Healing marriage after adultery is more difficult than most people realize. However, Dr David Clarke gives the following insights that you may find helpful and healing:
A married couple came in to see me for the first time: mid-thirties, two kids, Christians, church members. I’ll call them Bob and Susie. Susie, in tears, told me Bob had had an affair. It lasted three months, and she had just found out about it one month ago.
In that one month, they had sought advice from their pastor, a Christian therapist, several best-selling Christian books, and some close friends. They got the same four pieces of advice from every one of these Christian sources. And all the advice was directed at Susie.
Susie was told Bob’s affair was partly her fault.
She wasn’t meeting all of Bob’s needs. Bob wasn’t happy at home. Men don’t have affairs, she was told, unless the wife isn’t doing her job.
Susie was told she needed to win Bob back.
She’d lost him and now it was her responsibility to get him back. Susie needed to immediately pursue him. She needed to lose weight, cook more and better meals, clean the house better, and offer him plenty of passionate, exciting sex.
Susie was told to forgive Bob quickly and move on from the affair.
Don’t bring up the details. Don’t ask questions. And don’t vent your emotions. Don’t be sad and, above all, don’t be mad. Just be glad he’s willing to stay with you.
Susie was told it was a marriage problem.
The affair was only a symptom of a sick marriage. So, don’t focus on the affair but focus on improving the marriage. Work on communication, meeting needs and doing the love languages.
Common Healing Marriage Advice
Does this advice sound familiar? I’ll bet it does. This is far and away the most popular Christian approach to adultery. It’s the advice given whether it is the husband or wife who has committed adultery.
It is the advice most pastors, and most Christian therapists give. And it is the advice most best-selling Christian authors give.
Fifteen years ago, it was the advice I gave to clients. Fifteen years ago, I would have told Bob and Susie the same four things. Because that’s how I had been taught by my graduate school professors and therapy mentors.
For the first two or three years of my practice, this was the approach I used. It is one of my deepest regrets as I look back on my therapy career. Why? Because this advice, this popular Christian approach to adultery, is wrong. It’s wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong!
This advice is certainly well meaning. But it doesn’t work. It damages individuals. It damages marriages that can’t afford to be damaged more than they already are. And most of all, it’s not biblical.
If Bob and Susie follow the classic, traditional Christian counseling solution to adultery, there will be three consequences. I know because I saw these consequences happen to couples the first few years of my practice. And I keep seeing them happen to couples who come to me after trying the traditional approach.
First: Susie, the victim of Bob’s adultery, is further victimized.
Susie is forced to take blame for this terrible action she did not do. She’s forced to feel guilt for driving her husband to another woman. She does not recover from the trauma. Plus, she is unable to vent her pain so it remains inside and gets worse. She is unable to forgive her husband. She is unable to trust her husband. And she will always wonder if she’s being a good enough wife to keep Bob from having another affair. She’ll be anxious, depressed, insecure, and bitter.
Many pastors, church leaders, and Christian therapists will not confront Bob. They will confront Susie! Her counselors and helpers now smash Susie, who is already reeling from Bob’s adultery, again! She’s told: “Susie, Bob’s adultery is your fault and you’d better get to work so he won’t stray again.” “Susie, not only is the adultery your fault but now it’s your fault that you’re angry and bitter.”
Bob, the only one who sinned, gets a free pass! Disgraceful.
Second: Bob does not recover from his sin of adultery.
He does not fully confess it. He does not take full responsibility for it. And he does not repent of his sin. Additionally, he does not regain respect for his wife. The deeper personal issues, which led to his sin are not uncovered and fixed. He does not make the real changes he needs to make. He stays emotionally attached to the paramour. This other woman, this tramp, stays lodged in his heart so his wife can’t get back in. He is, in fact, more likely to continue the affair with this woman or have another one.
Third: Bob and Susie’s marriage does not recover from his adultery.
Respect and trust are not re-established. Full forgiveness doesn’t happen. Communication remains poor. Their conflict resolution skills don’t improve. They do not develop an intimate connection. The unresolved trauma of the adultery continues to separate them.
If Bob and Susie follow the traditional Christian counseling approach to adultery, their marriage may survive and I hope it does. But survive is all it will do. It won’t thrive. It won’t be a great marriage. And it will be a wounded marriage.
If Bob stops the affair, they will probably get a brief honeymoon phase. It’ll last three to six months. “Flight into health” is what we psychologists call it. They think they’re over the affair. Their counselor and pastor think they’re over the affair. They’re not.
They’re running away from the trauma because neither one really wants to face it and deal with it. After the honeymoon, they’ll crash and burn. All these consequences I’ve described will happen. Their attempt to run from the adultery, an attempt often encouraged by a counselor or pastor, will fail. The adultery will haunt them for the rest of their marriage.
Why is this incorrect, unbiblical approach to adultery still the most popular one in the Christian community? There are two reasons.
Reason Number One: As counselors, we have been trained to achieve balance in marital therapy.
Good marriage work usually demands that you help each partner see his or her role in the relationship problems. It does typically take two to mess things up. “Here’s what you’re doing wrong, Bob.” “Here’s what you’re doing wrong, Susie.” In your basic marital case, you ask both spouses to change. In your basic marital case, you don’t zero in on one partner and demand that he or she change first.
We’re taught that this delicate balancing act applies to all marital cases. It does not! It makes sense for the basic, garden-variety marital case. But it does not make sense when you have a smoking gun: one partner in serious sin.
Reason Number Two: Hardly anyone confronts sin anymore.
There has been a huge shift in Christian culture in the past fifteen to twenty years. We’ve gone from an emphasis on sin and its destructive power to grace and only grace. Everything is grace, grace, grace and forgiveness, forgiveness, forgiveness. But we have forgotten that there is no grace and forgiveness without true, complete confession and repentance (see 1 John 1:9). And there is no true repentance without confrontation of the sinner.
As Christian leaders, we used to call sin, sin right to the face of the sinner. Why? We did this to bring about healthy shame and guilt and brokenness and repentance and change. That was biblical love in action.
Now, too many of us have re-defined sin. Sin is not really sin. Sin is dysfunction or addiction or bad judgment. These things can certainly be involved in sin. But sin is rebellion against God first and foremost. We offer grace and forgiveness immediately. We want the sinner to feel good, not bad. But the subtle message is: your behavior isn’t that bad, and you don’t have to feel that bad about it. This is unbiblical wimpiness in action.
I know very few pastors and Christian therapists who confront sinners head-on. What are their excuses for wimping out?
“I’m scared of the confrontation itself.”
Confrontation is incredibly intense, difficult, and painful (it also loses clients). But it’s what a good counselor does. If you’re not willing to confront sinners with loving firmness, you’re in the wrong line of work.
“I’m scared of the sinner’s wrath.”
It’s very common to be blasted and even hated for having the gall to confront a sinner. I’ve had a lot of ugly scenes in my office: yelling, hostility, rage, venting and raving, and slamming doors. Repentance is very seldom the initial reaction. You’ve heard the phrase “shoot the messenger.”
Being a counselor is not a popularity contest. If everyone likes you, you’re doing something wrong.
“I’m a sinner, too.”
You ask yourself: “How can I, with my own sin and problems, confront anyone else?” Following that reasoning, how can you do anything as a Christian? If you’re going to wait until you’re perfect before you confront sin, you’ll never do it. I’m still waiting for my first sinless day. I’d settle for my first sinless hour.
“I don’t want to drive the sinner away.”
You think if you confront the sinner, you’ll lose any influence on him because he’ll reject you and leave the process. The truth is when you fail to confront the sinner—at that very moment you lose all influence on him. You are weak. You lose respect and power. Plus, you have fed his (or her) denial. You are an enabler of your spouse’s sin.
The truth is:
If the sinner does bolt, he bolts. But you’ve done your job. You’ve told the truth. You’ve given the sinner the opportunity to repent and change. Plus, you’ve protected and strengthened the victimized spouse.
I’m not throwing any stones! I used to avoid confronting sinners, and believed these same excuses.
Fifteen years ago, I realized that the traditional, popular, don’t confront sin Christian approach to adultery wasn’t working. That’s when I turned to the Bible for answers.
What does the Bible say?
One of the great confrontations in the Bible is found in 2 Samuel 12:1-13. King David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then, to cover his sin, had her husband killed. These verses record what happened when God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David and his sin.
Did Nathan excuse David’s sin in any way? No. Did Nathan bring up the stress of being a king? No. Did Nathan mention a mid-life crisis? No. Did Nathan indicate that Bathsheba had seduced David? No. Did Nathan say David’s wives and concubines hadn’t met his needs? No. It was direct, brutal confrontation. Nathan said, right to David’s face, “You are the man.” Using a story about a rich man who stole and slaughtered a poor man’s one and only lamb, Nathan nailed David to the wall.
What was the point of this confrontation? It was for repentance and restoration. That’s what God always wants for the sinner. In 2 Samuel 12:13, David gives the correct response to Nathan: ” . . . I have sinned against the Lord.” That’s the beginning of healing for every sinner! It’s when they say, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
In 1 Corinthians Chapter 5, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian church what to do with a male church member who was having sex with his mother (or stepmother). Paul ordered the church to “hand this man over to Satan.” They were to kick him out of the church immediately, and shun him. It was direct, brutal confrontation. Why? It was to produce repentance and restoration.
When someone we know, a fellow Christian, is in serious sin, we don’t have to guess at what to do. Jesus Christ, in Matthew 18:15-17, tells us exactly what to do:
“And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.’ And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer.” (NASB)
Here’s the bottom line.
When someone is in serious sin, you confront that person immediately. No excuses and rationalizations are accepted. No one else is to blame but the sinner. The focus is on the sinner and the sin and repentance.
When one spouse is in serious sin, it’s Matthew 18 time.
My approach to adultery and other serious marital sins is based on Matthew 18:15-17. When one spouse is in serious sin, that sin is the smoking gun. It might be adultery. It might be sexual addiction. Or it might be alcoholism, drug addiction, or workaholism. It might be also be laziness, irresponsible spending, anger with verbal abuse, or controlling behavior.
Whatever the sin, I zero in on the sinner and make his sin the focus during the first phase of treatment. He’ll repent and change first. He’ll confess exactly what he’s done. And then he’ll work to fix his problem. He’ll help his partner heal from what he’s done to her. And he’ll become the husband God wants him to be.
Later, the other spouse’s issues will be addressed. Later, the marital issues will be addressed.
Biblically, my approach makes sense. And clinically, it works well. The sinning spouse will go first. And then, the marriage is worked on next. You don’t have to do a delicate balancing act. It’s neat, it’s clean, and it’s focused.
One Spouse Changes, Then the Other
What if you could get one spouse to agree to change first? As that spouse changes, the marriage changes. As that spouse and the marriage changes, the other spouse also changes. That’s what happens with the Matthew 18 marital approach. Whether it works or not, it is biblical. But it works a great deal of the time.
Back to Bob and Susie:
To give you an introductory look at my approach, I’ll share with you what I told Bob and Susie in that first counseling session. I’ll do it by giving my response to the four pieces of popular Christian advice they had received.
Popular Advice: Susie was told Bob’s affair was partly her fault.
My response: I told Bob his affair was 100 percent his fault.
I made it clear that Bob’s affair had nothing to do with Susie. It was his choice. I said: “Even if Susie was the worst wife in the world, she did nothing to cause you to have an affair. Susie is responsible for 50 percent of the marriage problems, but any behavior you do is 100 percent your responsibility. If you went out and robbed a bank today, would you blame that on Susie?”
Popular Advice: Susie was told she needed to win Bob back.
My Response: I told Bob he was going to have to win Susie back.
I told Susie to stop her pathetic, humiliating efforts to please Bob. Plus, I told her to stop chasing Bob. Stop being nice to Bob. And stop killing herself to make him love her again. Why reward the man who ripped her heart out?
By chasing Bob and trying so hard to be a good little wife, she was agreeing the affair was her fault. Since he had the affair, shouldn’t he be the one working harder? The first thing Susie must do is get Bob’s respect back. Without respect, there is no love. There is no repentance. And Bob won’t change. As a result, the marriage is over.
Popular Advice: Susie was told to forgive Bob quickly and move on from the affair.
My Response: Forgiveness is a process, which involves a number of difficult steps.
One godly, older woman pulled Susie aside and said: “Don’t bring up his affair again, Honey.” Unfortunately, there are many pastors and Christian therapists who also offer this disastrous advice.
Is this advice recommended for any other trauma work? “As a child, you were sexually abused by a neighbor . . . just forgive him and quickly move on,” (which would even allow you to think it was your fault). Or, “A drunk driver killed your daughter . . . just forgive him quickly and move on.” Or, “A financial advisor stole your life savings . . . just quickly forgive and move on.” Of course not!
To heal from a trauma, you must turn and face it directly. Go over and over the details. Make sure you feel and express your emotions. Relive the pain. Process it over and over and over. And go through the stages of grief.
Here are the trauma recovery steps I gave Bob and Susie:
Step One: Bob will tell Susie everything about his adultery—verbally and in writing.
Step Two: Bob will write the Document.
Bob will put down on paper a detailed narrative of the entire affair. He will tell how it started, how it developed, and the excuses and rationalizations he used to justify it. Plus he will tell what he and the paramour talked about, where they went, what they did together, where they had sex, and how many times they had sex. The only exception to all of this is leaving out the gory details of the sex. For example, he will not discuss what they did in sex.
Bob will read the Document in the second session.
Step Three: Susie will write a Document of Response.
She will write Bob an honest, heartfelt description of what his adultery has done to her. It will be her gut-level response to his sin. But she won’t hold back. She will—emotionally speaking—throw up on paper.
And then Susie will read her document of response in the third session.
Step Four: The Mode
For as long as it takes, usually three to eight months, Bob and Susie will have completely honest, direct, and intense conversations about Bob’s adultery. Susie will vent her emotions whenever she wants and however she wants. Bob will listen to all of this. He will then reflect, and say, “I’m sorry” a million times. Afterward, Susie will ask questions, and Bob will answer every question with kindness, patience, and humility.
This process heals Bob because he confesses his sin, faces it, and finds out why he did it. This process heals Susie because she knows exactly what happened. She can then work through it. Plus, this process heals the marriage because respect is restored. They learn how to communicate on a deep level, they learn how to resolve conflict, and they create real intimacy.
Popular Advice: Susie was told it was a marriage problem.
My Response: It’s not a marriage problem, but a sin problem.
Bob sinned big time. It’s all about Bob in the initial phase of treatment. For true marriage healing to take place Bob will do all the repenting. He’ll do all the work. And he’ll do all the changing. Of course, there is marriage work to do. But that will come later. It’ll come after Bob is well on his way to recovery. And it’ll come after Bob respects and loves Susie again.
If Bob refuses any of the steps I require him to do, I won’t continue to see him in therapy. I will recommend to Susie that she immediately take the other Matthew 18 steps. She is to confront with Bob with one or two witnesses, and she will then confront Bob with her church leaders.
If Bob doesn’t respond to these further confrontations, I will recommend immediate separation. Bob will be the one to leave the home. And if he refuses to leave, Susie will go into shunning mode. However, when Bob breaks and repents and is ready to work, I’ll see him again.
On Healing Marriage, Dr Clarke then says:
If you want to know more about my Matthew 18 recovery from marital sin program, get my book, What to Do When He Says, I Don’t Love You Anymore: An Action Plan to Regain Confidence, Power and Control (Thomas Nelson, 2002).
Find a Christian therapist who follows my approach. Call Focus on the Family (1-800-a-family) and get a list of therapists in your area. Ask your pastor for a list. Call each therapist and ask how he/she deals with adultery or whatever serious sin your spouse has committed. If it’s the wimpy approach, move on to the next one on the list. Make it clear to each therapist you want my approach followed. Until you find the right therapist, start implementing my steps of confrontation and recovery.
My approach is brutally tough. It is controversial. It confronts the sinner. Additionally, though, it empowers the victimized spouse. It is biblical. And it works.
Closing Note on Healing Marriage from Marriage Missions:
We agree with Dr Clarke, totally! The adulterer must repent of their sin(s) against their spouse and their marriage in order for it to get to a healing, healthy, loving place. But please be very prayerful and careful as to whether or not you take this “advice.” There are no promises as to whether or not the unfaithful spouse will do what he or she should do to bring healing. And you must consider this ahead of time.
This is definitely advice we would take to the Lord, and it’s advice we believe He would have us follow, if we were in this circumstance. We believe with our whole hearts that this is biblical, sound advice. But the dynamics of every marriage is different. We want to warn you of this.
Something we’ve learned is that God may know that repentance will come through a back door method. Or it may be that your spouse will not repent one way or another. He or she may wimp out in the process. Or you could do so. Or it could spin your marriage (such as it is) into an even more intolerable situation, as far as you’re concerned. And no matter what, you will have to live with the consequences of what happens after you take or don’t take this advice.
Living with the Results
It is YOU—the cheated upon spouse that we most care about (as does Dr Clarke). You are living with the consequences of what was done to you. And you will live with the consequences or the benefits of what you are about to do about all of this, from this day forward.
So, earnestly, whole-heartedly talk to God about all of this. Count the costs ahead of time. That is biblical, as well. Dr Clarke gives good, sound counsel. We agree with him on this. There is too much “bad” information being given to spouses who are grappling with the devastation of adultery. But you have to ask God whether or not this is counsel that you are to take. Ultimately, no human being is all knowing, so no human being can give you the answer to that question.