“I have a secret, a big one.”
These words can send a wave of panic through the heart of a spouse. And fear is justified when it comes to an affair, pornography use or any kind of trust-breaking sexual betrayal. What do you do when you hear these words? How do you respond?
This article is for those trying to stay together — where the confession of sexual sin was voluntary and both spouses have a desire to save their marriage. Wanting to reconcile doesn’t guarantee success, but it’s a great start. And though there are as many scenarios as there are couples, the framework outlined below will help no matter what your situation is. It’s proved immensely effective for many couples, even those in seemingly hopeless marriages.
Stage 1: Understanding your emotions — your initial response
Sexual intimacy is one of the closest connections two people can experience. When someone directs sexual energy toward anyone or anything other than his or her spouse, that intimate trust is broken. Those who have experienced this betrayal describe it as having their heart ripped out and stomped on.
With that kind of deep pain, knowing what to say to the spouse who broke your heart is difficult. But before you try to say anything, you should know two things.
First, what you’re feeling is OK. Betrayal is an injustice. It is painful. Experiencing hurt, anger and sorrow is an appropriate reaction in this situation.
Second, you need God’s comfort and guidance. Jesus understands betrayal on a level deeper than we can ever know, and yet He chose to respond with the ultimate act of love. To respond to your spouse in a Christlike manner, spend time in prayer asking for God’s comfort, for the right perspective on your situation and for the strength to work toward reconciliation.
Once you feel able to believe these two truths, you will be in a more stable place to respond to your spouse. To start the conversation, you both will need to engage in open and honest dialogue. Make time and space to discuss the underlying issues that led to the original fracture — and be prepared to develop action steps for the two of you to rebuild your marriage together. The best approach is to find a qualified counselor who can help your spouse make a thorough confession.
While one spouse may be the “betrayed” and the other the “betrayer,” both must learn to respond with grace and truth.
Stage 2: Forgiveness — your response in counseling
Forgiveness is nonnegotiable for the restoration of a marriage. But forgiveness is not just a switch that flips on; it’s a process of understanding the offense and choosing to release the offender from personal vengeance. It takes time and a lot of relational and emotional work. And Jesus’ example shows there is no greater or costlier expression of love than forgiveness.
Often, a betrayed spouse will equate forgiveness with trust. While these do overlap, they are still distinct. Forgiveness can be offered regardless of whether the marriage survives. It can be given even if it is not received. However, you cannot trust your spouse if you have not first forgiven him or her.
Scripture teaches, “As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Colossians 3:13). God forgave us freely, intentionally and permanently. Throughout time, from the Garden of Eden to the Resurrection of Jesus, and even as we wait for Jesus’ return, God is working out forgiveness and redemption for humanity. In the same way, forgiving your spouse is a continual choice. Don’t panic if you experience setbacks or find that you are still in process some time from now. Be patient with yourself. Trust the Lord and trust the process.
Stage 3: Restoration — your long-term response
As you work through forgiveness and your spouse invests in counsel and behavior change, some small seeds of trust will be able to grow. You might feel a sense of hope mixed with fear about what your new normal should look like. The following practices can help you get back to a strong and healthy marriage.
Be personally accountable. We will all stand before God individually to give an account for our lives (2 Corinthians 5:9-10). We won’t be able to blame anyone else for our actions. Just as your spouse cannot justify his or her sin by blaming you or anything else, so the same applies to you. As you work through your spouse’s betrayal, be careful not to use it as an excuse for sinful behavior. Payback causes more harm to your heart than anyone else’s.
Seek to glorify God. When my wife tells our story of reconciliation, she shares the epiphany she experienced: “The point of life is not marriage, it is to glorify God.”
Marriage is a wonderful thing, a beautiful reflection of the Trinity and a metaphor of intimacy between Christ and the church. But your chief end is not marriage — it is to glorify God. And this can be done even in the midst of your pain and confusion. Keeping the true goal in mind will give you a strong foundation to overcome the obstacles facing your marriage and give greater purpose to your daily struggle.
Be generous with love. Jesus summed up what life is all about: loving God and loving your neighbor (Mark 12:28-31). To love means to seek the well-being of another, even at one’s own expense. This is hard to do and twice as difficult when you’re dealing with betrayal.
Loving like Jesus radically transforms your soul, and it will do the same for your hurting marriage. Loving like Jesus shifts your focus from your pain to the ever-patient, ever-redemptive work of the Holy Spirit.
As you seek to restore your marriage, may God’s grace and truth empower you to respond in a way that glorifies Him and brings healing and restoration to your marriage.
Jonathan Daugherty is the founder, president and board chairman of Be Broken Ministries. He is the author of Grace Based Recovery: A safe place to grow and heal.
A variety of issues can fuel habitual pornography use. Understanding the deeper needs of individuals affected by this common problem is important. Reach out to well-trained helpers, and if you are a married couple do so together. Change is possible! We can guide you as you seek a referral and take your first steps toward recovery. You can contact us Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time) at: 855-771-HELP (4357) or