Is Reconciliation Possible After An Extra-Marital Affair?
Many couples are surviving an affair. 70% of all South African marriages are failing. An extra-marital affair has become a large contributing factor to the breakdown of a marriage.
What is an affair?
All affairs violate trust and involve unfaithfulness. There are two categories:
- Sexual affair – Sexual contact between a married person and someone other than his/her spouse
- Sexual contact violates the marriage covenant. This could be a one night stand or a long term sexual and emotional entanglement. It is still a sexual affair if there is intimate physical contact intended to stimulate and enjoy sexual arousal with someone other than one’s spouse - even if it doesn’t result in intercourse
- A Physical affair is an inappropriate display of physical touch, a lingering hug, a kiss, holding hands
- Emotional affair - is an emotional attachment to someone else that is normally reserved for one’s spouse. Investing emotional energy into someone that should be reserved for their mate. E.g. sending flowers, letters, cards, emails, intimate dinners alone, spending time, phoning one another, sending sms’ under the guise of friendship, mixit, visiting internet dating sites, etc.
Emotional affairs may be easier to detect because inappropriate interactions can be seen, but they are difficult to prove because hearts and motives are hidden. Some of us may question whether an emotional affair is adulterous. Jesus made it clear however that adultery is as much a betrayal of the heart as of the body.
“You have heard that it was said do not commit adultery but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matt 5:27-28
Let’s look at the sexually adulterous affair:
- No words can adequately describe the trauma a person suffers when a spouse’s affair is exposed
- An affair inflicts a vicious wound to the heart of a faithful spouse
- The unfaithful spouse is also forced to deal with emotions that will in many ways shape the future of their relationship.
The wounded spouse
- They may look fine from the outside but inside they are haemorrhaging
- They feel like they are going crazy especially during the initial state of shock.
- Emotions experienced by the wounded spouse:
- They feel lost
- They feel, fragmented, shattered, confused and disoriented
- They don’t know where they belong
- Their self respect is shattered and blame themselves for not sensing that something was wrong in the relationship
- They feel betrayed. They feel used, discarded and rejected – replace feelings of being chosen, special and valued
- Their ability to trust is undermined – everyone becomes a suspect. Even God’s goodness and protection are questioned
- They feel powerless. “No matter how hard I try I can’t fix it” indicates a loss of control
- Their anger grows out of a loss of control
- Obsessive thoughts and dreams of their spouse with a lover invade their days and nights
- Some may compulsively drive around to see where he or she is. Some even feel the need to hire a private investigator
- They lose hope – depression sets in and feelings of I want to die there’s nothing to live for
- They feel ambivalent. Competing emotions all screaming for attention rips them apart.
The emotions that are present
- Shame and disgust
- Joy and sorrow
- Hurt and vengefulness
- Fear and relief
- Love and hate
- A wife or husband will miss his/her spouse at times but also at times be glad he/she is gone
- Wanting to hug him or beat him
- Wanting to forgive him or making him pay.
- The unfaithful spouse
- The emotional response can be varied depending on whether they feel guilty over the affair or feel justified and are upset about having been caught. If the unfaithful spouse feels guilty and is willing to give up the affair and restore the marital relationship their response will indicate brokenness and humility.
The unfaithful spouse’s emotions:
- Relief – I’m tired of lying – glad it’s out!
- Impatience – I said I was sorry and gave her/him up
- Chronic anxiety – If I just keep busy I’ll be okay
- Justified anger – I’m doing what I want to do and it feels right!
- Absence of guilt – I did what I did and that’s that
- Isolation – There is no one there for me
- Hopelessness – There’s no way this relationship will ever work
- Paralysis – I feel torn, I don’t know what to do
- Self-disgust – I’m such a fool – why did I jeopardise all that I love?
The unfaithful spouse may also experience guilt over hurting the children and grief over loss of a lover. After an affair is exposed partners need to seek help. They can’t work through the issues on their own, they need help. They desperately need the emotional support and prayer from friends if they are going to rebuild the relationship.
After an affair many couples quickly try to restore the broken relationship. Many families and friends encourage them to reconcile too quickly. Time is needed for both partners to sort through issues, both may even question if reconciliation is possible, or worth it.
You need time to make a decision. Be devoted to prayer (1 Thess 5:17) and ask others to pray. Reflect on what God is doing in your own heart and be aware of where God is leading you.
Some questions to consider:
1. Can there be restoration if the affair is still going on?
Answer: No – divided loyalty is no loyalty at all.
2. How will I know if my partner is genuinely attempting to rebuild the marriage?
Answer: Nothing can give you that kind of reassurance. To rebuild the marriage is risky. The deciding factor is the unfaithful partner’s attitude. The unfaithful spouse must be willing to go the extra mile.
3. Does the Bible require the wounded spouse to take back the unfaithful spouse?
Answer: The decision to divorce or reconcile lies with the wounded spouse.
They must be held accountable in the following areas:
a. Give up the affair. Cutting off all contact and gifts/cards/letters/emails/sms messages/voice messages, etc received from the lover must be destroyed
b. Seek individual and marital counsel from someone that has experience in the field
c. Move out of the house maintaining financial responsibility if so requested by the wounded spouse
d. Be patient with the slowness of forgiveness
e. The unfaithful partner must do whatever it takes to help the wounded spouse begin to trust again
f. Be accountable to several trusted Christian couples
g. Do not pressure the wounded spouse for a quick forgiveness and restoration of the marital relationship.
Can a marriage survive an affair?
Some relationships not only survive an affair but flourish after an affair. The rebuilding of trust comes through telling the truth. Affairs thrive on secrecy. (Eph 4:5 - speaking the truth in love). These are reasonable questions that can be expected to be asked by the wounded spouse:
- What happened?
- When did it begin?
- How long did it last?
- Is it over?
Be honest and tell all - knowing the details may inflame the wound. The wounded spouse must share how the affair has affected them, how much pain it caused. Both spouses need to talk about the relationship and how they relate to each other.
In my workshops I frequently mention that the affair is not the cause of the divorce, the marriage was in trouble before the affair. The wounded spouse is not to blame for the affair, the unfaithful spouse needs to accept 100% blame for going out and having an affair and breaking the marriage covenant.
Although the wounded spouse needs to accept a negative contribution to the breakdown of the relationship e.g. not being the perfect wife or husband, being a workaholic, not spending time with spouse or not meeting one another’s needs or expectations. These things never excuse an affair.
Rebuilding trust through confession to the Lord and spouse
- It’s not enough to say I am sorry
- Specific behaviours, attitudes and responses that inflicted pain must be named and owned
- Confession is necessary for the healing of body and soul and the relationship (James 5:16)
- Confession must be mutual. Both are guilty. Not guilty of affair but guilty of past failures
- Rebuilding trust through repentance (David had an adulterous affair “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” Ps 51:17).
Signs of repentance
- A humble attitude that is neither demanding nor defensive when questioned
- An openness that replaces deceit
- The willingness to be accountable for time, money and whereabouts
- Not blaming or making excuses for failures
- Quietly accepting consequences.
Rebuilding through forgiveness
Forgiveness is the loving, voluntary cancellation of a debt. At times the wounded spouse may slip in and out of forgiveness. Remember that forgiveness is a process. The pain and the anger may still be there from time to time. Rebuilding can begin through re-initiating physical contact.
- Go slowly – get tested for HIV
- Guard your heart from bitterness
- Live close to the Lord – constantly asking the Lord to help you stay focussed on forgiveness
- Communicate with each other!!
A long and winding road
I have had the privilege of helping many couples through rebuilding after an affair. It has been a very difficult and painful process for couples.
From my experience I can only say that it takes commitment from both parties to go down the road of reconciliation - a commitment to the counsellor, your spouse and honesty.
Many divorced people have told me that it is easier to rather walk away and get divorced than to try and reconcile. However I have seen many couple’s marriages become stronger and both have learnt a lot from the process.
The bottom line is we need to seek the Lord and His Will in all areas, especially in a situation like this which affects more than just the individual.