Surviving an affair and recovering from infidelity is a very unique struggle. Those who have been through this traumatic event will tell you there is really nothing quite like it. One of my callings as a counselor is to help people on all sides as they work through both the causes and the effects after the affair — the pain, separation, confusion, grief, and conflict that can result.
Throughout our sessions together, I will emphasize the importance of building trust. This is because trust is widely considered to be one of the most important foundations of a “healthy relationship” — so much so that without trust, there can hardly be any kind of relationship at all apart from an adversarial one.
Infidelity Damages Trust
First let’s talk about trust. Trust is like a glass sculpture. It takes time and careful skill to make. It can also be smashed into hundreds of pieces with the momentary strike of a hammer. It can be rebuilt, but it takes time. The shards of broken trust can easily cut and cause bleeding. Broken trust hurts, and it is nasty stuff to wade through without guidance.
It is difficult to rebuild trust, especially in the aftermath of infidelity. It is possible, but often without skilled guidance of a counselor, those “quicksand moments” when everything starts sinking the moment one partner starts talking, will continue to happen. It can feel like the same old painful argument goes nowhere, over and over again.
Right intent is also crucial to rebuilding trust after the affair. Which raises a question: What is the “right intent?” There is a massive range of qualifiers over this, centering on the question, “Why do you want to leave?” Arguments exist on many sides, but most Christian therapists agree: one should begin by trying to repair the relationship that broke.
But that’s hard when “cheating” has occurred. The word itself implies that someone isn’t playing by the rules — that loyalty has been violated and trust has been broken. Depending on who you talk to, trust, once broken, is irreparable. Others will say that you should always stick in a marriage, no matter what the other person has done.
How is it possible to rebuild trust when your spouse has just done the one thing your spouse said they would never do?
Should You Leave Your Partner After the Affair?
This question surfaces often. The unthinkable has happened, and your spouse has cheated on you. “Should I leave?” is a reasonable and all-too-common question that surfaces in these difficult moments. “Difficult” is an understatement, right? These moments can feel like a living hell.
From the Christian perspective, there is the question of biblical mandate. From the point of view of many theologians and biblical scholars, once sexual immorality has taken place, the wronged spouse is permitted to (but not required to) divorce his or her spouse, according to Matthew 19:8-9:
Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
All People Fall Short
When Mark* (*not his real name) went through his divorce, lots of questions came to his mind, and not all at once. Mark’s mind was swimming with rage and hurt over his wife Mary’s several affairs. The moment he found out, Mark told Mary to get out. He sat in the dark on his couch and cried for days. It took time, but he got through it with the help of friends, his pastor, and occasional counseling.
Throughout their marriage, Mark had grown increasingly emotionally distant, concentrating on earning his degree and studying enough to successfully defend his Thesis. Mark and Mary would often get together with friends, but rarely did they make time for dates or just concentrated one-on-one time.
Their arguments grew worse because neither of them sought help with their relationship when things got hard. Contempt grew over time. Sex between Mary and Mark became less and less frequent. Mark increasingly used pornography to fulfill himself sexually.
Mary’s first affair rocked Mark to the core, but they reconciled and he stayed. When the second affair occurred a few years later, Mark vowed to Mary, “If you ever do it again, I am done.” Toward the end of their marriage, Mark had thought about having an affair of his own just to get even with Mary, or maybe to just heal the pain of his loneliness. Maybe both.
Emotionally, they were both scraping bottom. Mary was involved with a friend from work. Mark had several strong emotionally-attached “friendships” with other women at school. And then the third affair happened. Mark asked Mary to leave.
It would be more than 18 months later before Mark first started thinking about what he had done to contribute to his wife’s affairs. Mark did not cause Mary’s affair. Mark and Mary made their own choices. Mary chose the affair, just as Mark chose to be inappropriately emotionally attached to other women with whom he attended classes.
But perhaps Mark contributed to the conditions which made an affair more likely? What would have happened if Mark took the opportunity after the first affair to dig deep — to discover the root of his separation from Mary?
Should You Get a Divorce?
You can see how complicated and murky this debate can get. Doesn’t the Bible say “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?” Yes. So which partner is the wronging partner? In the case of actions allowing divorce from a biblical perspective, it is sex outside of marriage. But what about emotional affairs? This (and many other questions) need to be addressed in another article.
As a practitioner, I follow more of a “case-by-case basis” approach when it comes to answering the question, “Should we try to rebuild trust after the affair?”
This same approach is used by a Christian reconciler with 25 years of experience. In answer to the question, “Should a couple stay together if they have biblical grounds for divorce?” he believes, “It depends.” This practitioner explained that it is impossible to lump all cases together. Some people stay together. Some people do not. Some of them probably needed to try harder. Some of them could have and maybe even should have walked away much sooner.
So what should you do? Well . . . what do you want to do? A question that may help guide you comes in at least two parts: 1) Do you want to heal? 2) Do you want to heal your relationship? If the answer is no, perhaps begin with the help of a skilled pastor, coach, or therapist to ponder this additional question: “Why don’t you want to make an effort to heal this relationship?” The answers can sometimes be stunning.
There is always more we could have done or can do to work on and possibly save your marriage. That is what “falling short” means. But whether you should leave your spouse or not is not simple to decide.
Infidelity Can Be a Trauma
I say infidelity “can” be a trauma, because whether or not it is a trauma depends in large part on the resilience of the person affected.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from hardship. Take several people all in the exact same situation. Some will bounce back quickly, some slowly, some not at all. Some will be floored for weeks. Some will bounce back so quickly we wonder what is wrong with them, or if they were affected by the affair at all.
Regardless, it is important to remember that everyone will respond differently after the affair, largely depending on level of resilience. Resilience is determined by a number of factors, especially one’s story. Research shows that the more adverse childhood experiences one undergoes especially early on, the more future traumas will impact the affected spouse’s ability to cope in a negative way, and usually for the worse.
It is important to remember as well that there are many affected parties when an affair has taken place, not just the cheated-on spouse. Even the one who committed the affair has new, probably unanticipated, stressors to deal with now.
There is a very real “ripple effect” that occurs when an affair takes place: In my experience as a practitioner, I have learned that if the married couple has children, they are affected whether they know about the affair or not.
Affairs have a way of both internally and externally dividing the cheating spouse from one’s family, not just their spouse. A divided heart is a peculiar kind of thing. Staying emotionally present is demanding enough in competition with nothing more than Netflix and mobile phones. Add in trying to manage a connection with someone outside of the marriage and family, and you can imagine how difficult and emotionally awkward things can get.
Kids feel these dynamics. Co-workers do, too. If the cheating (or cheated-upon) spouse is in some kind of leadership role, e.g. the ministry, a coaching position, or a team leader at work, how can the people around him or her not somehow feel the impact?
Recovering After the Affair
Start by Grieving
If anything, remember this phrase: “It’s a lot.” Seriously! An affair, once again, can be a trauma. A large, significant, wounding trauma.
The first step in recovery from the impact of an affair is to recognize that this is a big blow. Often in my work, I’ve found that my job is to show my client that what they’ve been through is much bigger than they realize. I’ve sat with clients who have recounted very, very painful emotional wounds with a calm voice and a flat presentation, as if reading a report to their co-workers over a coffee at the office. Sometimes I have to pause when they’ve finished talking and just sit there. Then I say something like, “That’s a lot. You know that, right?”
Sometimes we just don’t know how much we’ve been wounded.
Grieving has often in the past been portrayed as sitting in the dark and crying, or feeling sorry for oneself. Fortunately these days I think the tide is turning for the better, and we recognize now more than before that grief is a form of healing. I will go so far as to say it is how we heal.
When we grieve an affair, we recognize it as a thing that should not be or have been. We long for what could have been, knowing that now it will not be, not with this person. Things will never be the same. As I said above, this is not necessarily the end of the relationship. But it sure can feel like it. And it is, at the very least, the end of the relationship as it once was. This is sad. It should be grieved.
From a biblical perspective, we were made for more. We can picture the first relationship as one of openness and intimacy, of being “naked and unashamed.” When the Fall comes, shame comes with it. The first couple hides from the Lord, and the husband accuses the woman. Things are not the same, and the beautiful intimacy once experienced and so shortly enjoyed is lost, only to be regained in Jesus’ finished work: His life, His punishment on the cross, His death and resurrection.
What are the Next Steps?
We’ve already established how grieving is a form of healing. But what if you’ve been trying to heal and just don’t seem to be getting anywhere?
Maybe you have resolved to work things out, but you just can’t bring yourself to be intimate, and enough time has passed where you both think enough is enough.
Whatever your struggle, you don’t have to struggle alone. I’ve found over the thousands of hours I have spent working with struggling and hurting individuals, couples, and families that we hardly ever see everything on our own. We get stuck. One person triggering another and back again. A seemingly endless struggle.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I have often been asked a particular question by people on either side after the affair: Have you ever seen a couple like us turn around? I wish I had more time to tell you how much I’ve experienced the light of Jesus’ love blasting into the darkness. I wish I could tell you how many times I have seen a seemingly dead marriage spring back to life like Lazarus from the tomb.
Is there hope? Yes. Reach out if there’s anything I (or anyone else here at Seattle Christian Counseling) can do for you.
“Unknown,” courtesy of Christopher Lemercier, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Burn,” courtesy of Benjamin DeYoung, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Crossroads,” courtesy of Vladislav Babienko, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sunset,” courtesy of Terry Tan De Hao, unsplash.com, CC0 License