remain unrecognized by the one they are trying to win back. The change should be consistent enough that it is evident not only to you, but also to others who know your situation. This kind of growth does not come easily, but if the crisis of the affair’s discovery has produced a genuine sorrow for his actions, the stage has been set for him to demonstrate the kind of repentance you will need to see in order to rebuild trust and repair the marriage.
In evaluating repentance, the most difficult thing to discern is the genuineness of the actions taken. There are many who will take steps to go to counseling or read a book that really have no intention of changing. None of the previously mentioned behaviors mean anything if they have not come from a place of godly sorrow and genuine repentance. The behavior is merely a window into the heart of the person you are trying to trust again. Check for consistency. Does the behavior you are seeing match up with what they are saying? Is he saying the same things to other people that he is saying to you? Is she following through on the changes or do they seem to be short-term appeasements? If your own fear is clouding your judgment, talk to some insightful and caring friends to see it from their perspective. If these characteristics are clearly not developing, you need to seriously consider protecting yourself and taking the difficult step of moving on through divorce. If they are starting to show, it might be worth playing it out to see if the relationship can be healed. Finally, know that this is an ongoing evaluation. You don’t have to know everything right now, just enough to decide whether to continue on the journey of healing your marriage. Trust God, who truly knows your spouse’s heart, to guide you and reveal to you if the sorrow has done its work to generate sincere repentance. He has a plan for you and can help you in making the difficult decision of whether to stay.