Recovery and Reconciliation: Emotional and Sexual Affairs Compared

Is the recovery and reconciliation process as difficult for an emotional affair as compared to infidelity involving sexual activity? What are the differences? My husband has twice become emotionally involved with a woman at our church. At the moment he's still struggling and has asked for forgiveness, but I'm not sure what to do or where we should go from here.

There’s actually a great deal of overlap between sexual and non-sexual affairs in terms of their relational fallout and the steps a couple needs to take in order to deal with the aftermath. The major differences have to do with the physical and medical consequences of sexual intercourse – i.e., the potential for pregnancy or acquiring a sexually transmitted infection (STI).

Obviously, the pair involved in the illicit liaison will have some tough decisions to make if a child has been conceived. They should also be tested for STIs if sexual activity of any kind has occurred (and the wife should be tested also, in the event that an infection has been passed on to her). This point deserves to be underscored, since many pastors and counselors neglect to mention it in the midst of sorting out the moral and psychological implications of marital unfaithfulness.

If the offending party has come into contact with sexually transmitted infections, both he and his spouse will want to know about it as soon as possible. If he has contracted an STI, this could have huge implications for the sexual dimension of their relationship for the rest of their lives. This is a matter of special concern to a faithful wife, since some of these infections can lie dormant in a woman’s body for a long time before manifesting any symptoms. It’s in everybody’s best interests to bring the facts to light at the earliest opportunity – before there’s time for further damage to be incurred.

We should add that comparison can also become a serious problem for couples who are attempting to put their marriage back together after a sexual affair. Only with great difficulty will the offended spouse be able to resist the temptation to imagine the details. Nagging questions like “Exactly what did you do?” or “Where did it happen?” may haunt her day and night. The guilty party will have to be extremely careful with his responses. On the one hand, honesty and transparency are crucial to the process of rebuilding trust. On the other hand, visual imagery could become lodged in the faithful spouse’s mind and end up wreaking emotional havoc for years to come. The goal is to be truthful without offering unnecessarily graphic details.

These, then, are some of the unique challenges associated with sexual infidelity. Having given them the attention they deserve, we will now hasten to add that, in most cases, the damage inflicted by an affair is not dependent upon the presence of sexual activity. On the contrary, the physical repercussions of sex are probably the least important aspects of an affair’s aftermath. The emotional and psychological sides of the problem are often of far greater consequence, and can also be more difficult to resolve. Your husband’s attachments to other women may have been purely emotional in nature, but this does not mean that you will find it any easier to get past them. On the contrary, there’s a long road ahead, and it will require a lot of hard work, discipline, patience, and understanding on the part of both spouses.

How do you get started? We’d suggest that you and your husband think in terms of working your way through the following five steps:

  1. Assume responsibility. When marital unfaithfulness has occurred, one of the most important elements of the reconciliation process – perhaps the most important element – is a willingness on the part of the offending spouse to take responsibility for his actions and face up to the real-life consequences of the mistakes he has made. Those consequences can assume a number of shapes and show up on several different levels – physical, emotional, and psychological. The two of you can’t expect to put your marriage back together unless you’re prepared to deal with all of them.
  2. Communicate and listen. One of the consequences you’ll have to face is the difficulty of bringing your thoughts and feelings out into the open. Don’t be afraid to confront this obstacle squarely and with courage. Hard as it may be, the two of you desperately need to talk about the events that have taken place and grapple honestly with what they are likely to mean for your relationship, both present and future. As part of the process of repentance, the offending spouse must be willing to listen to his partner’s pain and anger.
  3. Make a clean break. It’s vital that the unfaithful spouse put an end to any and all contact with his partner in the affair. Husband and wife should embrace solidarity and show a united front in this regard. In other words, they should confront the other party together and let him or her know that it is over. That way there won’t be any room for secrecy, intrigue, or misunderstanding in the future. For safety and other reasons, we recommend that this take place over the telephone with the offending spouse making it clear that all future contact will cease.
  4. Seek counseling. We highly recommend that you and your husband initiate a rigorous course of therapy with a trained and qualified Christian counselor. A good counselor can help you uncover any unresolved issues in your relationship and get to the bottom of whatever it was that led to the affair in the first place. Focus on the Family’s Counseling department can provide you with referrals to therapists who fit this description. Call our staff counselors for a free phone consultation.
  5. Maintain accountability. The guilty party must agree to make himself accountable to his spouse. Through his actions he has forfeited a degree of his personal freedom. Real healing and reconciliation can’t occur unless he’s ready to be open and aboveboard about all of his comings and goings and social interactions. That includes granting his partner access to his cell phone, his Facebook account, and all of his online activities. Trust may be restored if accountability is maintained over a long period of time, but not otherwise. That’s just the way it is.

As you move through this process, be aware of the hurdles and pitfalls you’re likely to encounter along the way. Keep in mind that, to a great extent, the success of your efforts will depend upon the history of your marriage, your personalities, and the cumulative effects of all your past hurts and conflicts. If you’ve ever experienced another betrayal of any kind, you can expect that memory to rise to the surface and complicate your current difficulties. The tendency is to wrap up all the struggles and frustrations of your entire married life and “dump” them on top of the affair.

To put it another way, the presence of this very large and legitimate grievance will tempt you to give yourself “permission” to complain about any and every slight offense of which your spouse has ever been guilty. This is especially true in the case of a woman, since she is usually more relational in temperament. But men may also struggle with these feelings, and their pain may be all the more acute due to the fact that most of them don’t have a strong emotional “support network.” Counseling will help you avoid these traps and snares.


If a title is currently unavailable through Focus on the Family, we encourage you to use another retailer.

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