If you are a victim of a crime, it makes logical sense to get as far away from the offender as possible so you can feel safe. However many victims of adultery stay with their partner. How is it possible to stay with a partner who has committed a serious offence against you and emotionally damaged you and continue to live with them on a daily basis? Isn’t it like living with the enemy? Wouldn’t you be a nervous wreck? A healthy marriage rests on a foundation of emotional safety and trust. Adultery destroys the foundation. It begs the question, how can you stay in a marriage with someone who has deliberately shattered your trust?
Jane told me there were six good reasons why she took back her unfaithful husband.
1. Imagining him with another woman, I realised how much I loved and wanted my husband and family. It was a painful wake-up call. I had taken him for granted and not appreciated what I had: a beautiful husband and two beautiful children.
2. I understood why he did it. He was feeling rejected and neglected. I wasn’t meeting his emotional need for admiration and had become critical of him. I had hurt him deeply in our early days through a few juvenile infatuations and minor flings that he had never recovered from.
3. I realised my part in his adultery. I felt deep remorse for how I had injured him in the past. For the first time I felt empathy for the pain he suffered as a devoted young husband.
4. I made a choice to actively pursue forgiveness and worked on it every day for two years. I don’t believe humans have the ability to forgive. I prayed constantly for the Holy Spirit to give me the strength to forgive and free me from pain. I also prayed for God’s forgiveness for my own sins. And I needed to forgive myself for the mess I’d made of our marriage.
5. We stayed together because we loved each other, despite the pain we had inflicted on each other. I talked to two girlfriends who left their marriages because they had to face the fact that their husbands who had affairs did not love them, or were incapable of real love. They reminded me that my husband actually did love me and it was worth rebuilding our marriage.
6. I had changed deeply through the experience of being utterly heartbroken. I went through a period of grieving and soul-searching, facing my mistakes and faults and I came out of it a more honest, humble and better person. I believed that he too could heal, change and grow as a man.
Once you have decided to re-commit, how do you live post-affair? There are three options.
Bury all memories of the offence, repress the pain, do not feel your outrage, humiliation and grief and do not work through and process the trauma in counselling. Never talk about it with your partner. Make the subject taboo and carry on like it didn’t happen.
I know one man who adopted this approach after discovering his wife had been having an affair for five years. He took her back, they moved interstate to start a new life and never spoke of it again.
The problem was, the unresolved emotional pain festered within him like an infected wound until the end of his life when illness broke down his defences and all the emotional pain spewed out in savage attacks of delayed retribution on his wife and family. He squandered away his entire life’s savings in a destructive act of sabotage and vengeance and left his wife financially ruined when he died a broken man. It was a tragedy.
The second option is to live in a state of vigilance. Your trust has been destroyed but you love your husband so you opt to monitor and control his movements on a daily basis, checking his diary appointments, emails and phone calls to ensure he doesn’t re-offend. You place conditions on him. You quiz and interrogate him. You go on high alert. You become neurotic with anxiety.
You cannot trust other women. In fact no woman of any age, shape or form is beyond suspicion. Any contact he has with another woman triggers memories of him with her and you want to stop him having any social or professional dealings with women, you’ve reached such a pitch of insecurity and mistrust. You will do anything to protect yourself from ever being so deeply hurt again. As fro your husband, he feels imprisoned on a life sentence of psychological punishment, emasculated and suffocated. Ironically your vigilance makes him want to break free.
The third option is true reconciliation. Forgiveness takes one person. You can do it even if the offender is not sorry and unrepentant. Forgiveness is about your own inner world, freeing yourself of the torment of painful memories and emotions, letting go of the desire to get revenge. It is a means to restore your own emotional health. You can forgive a partner if you divorce or if you stay together. It’s a one-way street. But forgiveness alone will not restore your marriage.
Marriage requires two participants. True reconciliation is based on the offending partner experiencing healing and growth. He or she has to change and commit to becoming a new person and embracing a new life. This is the process repentance, meaning to ‘re-think’. Repentance promises redemption and renewal.
So how does a person really change, so the change is on the inside not just revised behaviour? I believe real change comes from laying down defences, denial and repression and experiencing inner pain and shedding tears.
The heartbroken are transformed. As Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount, those who mourn shall be comforted. Jesus called us to emotional honesty and ‘feeling work’. He embraced pain himself in the Garden of Gethsemane. The person who hits rock bottom, who falls to their knees in humility and surrender is ready to change.
In feeling your heart break, you are given the gift of empathy. You know what pain and grief feels like and this allows you to understand the pain of others. Empathy leads to understanding and compassion. It connects you to humanity.
Like being swept along a raging river, empathy instantly leads you to another gift of the heart: remorse. When you know what pain is, you will feel genuine sorrow for everyone you have harmed and sinned against in your lifetime. Remorse is very different from guilt. Guilt is a selfish, narcissistic emotion. It’s all about feeling bad about yourself. And shame is another destructive self-absorbing condition. But remorse will free you. Remorse is about others. It is unselfish. Remorse will allow you to grieve for all the harm you’ve ever done.
Remorse sweeps you into the depths of the swirling river with a realisation that you need saving. You need forgiveness. Suddenly it makes sense that you need a Saviour, a mediator to connect you with your Creator. You realise you are unworthy to face God without the gift of forgiveness. Remorse brings you to a poignant cry for forgiveness that comes from the depth of your soul.
To receive divine forgiveness is to bask in God’s grace and mercy and naturally commit to a new life. You find yourself on dry land with a desire to make amends and live a better life, with humility, gratitude and God’s help.
In spiritual traditions, this experience is called the Dark Night of the Soul. How does this spiritual process affect you marriage? Facing your past sins and mistakes, leads you to committing to a new life together. In a practical sense, this means embracing new values and learning new skills.
The Healing Process
A physical injury requires healing. If you were to slash your stomach and cover it with a dressing and put a big bandage over it and forget about it, the chances are the wound would become infected and wouldn’t heal.
It’s the same with an emotional wound. You can’t just cover it up and hide it away and think it will heal all on its own without any treatment.
Time by itself does not heal an emotional wound. Time merely gives you the means for healing. Healing requires active processing. Processing has to be intentional. If not ignore and covered over the injure and tenderness, the infection can go deeper and spread.
PROCESSING means outwardly feeling and expressing the pain and grief; crying and sobbing, weeping and wailing, moaning and groaning. It means fully embracing introspection and analysing all the issues through reading and journaling and seeking help through counselling and support groups.
In your emotional healing process you will know you have reached the point of DESENSITISATION when a ‘scar’ forms and you can prod the injury without pain; that is, someone might mention it or you can think about the trauma with it hurting any more.
FORGIVENESS means to pardon the offender and let go of your desire to retaliate and punish. You give up anger and bitterness, judgement and condemnation, which ends up freeing you as much as your partner.
SHOCK AND DISBELIEF lingers for a long time. You will find yourself mystified as to just how the person who loves you, who is mean to care for and protect you, could be so cruel and hurt you so deeply. You will ask why? and how could he? hundreds of times, wasting a ridiculous amount of effort trying to work him out. Regret in the form of if only will torment you too. This is the mind doing battle with shock and you will know you have come through it when you reach a point of acceptance.
BENEFITS come from trauma. Humans are frail and vulnerable and paradoxically we are resilient and optimistic. We will always seek to bounce back and see the positive in traumatic events as a means of coping. Ultimately you will be able to see the benefits of the trauma of adultery; the character growth that has come through pain.
Remorse and scathing self-honesty is necessary. Take a long hard look at your own faults and the destructive patterns in your life. Explore how you have failed and hurt your partner and face up to your mistakes.
Feeling your own pain cultivates empathy and compassion for the suffering of others. In fact, it is impossible to feel compassion for others if we have not sunk to the depths of despair ourselves. To have your heart broken is the prerequisite for ministering to fellow wounded and heartbroken humans.
Facing your own weakness, mistakes and sin makes you realise your need for divine forgiveness, salvation and faith. You might find yourself on a spiritual path you did not have before.
When your foray into crossing the boundaries wreaks havoc, you will naturally embrace stronger, protective values and morals with renewed commitment to your marriage and family.
You will vow never to let this most precious of treasures be threatened again. Your marriage can be better than ever with this fresh commitment and your determination to eliminate destructive habits and meet each other’s needs.
Realise that sex can bring great pleasure within a safe, committed relationship, but it also has the power to cause great pain when misused. Enjoy a revitalised love life, showing new tenderness and passion for each other.
You are now equipped with a stronger and deeper character, the empathy and understanding, life experience and knowledge that equips you to help others in so many ways. Fortunately you get a second chance; to learn from your mistakes, make amends and live a good life.
Ultimately it is possible to reframe the experience.
Jane can have the final word. She says:
Having come so close to losing her husband, she felt a new gratitude and appreciation of him. It was the wake-up call she needed to value and protect her marriage and family and to make a passionate commitment to a lifetime together.
It led her to re-evaluate her values and faith, which had a ripple effect on the whole family. Through the pain she developed empathy, understanding and compassion for others. The healing process and self-examination made her a better person.
Growing as an individual and finding love and happiness in her marriage, helped her develop professionally and find success in her career.