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Friday, January 17, 2014

Surviving the Affair - the Road from Hell.

Some say that an affair can actually strengthen a marriage.

These people are idiots.

To say that infidelity can be beneficial is only true in the same way that having a metal plate installed in your skull after an accident makes your head harder. Want to go through the process?

Didn't think so.

But the sad fact is that there's a lot of infidelity going on, and what on Earth does one do...after? How can things go back to what they were before...it happened?

You're probably thinking, "They can't." Hold that thought, please.

First, some affairs do signal the end of the marriage. Where there's no regret, where allegiance is switched to the partner in infidelity, there is typically no way forward in the relationship. God may hate divorce, but infidelity is a recognized justification.

In some cases there's regret, but it's not enough to stop what's euphemistically called "a wandering eye."

It's a stupid euphemism. An affair is tawdry, cheating disloyalty. "Wandering" sounds so footloose, carefree...sounds a lot better than the more accurate "sneaking around eye."

These marriages are usually doomed, as well. The wronged spouse may hang in there, for the sake of children or parents or tradition, or just plain principle, but it's the loneliest way to live, an emotional Devil's Island.

And then there are the relationships that can survive, starting with deep regret and full repentance from the unfaithful spouse, and setting out on a path from which there will be no detours.

In the movies the unfaithful spouse is tearfully repentant, there's a 10-minute period of adjustment as the wronged spouse swallows pride that was, after all, not needed. Then there's the dramatically rising music, and as the credits roll you know everything will be all right.

Real life is a bit different. Full regret and repentance are hard for the unfaithful spouse to offer, because they require brutal self-examination in the light of unyielding principles.

But for the wronged spouse, they're the hardest things to face, because they require nothing less than a response of full forgiveness.

Which, under the circumstances, sounds impossible. How can we possibly get there?

To begin with, help is essential in the form of counseling. This is one thing you can't do alone. Both spouses need time individually and separately with a counselor (either lay or clergy) to sort through the wreckage, and to drain off the psychological poison.

For this, you need a professional, someone who can listen with empathy, and neutrality. The wronged spouse doesn't need an ally in anger, nor does the unfaithful spouse need backing in residual feelings of defiance.

The next thing both spouses need is  accountability. To one another, and to themselves.

The unfaithful spouse has to live transparently, with no shadow-corners or secrets. This is easy to say, but how does one do it without awkwardness, or turning it into an exercise in self-justification? We all have email; we all have cell phones, and almost all of us have access to time and transportation that offers privacy.

These form the basis for our lives, and how do we make them accessible to another as proof of fidelity?

Here are some suggestions. They won't work in all cases, but at least one might work in most cases.

  • No private computer, and no private computer time. This means that the unfaithful spouse gives up the iPad and the laptop, and the family computer is in the middle of the living room for all to see. And there's to be no "I'll come to bed in a little while" evenings. The computer gets shut off at bedtime, period, and left to cool in a darkened room.
  • Change email addresses and cell phone numbers. These are the primary ways we stay in touch with people we don't see regularly (and even with people we do!), and changing them is at least a symbolic act. Yes, they can easily be transmitted to the partner in infidelity, but it's at least a gesture - albeit one which does require trust. It's a given that the wronged spouse has to be given access through passwords.
  • Change habits. We all fall into routines. Excising the cancer of infidelity is something like surgery, and you don't return to what you were doing immediately afterward. You develop a new routine during the recovery process, and it becomes part of your life forevermore. Same thing here. Eat in different places, do different things on weekends. Break the pattern that's associated with the offense.
  • Avoidance. The unfaithful spouse has to avoid the partner in infidelity, no matter what. If it's a mutual friend, that friendship is obviously over. It's a someone at church, switch churches. If it's a fellow parent at the soccer league...hard as it is, pull your child from the league. If it's someone at work, ask for a transfer, or quit. This is vital, because proximity is perceived by the wronged spouse as opportunity. This is one of the places where the value of you marriage has to be paid in full. It may be a very heavy price - financially, and emotionally.
But these are mechanical actions, so to speak, They;'re things we can do, but they dance around the main issues. Repentance, and forgiveness.

Repentance is easier. Regret over disloyalty is natural, and as long as it doesn't become the hair shirt of public martyrdom, it's a good thing. A self-inflicted would still has to heal, and healing hurts.

But forgiveness? That's not so bad. At least you don't have to forgive and forget.

Ah, but you do. Otherwise the forgiveness is diluted; every time the offense is recalled, whether in the privacy of the mind or in a carefully-crafted 'offhand' remark, it sets back the clock of redemption.

But how? It sounds good, but this is clearly superhuman, and impossible.

Impossible for us. Not impossible with God, because He decided to forgive our sins - and to forget them.

We're enjoined to be Christ-like, and this is where the rubber meets the road.

OK, we're not Jesus. But we can act like him.
  • No reminders. Once the decision has been made to save the marriage - no verbal reminders of the past. Ever. A verbal reminder becomes an act of disloyalty. You set out on the new road, and you don't look back.
  • No distance. You have to be physically affectionate, and physically intimate. No 'waiting until I get over it'. Disturbing thoughts and images won't become dimmer with time if closeness and sex are avoided. They'll get worse, and make the road back that much harder. The unfaithful spouse is 'damaged goods', and knows it. The wronged spouse has the job to provide healing reassurance. Not fair? Too bad. Life is not fair, and you're dealing with its rawest reality here. The hurt has to be healed.
  • Pray together. If you didn't, start. If you did, keep it up, and increase the time. Cancel Facebook, forget Idol, dump the NFL. You can't get through this without God.
No, you can't forget. But Jesus said that we should pray with the thought that our prayer has already been granted, and we can apply the same principle here, acting as if the past has been forgotten.

As a prayer for our mutual redemption.

If you have anything to add - please do.

You can save a marriage today.


  1. Such a timely and important topic, Andrew. I have nothing to add! I agree--the movies put unrealistic expectations about overcoming betrayal. It can take years to rebuild trust, and it takes huge change for both parties. Also, the betrayed person needs to let go of the trump card factor.

    1. Well, said, Jill! I love the phrase, 'trump card factor'.

      Marriage is organic, and allowing for growth and healing simply does not allow room for ego, either in superiority or inferiority.

      The trust factor is important, and hard to address, because the most effective treatment is to re-extend complete trust, along with non-conditional forgiveness. There's an old adage that if you don't trust your spouse, they'll eventually prove you right...that distrust sows evil seeds.

      This goes against gut feeling! One feels that trust has to be slowly re-earned, in small steps...but the truth is that this method plays the trump card. Re-extending complete trust may seem naive, a dreaful risk, but marriage is a risk. Life is a risk.

      Here's an analogy. When I learned to fly, a well-meaning friend advised me to stay low and slow until I had experience. Fine-sounding for a non-pilot, but completely wrong.

      An airplane flown slowly is closer to its 'stalling' speed, at which the wing stops generating lift. Recovering from a stall requires putting the nose down to regain flying speed...and it you're low you don't have the altitude to play with

      Fast and high may seem daring, but it's life.

  2. "Otherwise the forgiveness is diluted; every time the offense is recalled, whether in the privacy of the mind or in a carefully-crafted 'offhand' remark, it sets back the clock of redemption."

    Well said, Andrew. I love Jill's comment, too.

    One would be trapped forever in un-forgiveness. Forgiven through the Cross ... un-forgiven at home. That would be torture.

    1. The dichotomy between unforgiveness at home, and forgiveness through Chist would indeed be torture...

      As He pointed out, in the parable of the servant who was forgvien his debts, and then turned around to shake down someone who owed HIM money. Handed over to the torturers, as I recall...