With the recent news of the Ashley Madison hack and the exposé of a number of Christian men who either had signed up for the service or, worse, actually used it, Bob Heywood gives his thoughts on what the first steps need to be on the part of the offender. Bob lived through his own journey of needing to rebuild trust with his wife after years of secretive pornography usage. This three-part series does not answer the legitimate question of whether the offended spouse should stay or leave, but if the marriage is to survive and grow, these first few steps will be critical.
I mentioned in my last post (here) that one of the most devastating things that impacted your wife when your sexual sin finally came out in the open was this fact: You were living a double life. You lived one way in front of her, and you lived another way behind her back. That type of secrecy in a marriage causes great damage.
One of the first things you need to do to rebuild your marriage is to learn—carefully and with sincerity—how to rebuild the trust that you broke. I’ve already said a few things about the first step you need to take: Take a hard and honest inventory of the damage you have caused to your wife and marriage.
And if your wife is still willing to stay in the marriage, here’s a second big step you must take:
Give your wife space to walk her road of healing, at her pace
Don’t expect that trying to do all the right things and doing lots of good activity this time is going to fix everything. If this is your new focus, you will put a crushing weight of pressure on your wife. How? Because most likely, underneath all your “good” activity, is an unspoken demand that she should respond and accept your earnest steps to change.
When you do this, you are shifting the dynamic of the relationship off of you and onto her. Now the future of the marriage depends on how she responds to the “new” you. Oh, this is subtle! You may not even be aware of it. But if this is happening, and if your wife is having big problems accepting the new you, then you attempt to justify that, whatever happens, at least you really tried. After all, marriage involves two people working at it, right?
Yes, start changing your behavior, and begin relating to your wife as a man of honesty and transparency. But you have got to disconnect your behavior from expecting a particular response to it. You must.
The most important thing she needs from you right now is to give her all the space she wants to heal at her own pace, not yours. She is disoriented from living with a man who lived two lives. Jesus said sexual sins were legitimate grounds for divorce. You need to face the reality that you crossed that line—whether your sexual sin involved a physical encounter or “just” a virtual one.
Your wife will be struggling with the reality that you crossed sexual boundaries, that you took your heart and your body outside of your marriage. That’s bad enough. But she will also be struggling—perhaps more so—with your deception. Your wife can’t fix that. You’ll have to give her emotional space as she struggles with how to move on. How to learn, slowly, whether she can begin to trust the person you are now showing her.
One thing that God will work on in your heart is this: your desire to control things and make them work out your way. That’s what your sexual sin was about. Your desire for control is what plunged you into porn or whatever you did to seek emotional or physical intimacy outside of your promise to your wife. Control, to be in charge, to make sure you got what you wanted—and avoid whatever it was that you hated—is what kept your deception going.
Your idolatry to control your life is one giant lie that God cannot satisfy you. Your refusal to seek him led you to seek something else that promised no disappointment, no pain, no struggle, no problems.
But now you need to learn from God that your control was an illusion. You thought being in control would give you what you needed. And now your continued desire for control will also lead you to think that you need to—and can—fix this relationship and get it back on its feet. But that’s not going to work this time.
This time, you are going to have to deeply rely on God to fix this. You can’t fix this on your own. At this point, your promises, your new intentions, your new behavior are going to have to be seen to be believed. Over time. Over a lot of time.
You must now learn not to depend on yourself—your “wisdom,” your schemes, your manipulations. You can’t make this thing work. It’s in the mess that you have made of things that God is trying to make himself real to both you and your wife. It’s in the brokenness that God slowly brings new life.
Don’t push this, don’t rush this, don’t expect things from your wife. Don’t pressure her to heal faster than she can. Love is a long road. It’s worth the trip. She needs to go at her pace, and you will need to learn to love her at that pace.
God is in the business of redeeming lives, but he also insists on doing it his way. You’ve got to learn this yourself. Are you willing to be a disciple, willing to walk with her at his pace? Then realize that his pace for you includes the time your wife needs to heal. When you give her space, you walk at your master’s pace.
14 Jan 2014
The following is an excerpt from Vicki Tiede’s new book, When Your Husband Is Addicted to Pornography: Healing Your Wounded Heart. Published by New Growth Press. Copyright © 2012 by Vicki Tiede. This Harvest USA resource can be used individually, in a one-on-one discipling relationship, or in a small group. You can obtain this resource at our bookstore: www.harvest-usa-store.com
“Trust was definitely lost and took years to rebuild. There have been times of relapse, and those have taught us how to rebuild trust on a continual basis. Initially, I felt like I had lost my husband. I didn’t know who he was anymore. Were the vows we made years before even valid? I had been lied to for so long.”
Be∙tray∙al, noun: the breaking or violation of a presumptive social contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship amongst individuals.
Falling in love is an indescribable feeling. Do you remember when you fell in love with this man you call “husband?” When you stood in front of the minister and made a covenant before God and others to love and honor this man, I’m sure it never occurred to you that giving your heart away to him gave him the ability to break it. While the official definition of betrayal describes the breaking of a contract, trust, or confidence, the practical definition should include the breaking of a heart. When your husband’s addiction to pornography was revealed, you learned firsthand that the betrayal of love and trust doesn’t happen only to other people. It can happen to you. It did happen to you. As you sort through the debris in the aftermath of the discovery you find your heart lying in the rubble with deep, painful wounds. And you maywonder if you’ll ever trust again.
Let’s get one thing clear: Acting on a pornography addiction constitutes a betrayal. If your husband, well-meaning friend, or a misinformed therapist told you otherwise, he or she is wrong. God designed sexual intimacy to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage. As soon as sexual pleasure is sought outside the marriage—whether with a partner or in self-gratification while looking at porn—it is adultery. Such choices will devastate trust and have repercussions in the marriage and in the husband’s relationship with God. Sexual infidelity is a tremendously difficult betrayal from which to recover, but there is hope.
Did you hear that? There is hope. The journey of a broken heart on the road to healing will take time, and broken trust leaves scars. But remember, a broken bone is stronger after it has healed than it was before it was broken. In the same way, in time your heart will heal to be stronger than it would have been if it had never been broken at all, especially if you understand that time will not heal your broken heart, God will. I know you are up for the journey or you wouldn’t still be reading this book. Persevere. In time, you will reach your destination, and God will heal your wounds. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3, ESV).
Lies are the backbone that supports an act of betrayal. You have no doubt heard your share of stories. When you asked, “What were you doing up until 2:00 a.m.?” or “Why did you have the office door locked just now?” your husband wouldn’t look you in the eye. He gave a vague response, and your trust was damaged. (When I confronted my husband about graphic sexual photographs I’d found in his filing cabinet, he claimed he was doing research for a book. My husband had a very respectable career and was not a writer [neither was I at that time in my life], and if he had written a book describing what I saw on those pages, it could have been sold only in an adult bookstore.)
When the full spectrum of the betrayal was revealed, your damaged trust in your husband was exchanged for full-blown devastation, and you were ushered into the present crisis. Let’s consider for a moment what possessed your husband to lie in the first place. I’m going to be honest and give you the bottom line first. Your husband lied because he could and because, for a time, it worked. In addition, he lied because he was self-deceived, he hoped to avoid conflict with you, he feared the consequences of you knowing the truth, and he feared the possibility of not being able to “have it all”—you and the outside sexual opportunities. Ultimately, it backfired. As you know, lies are the tool of the devil because they kill trust.
I wonder if, like me, you find yourself creating new categories of time: before I knew about the addiction, during the unveiling, and after the fact.
I know you did not sign up to travel on this road. It stinks. At times, it may even feel unbearable. I recall many nights of crying until I was physically sick. A broken heart is agony.
You don’t need to spend much time in your Bible to recognize that God knows precisely how it feels to give his heart to someone, only to have her give her heart to someone or something else. God made a sacred covenant (like marriage) to the people of Israel, and throughout the Old Testament we see them reject him again and again. They committed spiritual adultery, and God was hurt, angry, envious, and betrayed. Does any of this sound familiar? Yes, I thought so.
Yet he, being compassionate,
atoned for their iniquity
and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
and did not stir up all his wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a wind that passes and comes not again.
– Psalm 78:38–39
The real showstopper is that very little has changed in the last four thousand years. The Word of God chronicles a wild rescue story. First, there is a need for rescue (Genesis 1—11), next the rescue is proclaimed (Genesis 12—Malachi), at last the Rescuer arrives (the Gospels), and finally the rescue is fulfilled (Acts—Revelation). You would think we would all bask in our glorious freedom from the chains of the enemy, chains from which the Rescuer saved us. You would think—but that’s not the case, is it? Instead, we betray our Rescuer every time we run back to the lies and temporary pleasures with which the enemy tempts us.
Yet despite our repeated betrayals, God stands with his arms outstretched, waiting for us to turn to him so he can forgive us and welcome us back into his arms. God doesn’t differentiate between his prodigals. He longs for all of us. Whether we bear the title “betrayer” or “betrayed,” God is waiting for us to turn to him so he can begin the relationship again. That’s what God does in the face of betrayal. He begins again.
God could choose to grab us under the armpits, pluck us out of our rebellion, and stick us safely back in his arms where we belong. He could, but he wants us to call out and move toward him. He could force the restoration of our relationship, but God allows us to be responsible for our actions. Thus, it is the responsibility of the unfaithful one to own his actions and take the steps to restore trust.
Likewise, you must surrender your attempts to control your husband’s life. Let him be responsible for the choices he makes. It is his responsibility to take the first steps to restore trust in your relationship. He will have to earn your trust by demonstrating trustworthy behavior. This isn’t going to be a ten-minute tidy. His past lies have probably caused you to question the truth about absolutely everything he says or does, so you can expect that the cleanup from those lies and the rebuilding of trust will take time.
Trust is an asset we don’t fully appreciate until we don’t have it in a relationship. Before you were aware of your husband’s addiction, you may not have given trust a second thought. Since the unveiling, however, you conjure up countless possibilities in your mind every time your husband walks out the door, or you walk out the door leaving him alone, or he gets on the computer, or he pauses while flipping channels, or he . . . . You get my drift. It’s torture.
You and your husband will not rebuild healthy trust unless you are both sure you are heard, understood, and loved by the other. It is liberating to know you are known and accepted by your partner. Then and only then can you be who you are—without pretenses. That is what it means to trust.
Trust is when you are secure enough in your relationship that you don’t need to edit everything you say and explain everything you do. You can be yourself without fearing that the relationship will end if the other person sees your flaws. This is your goal.
You will choose to trust your husband when you are ready. Don’t worry— trusting and forgiving are not the same thing. Rebuilding trust will probably take much longer than it will take to forgive. You will know it’s time to trust when your heart helps you choose to believe that he will make the right choices. His behaviors will become your trust barometer. If he wants to demonstrate his trustworthiness and he is making right choices, he will have no problem being accountable and undergoing a reasonable degree of scrutiny. (This does not give you license to be the porn police!) If, however, he insists that you should be able to simply “get over it” and take his word that he’s “done doing that,” and he resists accountability, you should be cautious about trusting. This is a direct indication that he is not serious about healing from his addiction and restoring trust in your marriage.
I can’t promise you that this will be an easy road to travel. Nor can I assure you that if you arrive at your destination and choose to trust, your husband will not fall again. But I can tell you that God will heal your broken heart.
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Look for the signs
In a broken world, we all must face the consequences of sin—our own sin as well as the sin of others. For a woman whose husband is addicted to pornography or sexual sin, this dual battle of facing both her husband’s betrayal and her own struggle to respond appropriately can be excruciating. How can she best love her husband during his gradual, often lengthy, journey of growth, maturity, and change?
And how can she endure if he refuses to work on restoring their marital unity? These are important questions for wives whose husbands struggle with any form of sex addiction.
The shock of discovery and his initial pursuit for help often give way to an unsettling sadness and real confusion about how to move on down the road. Fortunately, some women married to sex addicts eventually find that their husbands’ movement into change and accountability has actually strengthened their marriages. Spouses who choose the path of ongoing honesty and repentance can enjoy the reward of a more satisfying union. However, many wives find themselves facing an ambiguous husband, a husband not committed to working hard on his issues, a husband who promised faithfulness but won’t sever ties with his idolatry of lust. How is such a woman supposed to live as God’s daughter in that kind of circumstance?
There are, of course, no easy answers. Wives of sex addicts are on a path that is both frightening and largely uncharted. But there are signposts that mark this path of marital disappointment, landmarks that identify for travelers that they are on the road that will bring them to their destination. When the way to a destination is new, it is comforting to know what to expect. What signposts can a disappointed wife expect to see along her journey toward renewal in her life and marriage?
Signpost #1: Anger, shock, and numbness
When the issue of sexual unfaithfulness comes out into the light and a wife finally is confronted with the reality of her husband’s struggle, it is common for her to react with shock. There will likely be much anger and crying, which may not be pleasant but is healthy and normal. However, within a few weeks it isn’t uncommon for the wife to then feel numb. The initial adrenaline of discovery and the burst of energy to find help wear off as the realities of daily living settle in.This is a crucial time during which a woman needs support and guidance. Her overwhelming pain will surely tempt her to shut down emotionally or to build walls, protecting herself from more hurt. Under the layer of shock and numbness are her broken dreams about marriage and life. She rightly expected marital faithfulness but found betrayal, and it is enough to stagger even the most pragmatic wife. Having discovered her husband’s addiction to pornography or sexual sin, her life has been profoundly altered. Certainly no wife is foolish enough to think she has married a perfect man. But living with a husband who has deeply failed her at the core of their intimate relationship plunges a woman into huge ambivalence. She longs for the intimacy of marriage, but how can she go on giving her heart to her wayward husband? This part of her journey is neither pretty nor simple, but it is, in fact, God’s invitation to the redemptive process of grief.
Signpost #2: Good grief—mourning the loss
Grieving is not a popular experience, but it is absolutely necessary for the restoration of a marriage in which a spouse has crossed moral boundaries. Grief is a deep, emotional reaction to a loss. Our culture legitimizes mourning the death of a person who is important to us. Less supported, however, is grief when something less tangible “dies.” Moreover, the shame attached to sexual sin and the fear of exposure to others (especially in the church) makes this experience of loss even more isolating.
Scripture, of course, is not silent about grief. In fact, mourning is often spoken of as a normal part of living in a fallen world. Did not Jesus say in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (ESV)? Comfort comes to those who mourn, and Jesus was speaking to a very large audience when he said those words. The psalmist reinforces this concept by reminding us, “The Lord is near the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God seems to expect that our hearts will be broken relationally, and when we experience this, he intends that we bring our crushed and broken hearts to him for his comfort. Nor does God expect our expressions of sorrow to look pretty or to be worded in calm and logical prose. David’s psalms were anything but serene. He often began by complaining or beseeching God to pay attention to his circumstances and to punish those who were harming him. Of course he usually made a shift from distress to worship and from anger to gratitude for God’s love. But never does he pretend that life is not difficult.
Many other men and women in Scripture struggled with painful relationships and disappointing events, and they did not hesitate to bring their grieving hearts to God in earnest prayer, telling their Creator how they felt. Consider Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11, Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1, or Job’s many lamentations, especially in Job 23. Even Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” as he faced his imminent death (Hebrews 5:7). God’s people do not run from grief. Rather, they boldly enter it, for there they find the waiting arms of their heavenly Father.
Our culture, unfortunately, seldom teaches us how to handle our emotions when our world is shaken. People today don’t often share the Scriptural perspective that sin has altered the experience of life and all of creation groans in waiting for the finality of redemption. But we can take God’s word for it: It is normal to groan about damage to one’s heart and marriage. Naturally we want to know how long this grieving stage will last, but there is no perfect timetable. Grief must run its course. We will know when our grief has crossed the line from healthy mourning to entrenched self-pity. God will surely show us (even while we’re still grieving) how to move toward loving others who have hurt us. And be prepared: God always starts with the person whose attention he has at the moment—which may be the offended one, not the offender.
One winter’s day while journaling about my own heartache at having been disappointed by someone I trusted, I (Penny) felt entitled to list for God all the reasons I should never trust my heart to anyone again. Tired of being hurt, I was on a roll. My litany of mistreatment went back to childhood, including such sorrows as sexual abuse, being stood up for two proms in a row, and several experiences of being betrayed by close friends. I ended up feeling justified for never letting my heart be mishandled again. “It just isn’t safe!” I self-righteously concluded. Quietly I waited in the sun-drenched warmth of my room, confident that God would comfort me by affirming my self-protection. Instead he gently guided me to this question: “And just whose definition of ‘safe’ shall we use—yours or mine?”
I was caught; the sin of my own heart exposed. My view of safety had been entirely self-focused: I wanted to never be hurt again. Furthermore, my commitment to safety meant I would never love deeply again, and thus I would cease to reflect the Father I was called to imitate. My own self-consumed heart was juxtaposed to my Father’s long-suffering heart, he who had not spared his own Son to insure my eternal safety. In repentance I saw once again God’s commitment to love the unlovely, which of course included me. How could I not show to others the same love I had myself received? Grief does not nullify our obligation to love others. Rather it reinforces it.
Signpost #3: Accepting the risk of loving the unlovely
Any woman married to a sex addict wonders how to move from the anguish of betrayal to the risk of trusting her husband again, knowing she is likely to be re-disappointed because sensual gratification is such an easy-to-obtain commodity. If she understands that her husband’s sin is to seek refuge from stress and to sexualize his disappointment with life, she knows there will probably be further failures. But a wise woman becomes a helpmate ever better suited to her husband if she will remember that she no less than he is tempted to handle the pain of life in sinful ways.
The ground is always level at the foot of the cross, each of us carrying our dignity and depravity in ways unique to our own particular history and temperament. And because of the hope of the gospel, a marriage can be rebuilt when both husband and wife enter together the humility of being sinners who need grace. The process may be long and painful, but the rewards are sweet. One major part of loving the unlovely, therefore, is the risk of offering forgiveness, which essentially means not “holding on to wrongs suffered,” as described in 1 Corinthians 13:5. My pastor says it like this: “Forgiveness means taking the snapshot you have of this person (a snapshot that may have been at one time accurate) and shredding it.” How can a wife begin to shred this picture of her husband as infidel? This is the work of warfare praying.
Signpost #4: Prayer warfare
A wife begins to risk her heart as she prays for God to change her so she can love her spouse as God himself loves him. Inviting God to show her his view of her husband will allow her to see him not only as a sinner, but also as a man designed to reflect God’s purpose in a dark world. How would her husband be if he no longer were in bondage to sexual sin? What kind of man would he be if he understood the depth of God’s love? What would it look like if he became the protector to her that he was designed to be? How might their marriage change if his heart was captivated by the beauty of God ‘s gift of sexual unity in marriage and he cherished his wife as he found himself cherished by his Holy Suitor?
Seeing her husband from God’s perspective can rejuvenate a wife’s respect and passion for him. As a woman reflects on how her husband is caught in the foolish web of illicit sexual gratification, she can begin to pray for his soul in ways that honor him as the image bearer he is called to be. In prayer she can re-commit herself to her marriage, longing for her husband’s restoration and allowing God to bring his grace to her so she can in turn offer it to her fallen husband. Such a wife cannot stay hard or bitter. When she aligns herself with God’s purposes, offering her heart to God to soften and fill, she will be able to love well the man who has caused her much sorrow. What a reflection this is of God’s own love, which ever extends toward those who have caused him sorrow.
Signpost #5: Facing an ambiguous outcome
There are times, however, when in spite of a wife’s perseverance in warfare praying, her husband remains in bondage to sexual sin. Despite her seasoned prayer on his behalf he refuses to become the man God and she are inviting him to be. What can a wife do in the face of his hard-heartedness? Such was the plight of Abigail, as described in 1 Samuel 25.
She was married to a foolish and rude man, Nabal, and though we know little about her, surely her life with a boorish man occasioned many moments of intense prayer between her and God. And out of the wisdom and faith nurtured in Abigail’s walk with God, she took an amazing risk, jeopardizing her life to save her household and to protect David’s reputation as God’s man. This she did by literally standing in David’s way as he marched to take revenge on Nabal for disrespecting him. Abigail’s intervention not only saved the lives of many, but it also changed the course of David’s personal history. Then, when Abigail went home to her drunken husband, she shrewdly timed her intervention of truth telling for when he was sober, at which time Nabal appears to have had a stroke. Scripture then says, “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died” (v. 38, emphasis mine).
For ten days, God let Abigail live in a situation that had gone from bad to worse with no guarantee of a positive outcome. If I had been Abigail, I would have been furious. “Oh, great! This is how I’m rewarded for following you? Now I have to take care of an abusive stroke victim?!” How could Abigail have gone on? I am convinced it was only because of her connection with God. Only by his grace could she have lived without allowing her circumstances to harden her heart toward God. For wives whose husbands are in bondage to pornography or other sexual sin, it will take much prayer and shrewdness—which only come from hours spent in prayer, asking the hard questions about what the next step should be. It also will involve at times a willingness to fight with her husband as well as for her husband’s soul.
Signpost #6: Productive fighting—hard consequences for hard hearts
How can a wife engage in productive fighting on behalf of her marriage? For one thing, she must choose her battles carefully, discerning which issues are worth being addressed and which must be overlooked. Nor should she struggle by herself. She may need a mentor to come alongside her, helping her to see her situation with “new eyes.” Also, if her husband is a believer, she may be able to bring her situation to the attention of the elders of their church. The discipline outlined in Scripture is designed to reach a soul dulled by sin to matters of conscience. Moreover, the hardest consequence a wife may face because of her husband’s continued disobedience could include divorce, and she will need the support of good men from her church to pursue this difficult step if it becomes necessary.
In the meantime, keeping a soft heart but a hard line is a difficult balancing act. A godly wife’s tone and mood should be firm, winsome, and brave. She must require what God requires of her husband: faithfulness and holiness. A wife can say hard things to her husband if her words communicate her sorrow if he persists in sin. For example, in order to protect her health, she may need to require that her husband be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before she can receive him again sexually. She might say something like, “It grieves me to enforce this, but it is necessary for our future relationship. I will be deeply sorry if you refuse, but I will also celebrate your repentance as I see the steps you make toward restoration in our marriage.” A hard line need not be drawn with a hard fist. Being available to fight with her husband for her marriage will require much strength.
A wife focused on challenging her husband in these ways will need support. Talking with a counselor, being involved in a support group and coming to her pastor with her concerns will be an important practice to keep her from feeling isolated. She also needs a wise ear to help her discern her own motives as she plans how to respond to her spouse.This work will be exhausting.
To love another this well will cost her dearly. She must compensate for the sorrow she embraces by seeking rest in her Heavenly Father, who promises his presence to “those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Allowing mature friends to walk along side her as she does this work will also provide her with strength and refreshment.
These then are six signposts along a wife’s path toward wholeness when her husband’s sex addiction has been exposed. Recognizing the signposts is not always simple, nor is the journey linear or clean. But it is a journey of hope for any woman who will allow her heart to be broken by the effects of her husband’s sin, and yet be softened toward God and toward her husband. Only as she commits herself to spend time with her heavenly Father can she love from a heart that longs to see her husband restored and conformed to the image God has for all his men. On such a journey, no woman is ever alone, for Christ himself will companion with her and bring her finally Home.
14 Jan 2014
When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. Often no one comes alongside to help them process their pain. David White shares ways the church family can approach and help someone in this situation.
One Sunday all was fine. The next Sunday the pastor suddenly resigned with no explanation. The following Sunday both the pastor and the church organist were gone, and the pastor’s wife sat alone in the second pew. There she sat for months listening to the sermons of fill-in preachers, and then her attendance became sporadic and finally she too was gone. Years later one of the members of the congregation was shocked to look through a denominational directory and see a picture of the former pastor and his new “wife”—the church organist. He and she made a life for themselves, but what happened to the first wife? No one seemed to know what happened to the first wife—her pain had been great and she had kept up a strong, silent front for several months before disappearing. Did anyone in the church help her process her pain? Did anyone help her financially? The answers to those questions go unknown, but it is probably safe to assume that she lived under a veil of secrecy and endured crushing pain.
Understanding the pain
The opening illustration is a true story related by one of the Harvest USA staff. He grew up in the church and saw all this happen, but as a teen did not process it until years later. What could have been done? This article focuses on ministering to spouses whose marriage is impacted by sexual sin. The spouse is grievously impacted, as sexual sin is a desecration of the marriage covenant and strikes at the vitals of marital intimacy.
First, it must be stressed that “spouse” does not mean wife! The church is reluctant to face the reality of sexual sin in her midst and, even when willing, often sees sexual sin as a man’s problem. This could not be further from the truth! A recent statistic suggested that 34% of church-going women have intentionally visited porn websites. Currently, women age 35 and under have the same rate of infidelity in marriage as their male peers. This represents a significant and historic moral shift as men—even cross-culturally—have always had higher rates of infidelity than women. Sadly, the sexual revolution has finally balanced the inconsistencies existing between the outward depravity of the sexes. The church must be intentional about addressing this reality because the default response for couples whose marriages are scarred by sexual sin is silence—this is particularly the case when the wife is the offending party.
When sexual sin within marriage is exposed in the local church, often the spouse is lost in the shuffle. This is a grave oversight in light of the pain he or she is bearing. The spouse has thought he or she was going crazy—sometimes for years. The struggler is committed to keeping the sin hidden and making every excuse for erratic behavior, peevish silence, absent finances, etc. The spouse’s questions are casually dismissed, scorned as paranoia, met with rage, or flatly ignored. The spouse is entirely responsible for keeping the relationship together. Marriages impacted by sexual sin enter into a ‘dance’ —certain topics are off limits, behaviors and responses that would be challenged in a healthy marriage are accepted.
Couples learn to make life “work” around the sin. The spouse learns how to “manage” the struggler, careful not to step on toes and striving to keep the struggler happy. In many relationships this means satisfying the unholy desire for sex on demand—a radical twisting of God’s design of selfless service—and any number of other stipulations, from the mundane to the horrific. Spouses, terrified of losing the relationship, are willing to submit. The spouse is forced to compensate within the family for the struggler’s sin, bearing alone many responsibilities in parenting and household management that should be shared in marriage. Worse, the spouse is blamed for all the problems in the relationship. The struggler argues that the lack of intimacy is the spouse’s fault. All along the spouse knows that something is desperately wrong with the marriage, but the struggler maintains that everything is fine.
In short, the struggler holds all the “power” in the relationship because his or her behavior, mood, etc., sets the tone for the marriage. Conversely, the spouse is left with all the “responsibility” in the relationship; he or she must strive to satisfy the struggler and keep him or her in the home. Neither the spouse nor the struggler is innocent in this dynamic. There is willfulness and fear on both sides that must be wisely addressed.
The challenges of rebuilding the marriage grow in proportion to the duration of the sin. Trust is obliterated. Messages have been sent that the problem would not exist if only the spouse were prettier, in better shape, more exciting, more emotionally engaged, more masculine, more successful, etc. Every spouse dealing with sexual sin in their marriage believes it is his or her fault on some level. The struggler fuels the spouse’s insecurity with sinful accusations and cruel criticism. In one particularly painful situation, a wife shared how her husband referred to her as “plain vanilla.” She obviously needed comfort! Spouses are as desperately in need of the Gospel as the struggler.
Facing the pain to remain
The first decision facing the spouse is the future of the relationship. In the first part of Living in the Light, we discussed the importance of full disclosure within marriage, and another word should be added: The full revelation should be made as quickly as possible. The spouse is not in a position to commit to the marriage until he or she has a complete understanding of the nature of the offenses. Further, once the spouse has committed and begins to work on rebuilding, new revelations of past offenses severely undermine reconciliation. Each new disclosure essentially sends the couple back to the beginning of the process when trust is again obliterated, doubt and fear creep back. “Is this really the end, or am I going to learn something new next week? Is there no end to the deceit?” Dragging out the revelations is essentially a decision to postpone the rebuilding process.
A word of caution: Be wary of the “quick divorce” response. Sexual sin is the ultimate “get out of a bad marriage free” card. Obviously, sexual sin is deeply damaging to marital intimacy as it erodes trust and destroys the ability to be vulnerable and draw near to another. Therefore, the spouse has been living in a bad, possibly miserable, marriage, sometimes for decades. The Bible clearly offers divorce as an option in the face of sexual infidelity, but careful counsel is required. God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet the divorce rate among professing evangelicals is actually slightly higher than the general population! By rigidly interpreting Matthew 5:28 that a lustful look is tantamount to adultery, many spouses view pornography use as the “out” they have been waiting for. There are times when repeated, unrepentant use of pornography can clearly be grounds for having abandoned Christ and the marital covenant (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16). However, even in the face of blatant adultery, our desire should be for healing and reconciliation, seeking divorce only after prolonged separation in which it is clear that the struggler is committed to pursuing sin, not Jesus.
Further, a “quick divorce” decision, without taking time to process the disclosure and the ramifications of divorce often leads to regret. Once the court date has passed, the “what if” questions begin. This is true regardless of the time invested in the decision, but careful deliberation, bathed in prayer and the counsel of others, will provide peace, whereas a “knee jerk” decision may bear fruit of regret for a lifetime.
Entering into the pain
So what does it look like to offer practical ministry to the spouse?
First, spouses need to be assured that they are not crazy! Given the dynamic described above, the worst thing you can do is begin by questioning the spouse’s experience in the marriage. It is crucial to listen carefully to their description of what is happening in the home and affirm that you will be with them through this process. Many spouses do not receive the support they need because church leadership is convinced that the situation is not as bad as they think.
Church leaders need to be especially wary with couples for whom they have a natural affinity. A pastor may be more prone to disbelieve the wife of his church golf buddy than he would a member with whom the relationship is more distant. Assume that the person in the “one-flesh” relationship has some idea about what is going on in the marriage! It is better to err in the direction of supporting the spouse and defending him or her. Spouses desperately need to be heard and have their concerns taken seriously. Remember, the struggler is typically committed to deceit. Do not be surprised if you are pitted between a spouse pleading for you to believe there is a problem, while the struggler insists that the spouse is crazy or inflating the situation. Believe the spouse and hear the serpent’s hiss in the struggler’s casual dismissal!
Second, you need to enter into the spouse’s pain and experience. The disclosure of adultery, in particular, is brutal. In fact, when sexual sin is disclosed, spouses often begin to exhibit symptoms similar to people experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder! The spouse is confronted with the stark reality that his or her perception of the marriage was an illusion. In light of the revelation, life as he or she has known it ceases to exist. The spouse grieves as if experiencing the death of a loved one. The spouse’s sense of identity is deeply shaken. Those ministering to spouses must be compassionate experts in listening and encouraging. They must be ready to deal with the whole mess of emotions that accompany the disclosure of sexual sin in marriage. Emotions swing dramatically. Decisions about the future dart between polar extremes, sometimes within minutes of each other!
The spouse’s faith is often shaken to the core. “Where was God when all this was happening? How can he really be good when the world is so broken?” Ministry people must be ready to handle these tough questions without dismissing them, condemning the wrestling, or compromising the truth.
The Psalms are crammed with similar, gut-level wrestling and provide a treasure trove of hope and peace for people who live in the realness of this fallen world, but cling to the great and precious promises of God. From Genesis to Revelation, the Biblical narrative makes manifest that God orchestrates all of human history to his glory. Mind-bogglingly, this includes even sin. Behind the boasting of Joseph, subsequent betrayal by his brothers, and the injustice with Potiphar’s wife, God’s guiding hand was preserving his seed (Genesis 50:20). Out of David’s lust, adultery, and murder, the promised Deliverer descended through Solomon. Christ’s great work of atonement is the result of human rebellion and yet orchestrated by the Father. Peter makes this explicit at Pentecost, saying, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).
The spouse’s pain is real. The wrestling must be allowed, but through it all, we must gently and compassionately point to the Bridegroom whose name is “Faithful and True.” He is even now ruling over the universe for his church (Ephesians 1:22). In his economy, no pain will be wasted. Scripture repeatedly promises that even the trials of this life will result in blessing, but before speaking, you must weep with those who weep!
If your default mode is to immediately proclaim these great theological truths, you will run roughshod over the hurting spouse. Job’s friends are a great example of the danger of spouting off truisms in the face of tragedy. At the end of the story, God’s anger burns against them and sacrifice is necessary (Job 42:7-9). Yet, despite their failures, even they had the compassion to sit with him in the dust for seven days weeping and wailing before they addressed any of the issues in his life (Job 2:11-13). You dare not speak until spouses know that you love them, grieve with them and are prepared to walk through this trial at their side.
Redeeming the pain
After you have listened well and entered into the mess with the couple, it is necessary to begin taking action steps. If the spouse has decided to stay in the marriage, structures must be in place to protect the spouse and help bear his or her burden. Part 1 of this article discussed accountability from the vantage point of ministering to the struggler, but accountability is also necessary for the good of the spouse. Accountability both safeguards the struggler’s behavior, but it also provides the spouse with a safe environment. As described above, the spouse has been suffering alone and “in the dark” for years. Spouses desperately need brothers and sisters from the body of Christ to come alongside and support them.
The spouse should never be the struggler’s primary accountability person. It is hard to imagine a more unbiblical model of marriage than “cop and robber.” A crucial aspect of accountability is that the spouse has the assurance of knowing others are asking the struggler all the hard questions. The accountability plan must include that if any sin is exposed, the spouse will be made aware within 24 hours. This takes pressure off the spouse and the marriage as a whole and begins to balance responsibility and power in the relationship. The couple is able to invest their time together focusing on rebuilding intimacy, rather than reenacting the Inquisition. Further, because a key component of accountability is creating safety for the spouse, he or she needs to have a role in crafting the specific questions that will be asked of the struggler. The spouse must approve the individuals who will be involved in the accountability.
Harvest USA recommends developing an official “accountability agreement” that details specific questions, the participating individuals, the number of contacts the struggler is expected to make each week, the steps to spousal disclosure if the struggler falls, and the responsibility of the struggler to call a meeting of all involved if the plan is not working. The agreement is then signed by all parties. The formality of the agreement underscores the importance of this support and makes the expectations and responsibilities clear to everyone involved.
Formal accountability is only one aspect of the role of the body of Christ in rebuilding a marriage. The couple needs godly brothers and sisters who will be involved in their daily lives. Although couples may appear highly competent from outside observation—successful careers, active in church, etc.—know that sexual sin does not occur in a marriage that is otherwise healthy. It is indicative of deeper, systemic problems that need to be addressed.
Most marriages plagued with sexual sin resembles a business partnership at best—often it looks more like a war zone. It is crucial for godly, mature couples to come alongside in order for the marriage to be rebuilt in a way that will honor Christ. Couples need to learn how to communicate effectively, fight fairly, risk vulnerability, and develop intimacy. The struggler has lived for years satisfying selfish desires—breaking this pattern and learning to consider others is a process that takes great intentionality and increasing dependence on Christ. It is crucial to spend time with the couple together, observing their interactions, attitudes, and family dynamics. No marriage can be transformed without the involvement of the body. This is God’s design for the sanctification of his people. The community of faith is essential for growth in holiness.
Because recovery from sexual sin is an extremely draining and time consuming process, it is wise for the spouse to have a Christian counselor. A counselor will provide the spouse with regularly interaction, helping to process the intensity of his or her emotions without “using up” friends and family who are in the midst of their own struggle to sort out the situation. Further, a counselor is able to be more objective than loved ones who are closer to the pain and may struggle to lead the spouse in wise and godly decision-making.
Finally, the spouse needs to be challenged about who he or she is going to be in the situation. As discussed above, the spouse must be urged to see God’s hand in his or her life and be challenged to make decisions for holiness. This is crucial because, as Paul Tripp has articulated well, “Sinners tend to sin when sinned against!” This is probably true in marriage more than any other relationship. Given the grievousness of the offense, spouses will be angry and struggle to get beyond it, even if the struggler’s repentance is deeply genuine. The spouse must be given time but continually challenged with the exhortation, “Be angry and do not sin,” (Ephesians 4:26).
Spouses need to be encouraged to express the depth of their pain without fearing the struggler’s response—this is an important step in giving “power” back to the spouse—but they need to find holy ways to communicate what they are experiencing. Further, although the call to forgive is certainly not the first topic of conversation, it does need to enter the discourse in time. This is for the spouse’s benefit as much as the struggler. As Anne Lamott poignantly stated, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison, and then waiting for the rat to die!” When there is clear evidence of the struggler’s repentance, demonstrated by concrete steps of obedience away from sin and toward holiness for an extended period of time, the spouse will begin to undermine the healing process if he or she refuses to forgive, constantly holding the struggler’s sin over his or her head. Even in situations where the struggler is unrepentant, the spouse needs to relinquish the demand for justice, being like Jesus, who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). The spouse needs to be careful that “no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
Not alone in the pain
The great hope of the Christian faith is “God with us.” By his Spirit, Jesus is united to his people, promising that through his power we will bear fruit (John 15:1-11). Jesus warned of the hard reality of this fallen world saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Spouses need the encouragement that God has purposes in their suffering. He identifies with their pain as he deals with his own adulterous Bride. Through this trial, the spouse is entering into the sufferings of Christ in a unique way and has the opportunity to encounter him and the power of his grace afresh. May God give us the grace to serve with compassion, tangibly demonstrating love as members of his body and faithfully pointing to the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God” (Colossians 2:19).
This article originally appeared as “Living in The Light: Part 2 — Redemptive Ministry to Spouses” in the Harvest NEWS in 2006.
14 Jan 2014
The discovery of sexual sin in a marriage is usually a devastating experience for the faithful spouse. In an instant, everything is forever changed by the disclosure. The marriage you thought you had does not exist. Maybe it never did. Your whole world is turned upside down.
You might not be able to think straight, sleep, or eat. Your emotions may feel out of control. All these are typical responses you might have to the relational betrayal of sexual infidelity.
Sexual infidelity is clearly contrary to biblical teaching (Matthew 5:27 –28). As the reality of sexual betrayal sets in, the first question that you may begin to ask yourself is, “What do I do now? Do I stay in this marriage or do I leave?” This is never an easy question to ask or answer. Leaving a marriage is clearly an option in the aftermath of sexual sin (Matthew 5:31-32). However, there is no biblical mandate that requires leaving the marriage after sexual sin.
As difficult as it may sound, waiting a while before making this important decision is often the best option. The betrayal of infidelity triggers a trauma-like response that can last from six to eight weeks. During this period of time, it is often difficult to think clearly, making it unwise to make important life decisions. Only after the initial trauma response has subsided can difficult decisions be addressed. Inviting wise counsel and resources to join you in the process of making those decisions may be profitable to you and your marriage. This is not a decision that should be made alone or impulsively.
So how do you decide whether to stay or go? Wrestling with this issue after sexual betrayal is normal. It is natural to look for ways to eliminate and reduce pain. If your goal is to feel better or lessen your pain, leaving might do that, but it probably will not bring you the relief that you desire. Unfortunately, broken hearts are painful, whether you remain in the relationship or not. Leaving the marriage will cause separation, but not necessarily pain relief.
Remember that while the marital covenant between you and your spouse has been breached, the relational covenant between you and God is still intact. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are called to fulfill the commandment to love God and others well (Matthew 22:37-39). As difficult and insurmountable as the issues in your life seem, God can make a way through the current difficulties for you and your spouse, if you choose to pursue that path. Your goal then should always be to do what loves your spouse and points him or her towards God. Whether you choose to stay or not, you need to first answer the question, “What loves my spouse best by pointing him or her to God?”
There are three issues that might be helpful to think through as you wrestle with your decision: safety, repentance, and reconciliation.
If it is unsafe for you or your children to live in the same house with your spouse, then separation is recommended. Safety is not simply related to dealing with a violent or threatening spouse. Safety issues include how the spouse is responding to concerns about medical testing. If physical sexual contact has been made with someone else or is suspected, issues like testing for STD’s and HIV need to be addressed immediately, regardless of any decisions about the future of the relationship.
A marriage that feels unsafe to a betrayed spouse can be made safer by the assurance that comes from knowing that the sin is being addressed through appropriate accountability, church discipline, and counseling. No one can promise that the infidelity will never happen again, but strong stop-gap measures can be put in place as some insurance that it will not. Sufficient attention to stop-gap measures that address the sinful behaviors and relational patterns that accompanied them can make a distressed marriage feel safer. Restoring trust in your spouse is going to take a long time, but you can feel a certain level of safety when such measures are invested in for positive changes in your marriage.
Repentance is turning away from sin and towards holiness. Nothing can give you more hope than watching your spouse actively pursue repentance by deepening his or her personal relationship with Christ. Failure to see this, on the other hand, may be a sign that repentance is not really taking place. Sometimes when there is a long history of the sexual sin, what loves a spouse best and points him or her towards God is the exact opposite of what has been tried in the past. Old sin patterns often need new interventions, and sometimes this might include separation or divorce.
Reconciliation requires a decision from both you and your spouse to re-enter the marital relationship. Reconciliation is an emotional process that will include many difficult ups and downs. God will invite each of you to reconciliation with him and then with one another. Invariably, the marriage at the end of this process will be stronger than the marriage was when it entered the process. In the midst of this, there will probably be times that you will question your decision to stay all over again. If there is a focus on reconciliation by both partners, then there can be perseverance through the hard times.
Finally, there is nothing more that you can do than attempt to fulfill the law of love that Jesus has given to each of us. Whatever your decision, to stay or to go, you will have loved well if your goal is to bless your spouse by pointing her or him to God.