Do I Stay or Do I Leave?
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.