Part of the Marital Infidelity: Recovery for Both Wounded Spouses Series
There is nothing simplistic about it — it's heartrending. It's a place in which you never thought you'd find yourself, or you never dreamt that couple would find themselves. It's a pain no couple plans to share: infidelity.
According to research done by Buss & Shackelford in the Journal of Research in Personality, approximately 30 percent to 60 percent of all married individuals in the United States will engage in infidelity at some point during their marriage. In this day and age, financial stress, parenting issues, disagreements over work-and-home balance, social media temptations, pornography and an array of other issues all have the potential to lead a couple down the road to infidelity.
Josh was the football player, and Amy was the beauty he dated throughout college. Shortly after graduation they married, and Josh began to pursue his dream of attending medical school. They soon added two babies to their family, and life seemed full. It all felt wonderful as Josh began to complete the last stage of medical school.
But things began to crumble when Josh learned he hadn't passed a necessary exam and couldn't proceed without it. Amy continued to pray and support him. She even held down the fort while Josh traveled to a review class hundreds of miles away. The distance between Josh and Amy could be felt not just physically, but emotionally, as they both pursued good things — just separately. Amy started to notice some unusual behavior in Josh. He had more frequent trips away to "study," and he engaged in private phone calls at odd hours of the night. Things just weren't adding up. With complete heartbreak, Amy's greatest fears came true when she learned that Josh had met a young female medical student who was studying to pass the same exam. At first it wasn't a full-blown affair, but it rapidly became one. Amy didn't know what to do other than seek God and the help of godly friends who would walk with her as she fought to save her marriage.
Discovering and defining
Discovering an affair can cause deep and intense emotional pain. If you've been there, my heart goes out to you. The sense of betrayal, loss of trust and the sting of deception can be overwhelming. Typically this triggers deep emotions in both the partner being cheated on and in the spouse involved in the affair.
To be certain we are on the same page, infidelity is defined by Merriam-Webster as "the act or fact of having a romantic or sexual relationship with someone other than one's husband [or] wife." Infidelity can also include an emotional connection without physical intimacy. It is often reported that the betrayal felt with an emotional affair can be equally as intense as that felt with a sexual affair. Either way, trust is broken, and the emotional impact of the affair is devastating.
During the discovery of any extramarital affair, many questions surface about the true colors of the marriage relationship. Typically, the unfaithful spouse is found to have struggles with low self-esteem, alcoholism, drug abuse or even a sexual addiction. Additionally, marital issues that may have been brewing for years are often uncovered. Typically, these will be unspoken matters that have increasingly caused disconnection, silence and a gradual separating of hearts between spouses. But the affair isn't going to be the answer to any of the marital concerns. An affair is often born out of a fantasy in which an individual seeks to escape the reality of either individual or marital problems. And the person outside the marriage is often seen as the temporary solution to real-life challenges.
Encouragement and recovery
If you, like Josh and Amy, have experienced an affair in your marriage, I want to support you and offer some direction on how to save your marriage.
First, I encourage you not to make any quick decisions about ending your marriage. Take your time and do the hard work of understanding what was behind the affair. During this time, you will need to give each other space — possibly a temporary separation. Because of the deep emotions associated with betrayal and grief that often follow the discovery of an affair, the needed space is encouraged. This may look different for every couple, so I encourage you to do this under the guidance of a counselor, trusted friend or pastor. Amy depended largely on a group of godly girlfriends who surrounded her as she considered what her next steps might be.
As I proceed in this discussion, I really want to address both parties involved in an extramarital affair: the offended spouse (the one who has been cheated on) and the unfaithful spouse.
Recovery for the offended
If you recently discovered your spouse has been unfaithful, I want to offer some guidance.
You may be overwhelmed by the level of emotion you are experiencing. These emotions can range from utter devastation to intense sadness and everything in between. If you find yourself in a season like Amy did, with small children to care for and a house to keep up, know that Amy admitted, "Some days it was difficult to just get out of bed." The challenge will be in trying to manage your emotions.
To function during this heart-wrenching stage of your family life, taking great care of yourself is essential. You'll need to attend to your basic needs for food, sleep, exercise and healthy stress management. Although it may feel unrealistic at first, the more you can do to meet these basic needs amid the emotional turmoil, the healthier you will be.
As you walk this difficult path, you will probably have many questions about the details of the affair, your own value, your spouse's true character and what you did to contribute to the situation. Give yourself permission to ask your spouse questions about the affair or your marriage relationship, requesting complete honesty and transparency when he or she answers. As you question your own value or worth — an anxiety that often results after being cheated on — I encourage you to turn to the Lord. Ask Him to speak to your wounded heart about what He sees when He looks at you and what the truth is about who you are. Remember that God is the only source of truth that is fully reliable and always available.
During this time you'll need to seek the support of family and friends. The Enemy would love to feed you the lie that no one else has been down this road, and he'll try to deceive you into remaining isolated and alone. Don't give in to the Enemy's lies! Seek the support of godly friends who are willing to stand with you to help fight for your marriage. We encourage you to consult only with same-sex friends so you protect yourself from temptation.
Focus on your heart. Although it may take time, this focus will include forgiving your spouse. First and foremost, this does not mean forgetting what has happened to you or what your spouse may have chosen to do. Simply put, forgiveness is something you choose because it is beneficial to your own heart.
Begin to understand what you did to contribute to the state of your marriage. Although you are not responsible for your spouse's actions or choices, it can be helpful to discover what changes you can make to help heal the marriage relationship.
At this point in your experience, some of these suggestions may seem impossible, but be patient and take it one day at a time. Your loving heavenly Father can heal not only your heart, but your marriage, too. Amy and Josh can attest to this because they eventually reunited and added two more children to their family. They now use their story to encourage other couples to help them see that fighting for your marriage can be worth the effort.
In the next article of this short series, I will address the spouse who has been unfaithful.
Dr. Greg Smalley is the vice president of Family Ministries at Focus on the Family.
If your marriage is in trouble, there is hope, we are here to help — call one of our counselors at 1-866-875-2915 or visit hoperestored.focusonthefamily.com.