When you married, if you're like most couples, you made a vow pledging your faithfulness. But now you've discovered your spouse didn't take that vow seriously. It doesn't matter whether it was a one-night stand or a long-term affair, the results are the same—your spouse's action has left in its wake fear, doubt, distrust, betrayal, hurt, and anger.
Ultimately, it's what you do with these emotions—how you process them—that makes the difference. For you and your marriage's sake, you need to process these emotions in a positive way. Here's help.
Healthy versus Unhealthy Responses
Allow the tears to flow. Initially, crying is a healthy response. But your body is limited to how long it can sustain such agony. Allow yourself to cry, but don't move into a "poor me" attitude. That will do no one any good.
Tell your spouse how you feel. Verbally expressing your feelings is also a healthy way to process anger—as long as you use "I" statements rather than "you" statements. When you say, "You betrayed me. You took advantage of me. You don't love me," you only incite negative reactions. And we know that negative reactions don't lead to positive outcomes.
Statements such as, "I feel betrayed. I feel hurt. I feel like you don't love me" simply reveal your emotions. They're honest and communicate the depth of your pain.
Control your behavior. Negative responses to anger can complicate the problem. If you start throwing dishes or speaking obscenities, your out-of-control behavior will only alleviate your spouse's guilt. Now he can blame you rather than himself because your behavior has demonstrated that you're an unreasonable, uncontrolled person.
Don't retaliate. Retaliation is a common but negative response. Vengeful tactics include having an affair yourself to show your unfaithful spouse what it feels like to be betrayed or going to her workplace to cause a scene. Any effort at revenge is doomed to failure. Returning wrong for wrong simply makes the other person feel less guilty and stimulates him or her to return fire for fire.
Seek outside help. After the initial wave of shock, hurt, and anger, the most productive step you can take is to seek the wisdom of a Christian counselor. If your spouse isn't willing to go, then go alone. You're more likely to make wise decisions if you get the help of someone who isn't emotionally involved in the situation.
Keep in mind that the purpose of counseling isn't simply to keep you and your spouse in the same house. The purpose of counseling is to find forgiveness for past failures and then to establish new patterns of relating to each other that follow the biblical guidelines of love and respect.
Consider restoration. The biblical ideal is to seek restoration. Your marriage can be redeemed. There are no sins that cannot be forgiven. However, there can be no reconciliation without genuine repentance. Your spouse must be willing to break off all contact with the other person and devote himself or herself to rebuilding your marriage.
Reconciliation involves both of you taking an honest look at what gave rise to the sexual unfaithfulness. The objective isn't to place blame on each other but to look at the dynamics of your marriage and discover what you and your mate need to change.
Forgiveness opens the door to rebuilding trust. Trust won't return overnight. Trust grows as your spouse now chooses to be trustworthy. If she sincerely wants to rebuild trust, she'll have the attitude, My life is an open book. You may check my cell phone, computer, and bank statements. From this moment on I have nothing to hide. I'm committed to rebuilding our marriage. This kind of openness and recommitment will in time help you restore trust.
Reconciliation after sexual infidelity is neither easy nor quick. But many couples will agree with the couple who told me, "Though it was painful, and healing took time, God bonded our hearts together again. Every time we tuck our children in bed, we look at each other and smile, thanking God that we didn't give up on our marriage."
Gary D. Chapman, Ph.D., author of Desperate Marriages: Moving Toward Hope and Healing in Your Relationship (Moody Publishers), has been married to Karolyn for 45 years.
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.