When my husband, Bob, started working late, going in on weekends, and staying in Manhattan overnight to avoid his 90-minute commute, I became frustrated with how little time we had together. He was always too tired to do things with me, or to have sex. But since he'd recently switched careers and was making a new start, I tried not to complain too much—not even when Bob uncharacteristically started having a few drinks every night to relieve his tension. Instead, I filled my life with grad school and other interests.
But when I realized it had been more than two months since we'd had sex, I finally spoke up.
"Your life is out of control," I told him. "You need to spend more time at home. I can't take second place to your work any more." In reality, second place would have been a step up—I was barely on his map.
Stress made Bob angry much of the time. He often became defensive, used profanity, stormed out, and even threatened to leave our marriage. "Why bother coming home at all," he'd say, "when all I hear is your complaints and criticism?"
What had happened to the affectionate, jovial guy who'd led a Bible study early in our marriage?
I didn't see how things could get much worse, but one evening, after a nasty argument, Bob admitted he'd been "getting massages" to help him relax. He said he got them on nights he stayed in the city, after long days at work.
"Where?" I asked.
"At a massage place," Bob said.
"Without an appointment?"
"Yeah. I just walk in."
I knew legitimate establishments for sports or healing massage weren't generally open at night. And you needed an appointment.
"From women?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "It would be weird getting a massage from a guy."
"What do they wear?"
"Normal stuff. They're just normal places."
"You've gone to more than one place?"
"Yes. What's the difference?"
"Do you go for something sexual?"
"Of course not," he stammered. "You're the only woman I've had sex with."
"What about oral sex or manual stimulation?" I choked out.
He hesitated before saying, "I don't do that."
He refused to talk about it any more.
More than massages
I was hurt and angry—and I didn't believe his massages were innocent. Since we weren't communicating and I realized our marriage was in trouble, I asked Bob to go with me to a Christian counselor. Reluctantly, he agreed.
I brought up the massages in our first session, but Bob wouldn't discuss it. I needed to talk about it, so we had separate sessions. While Bob quickly dropped his appointments, I kept going.
The counselor told me he'd never worked with a man who'd gone to a massage "parlor" simply for a legitimate massage. I'd known that in my gut. Otherwise, why would Bob have hidden it from me? Why was he so defensive about it?
Each time I brought it up, Bob said, "You're judging me. If I'm such a terrible person, so unworthy of you, why don't we just split up?" He continued to deny any sexual misconduct. But finally, he agreed to stop getting massages—"to make you feel better," he said.
Months later, I learned Bob had also been going to strip clubs. "It's just a thing men do," he insisted.
I'd heard of "lap dancing," where a mostly-unclad woman sits in a man's lap and gyrates, usually until the man experiences sexual release. I was repulsed by the idea of a strange woman pushing her bare breasts into my husband's face, bending over and performing all sorts of gymnastic feats before him.
How could my husband find these disgusting women enticing? How could he support such an industry with money that belonged to both of us? Why would he need to go to these places when he had me at home, longing to spend time with him, trying, unsuccessfully, to initiate sex? What was wrong with me?
While Bob denied having any physical contact with the dancers, I didn't believe him. And I was convinced the massages also involved sexual activity. As I saw it, he'd been unfaithful, multiple times, and with women who sold sex for money—prostitutes! I felt defiled, humiliated, betrayed, confused, and angry. Bob had lied to me, repeatedly. How could I ever trust him?
I couldn't talk about it with anyone besides my counselor, because I was so ashamed. I didn't feel free to discuss it with friends from church—or with my family, either. I felt utterly alone.
But God is gracious. He knew I'd reached the limit of my strength. Just when I was considering what had always been unthinkable to me—divorce—God threw me a lifeline. After months of praying for my marriage, Bob agreed to try a new men's Bible study at church.
One night, he came home from the study and reported that someone in the group, an elder in our church, had confessed he was a former pornography addict. For years this man had led a double life—husband, father, upstanding church member—and regular at porn shops and peep shows.
He said part of conquering his addiction had been changing his route to work so he didn't pass the places that tempted him. He'd also found an accountability partner and confessed his weakness to his wife.
His wife was a Sunday school teacher, a leader in our church. Finally! I thought. Someone who will understand what I'm going through!
I contacted her and we began to pray together regularly. We prayed for healing between my husband and me, and freedom from temptation for both our husbands. I felt better with this unexpected support, but I couldn't rid myself of the terrible pictures in my head.
I imagined my husband at the strip clubs, what he'd seen and done. I thought often about divorce and tried to picture what my life would be like without him.
Then one day my prayer partner said something wise: "I was able to forgive my husband because it wasn't really about him hurting me. His actions were sin, rebellion against God. Yes, I was affected. But so was God. Because the Holy Spirit lives inside my husband, he took God with him into those sex shops. How sad God must have been at such disrespect.
"Instead of feeling anger," she continued, "I felt grief that my husband wasn't right with God, grief that sin had such a grip on him. I wanted more than anything for my husband to be right with God. That was my prayer. I discovered it's hard to stay angry at someone when you're praying sincerely for him."
She was right. I began to pray the prayers in Stormie Omartian's book, The Power of a Praying Wife. I began to use Scripture as prayers, inserting Bob's name into passages such as Ephesians 1:17-19: "I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give Bob the Spirit of wisdom and revelation " I also often read the story of Saul's transformation from persecutor to missionary in Acts 9.
I continued reading Scripture and praying for Bob and our marriage for several years. Then one morning, I read the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, in which the king had forgiven all the servant's debts, but then the servant refused to forgive his own servant (Matthew 18:21-35). Finally it made sense to me. I was that unforgiving servant!
If God could forgive me the thousands of sins I'd committed in my lifetime, how could I withhold forgiveness from my husband in this one area?
I was almost at peace, but not quite. I knew now I could forgive Bob. But he still had not admitted the full scope of his sin to me, or, as far as I knew, to God. I needed him to tell me the truth so I could forgive him completely. I trusted God would reward me for hanging in there through the bad times, heal our marriage, and hopefully, help me forget these ugly things had ever happened. So I approached Bob one more time.
More than five years had passed since Bob said he'd stopped frequenting strip clubs and massage parlors. I believed him because I'd seen him grow spiritually during that time. He'd stopped staying late in the city and going in on weekends. After several years in his men's Bible study, he'd recommitted his life to Christ. That recommitment helped strengthen our marriage. Bob didn't end every argument with, "Let's just split up" any more. That gave me confidence to try one more time to work out the issue.
I prayed for God to show me the right time to broach the painful old subject. I did it in writing this time, asking Bob to write his responses to my questions: Did the massages involve sexual activity? Was there physical contact with the dancers at the strip clubs?
He was hesitant to respond at first, fearful of how I might react. But I assured him I was committed to our marriage, and wanted to work this out so our relationship could grow stronger. I gave him plenty of space, and, after a day and a half, he responded with a letter of his own: Yes. He was ashamed and regretful, but he'd engaged in inappropriate sexual activity.
I'd asked God to prepare me for whatever Bob told me. And God was faithful. When Bob expressed his shame, guilt, and regret over hurting me and violating our relationship, he asked for forgiveness. My gratitude over God's forgiveness for me enabled me to forgive Bob for what had once felt too awful to forgive. And I was free. An enormous weight lifted from me.
It had taken lots of energy to remain hurt and angry all those years, to hold a grudge, to think about something so unpleasant over and over. It took surprisingly little on my part to forgive. God did the real work. I just had to make the decision.
I continue to ask God daily to keep watch over my husband and our marriage. I pray for strength and protection—for Bob and for our relationship. I pray for Bob's continued spiritual growth. And, finally, I feel a peace within my marriage.
K. Madison is a pseudonym for a writer living in New York.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.