I've just discovered that my spouse has been cheating on me. As you can imagine, I was devastated when I first learned of his infidelity, and I still haven't recovered from the shock. I have not confronted him yet and have no idea what I'm going to do. Can you give me some direction?
It takes courage to reach out for help at a time like this. We know how devastating it can be to learn that a spouse has been unfaithful, and we can imagine that you're experiencing a wide range of painful emotions right now. In a situation like this, when emotions are running high and feelings of anger, jealousy, fear, frustration, and shame are clouding your rational faculties, it's crucial to get a grip on yourself before deciding how you will respond. We pray that the following steps will be helpful to you as you start working your way through the implications of your discovery.
A. Establish the Facts.
It's important to address the situation without delay, since things could get worse if you wait too long to take appropriate action. But having said this, we should add that it's equally important to get your bearings first, and then make a calm and deliberate effort to gather all the facts. As you do so, resist the temptation to jump to unwarranted conclusions or to make unjustified accusations. Wounded, hurting, and resentful people may create worst-case scenarios and act on the basis of hearsay and half-truths. This should be a prayerful process, and one that is best done with the help of a wise and trusted counselor, pastor, or friend.
Bear in mind from the beginning that the damage infidelity inflicts upon a marriage is primarily a matter of betrayal and broken trust. There's a sense in which the presence or absence of sexual activity is a question of secondary importance. That doesn't mean, of course, that it isn't helpful to know whether the affair was physical or emotional in nature. On the contrary, a physical affair can have serious medical implications and consequences, such as sexually transmitted infections (STI) or a pregnancy, that you will need to take into account. If sexual activity has been part of the relationship, testing for STI's for both of you must be an early and essential element of the recovery process.
If sex hasn't been a part of the equation, you'll want to verify as much as possible that the relationship was more than just a friendship. Has your spouse directed his time, attention and affection to someone other than you? It's important to have whatever facts are available confirmed and in hand when you confront your spouse as it's very possible he or she will offer this defense. To the extent that you are able, you want to put forth a careful and cautious case to define your spouse's behavior as accurately as possible without making unwarranted accusations.
Finally, try to determine whether the connection between your spouse and the other individual is a past or a present reality. If the affair occurred in the workplace, it stands to reason that the possibility of ongoing contact between the two parties will remain a problem and will require your spouse to seek out new employment. If all contact has ceased and the relationship is clearly "over," you can begin to think in terms of forgiveness, reconciliation, and reconstruction of your marriage. If not, or if there are indications of a lack of remorse or repentance, you will have to proceed along very different lines.
As noted earlier, it would be a good idea to enlist the support of a wise and trusted friend as you go through this process. We'd also strongly encourage you to consult with a pastor or a licensed Christian marriage counselor before deciding on your next step. Remember that "in a multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 24:6).
B. Get the Big Picture.
Basically, marital infidelity exists on a continuum. On one end, there's the unique, isolated, one-time moral slip-up: a mistake that seems completely out of character on the part of the offender. The seriousness of such an offense should not be downplayed, since in most cases the external relationship (the actual affair) is really just a symptom of a much deeper problem – the final step in a hundred-step journey, if you will. In spite of this, there are some important ways in which the "one-time slip-up" demands an equally intense and intentional, but different response and treatment than a situation that has involved repeated affairs.
This latter scenario lies at the other end of the spectrum and is what might be called "the most recent episode:" yet another incident in a long-established pattern of waywardness. An affair of this variety has to be approached from a very different perspective simply because the offender has an established history of violating his or her marital vows.
How would you objectively assess or quantify your spouse's extramarital activity? How you answer this question will go a long way toward determining your response.
If the affair was a one-time event, you have good grounds to hope that you and your spouse will be able to survive it and rebuild your marriage on an even firmer footing – provided you're willing to work together in order to achieve the goal. Statistics indicate that reconciliation and recovery will be far easier to achieve if your spouse has no previous record of infidelity and if he or she is genuinely sorry about the incident.
On the other side of the coin, if there has been a pattern of unfaithfulness in your marriage, it will probably be more difficult for the guilty party to feel genuinely repentant and remorseful about his or her behavior. If confronted with it, he or she may even adopt a defiant or defensive attitude. This is what the Bible refers to as "hardness of heart." It's a serious spiritual malady, and the longer it persists, the harder it is to cure. This is a vitally important consideration, since the success of the healing process is directly dependent upon the offender's willingness to admit his or her wrongdoing and to make a determined effort to change course. Before proceeding, you should look for evidence of genuine "godly sorrow" (2 Corinthians 7:10) as opposed to the "worldly sorrow" which simply says, "I'm sorry I got caught." A key indicator of a godly sorrow would include a willingness on the part of your spouse to talk with a marriage counselor who can access his vulnerabilities, as well as the weaknesses of your relationship.
If there is a pattern here, you should ask yourself whether it's symptomatic of some deeper underlying problem. For example, is it possible that your spouse is wrestling with a sex addiction? Do the two of you struggle with attachment issues? Is there a lack of emotional honesty or intimacy in your marriage? These are questions that you need to broach candidly and openly with the help of a third party . Be careful to avoid attributing the misbehavior to superficial explanations such as: "he was working too many hours;" "she was overly involved with the children and ignored me;" or "she was pregnant and not sexually available." If you don't, you can't expect to mend the breach caused by the affair. To patch things up without ferreting out and dealing with these hidden enemies would be like rebuilding a house on a cracked foundation. You have to get to the heart of the matter if you want a permanent solution. Otherwise, you'll just be putting a band-aid over a festering wound.
C. Confront Honestly.
Once you're certain that your spouse really has been involved in an affair, and when you feel confident that you have the details of the story straight, you should proceed to the next stage: direct confrontation. It's vital that you be firm in your convictions and clear where you stand before taking this step. That's because you need to meet this challenge from a position of strength and self-assurance.
When you're ready, arrange a time to sit down and talk with your spouse. Choose a private meeting-place where you know you won't be interrupted. Approach the subject honestly and straightforwardly. The crisis in your marriage is emotionally charged, but stay calm and cool. In order to achieve this, most people need to write out what they are going to say. Always pray first and ask God to give you a grace-filled, but assertive message. Don't whine, wheedle, beg, threat, or plead. Instead, inform your spouse in clear and carefully measured language that you're aware of what's been going on. Explain that you're weighing your options and making some plans of your own (you don't have to reveal what those plans are at this point). Say something like, "I've sought out Christian counsel about the best way to handle this situation, and I want you to know that I'm working my way towards a solution."
You should also give your spouse an opportunity to voice his or her thoughts on the matter. Ask some pointed questions, such as, "Are you still standing at a crossroads? Do you want to pursue your relationship with this other person, or are you willing to give it up and start rebuilding our marriage with outside help?" Make it clear that a decision of some kind has to be made and that there can be no two ways about it. Say, "If you'll commit yourself to work with me, I'll do my best to work with you. But things can't go on the way they've been." It's critical that you assign a deadline for this decision, otherwise you may be waiting weeks or months for an answer. Do not wait indefinitely as this will communicate a lack of conviction on your part about the seriousness of the breach of trust. If you haven't received an answer by the specified date, bear in mind that "no decision is a decision" and begin moving forward with your plans as God directs you.
As mentioned previously, one of the best things you can do is to set up an appointment with a Christian marriage counselor. It would be a good idea for you to meet with the counselor before bringing your spouse into the mix. That will give you a chance to get your facts straight, sort out your own emotions, and settle on a plan that will enable you to confront your spouse with wisdom and from a position of strength. After that, you can invite your spouse to become part of the process. Say something like, "I've arranged to see a therapist, and I sincerely hope you'll come with me." If you encounter opposition, continue in counseling on your own. But let your spouse know that, if that's the way it's going to be, you will have to consider the possibility of taking "more serious measures."
D. Create a Crisis.
If your unfaithful spouse proves steadfastly unrepentant, or if he or she adamantly and persistently refuses to cooperate, it might be a good idea to draw in a couple of close friends, or perhaps a church elder or pastor, to whose pleas and advice he or she might be inclined to listen. Often it is necessary to do a more formal intervention, where several people show up to confront the offending spouse at a designated time without his or her foreknowledge. This formal intervention should not be confused with that of individual people confronting your spouse over time. Prayerfully consider who these people might be and meet with them together ahead of time so that you can explain your situation and provide them with the important facts. These strategies will have two important effects: 1) they will give your spouse an opportunity to hear another viewpoint – the viewpoint of an objective observer – on your mate's sin pattern; and 2) they will demonstrate to your spouse that you are not alone in the stance you've taken.
If this fails to achieve the desired results, you may need to create a crisis by giving your spouse an ultimatum. Say something like, "Either you end the affair and we get counseling together, or you will have to look for other living accommodations until you're ready to help resolve the problem." A temporary, therapeutic separation may be what it takes to open his eyes to the seriousness of the situation and to stimulate some badly needed self-examination. It's best if you can convince your wayward mate to move out – that way there's no need to disrupt your routine or upset your children any more than is absolutely necessary. If he won't cooperate, you may have no choice but to pack up and leave, but you'll want to make sure that your support system is in place, that people are praying for you, and that you actually have a place to stay – the home of a friend, family member, or neighbor – before taking that step. Lay out your plans, line up your resources, and make your arrangements prior to packing your bags and walking out the door. Do not wait until you are emotionally out of control and run the risk of making a snap decision that you will later regret. Then put the entire matter in God's hands and trust Him to work things out according to His sovereign plan. Let your spouse know where you can be contacted and make it clear that you will be ready to resume negotiations as soon as he is willing to reciprocate.
Focus on the Family's Counseling staff can provide you with referrals to qualified marriage and family therapists practicing in your area. They would also consider it a privilege to discuss your situation with you over the phone if you think this might be helpful. You can contact our Counseling department for a free consultation.
Barb Rosberg talks to victims of affairs on how to get beyond the hurt and forge a path forward.
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