A Christian brother comes over one night. He crumples onto your couch tears overflowing. Through his heaving sobs, you learn his wife has left him and is having sex with another man. The hollow and desperate look in his eyes tears at your heart.
What can you do?
I will start with the negative first. These dangerous responses are often the knee-jerk responses to adultery discovery with faithful spouses and can cause considerable damage if not checked.
1. Don’t support the shared responsibility lie.
The “shared responsibility lie” says the faithful spouse is partially responsible for the adultery committed by the other spouse. This is untrue. Sin flows from the heart of the sinner. Jesus makes that very clear when teaching on what actually defiles a person, and he even explicitly lists adultery as one of such heart-defiling sins (e.g. Mt 15:18-20).
Adultery does not flow from a poor marriage, poor submission issues from the wife, or from poor leadership issues from the husband. Adultery flows from the heart of the adulterous spouse who alone is responsible for her own choice to engage in an affair.
Does this mean the faithful spouse is without other sin in the marriage relationship?
Probably not. We all would benefit in growing in holiness on this side of Heaven. However, such sin by the faithful spouse does not cause adultery. The choice made by the adulterous spouse to give into temptation is what caused the adultery.
I cannot overemphasize how important it is to keep this point clear!
2. Don’t confuse grief as choosing not to forgive.
Much Christian literature on healing from adultery is focused upon forgiveness. I agree that we need to forgive those who have sinned against us. Jesus commands it (e.g. Mt 6:15). However, focusing on forgiveness too early and exclusively can be cruel.
How many of us as Christians would respond to the parents of a murder victim initially by insisting they need to forgive their son’s murderer? Do we condemn them for their anger towards him? Are we quick to slap the “bitter” label upon them when they continue to struggle after the horrible, violent death of their son? Forgiveness is something all Christians need to grant. However, we are more willing to grant grieving time to some victims more than others.
Allow the adultery survivor time to grieve his losses–e.g. lost dreams, lost health (e.g. contracted STDs), lost children (e.g. negative paternity test/custody issues), lost finances, lost sense of safety, etc. Condemning the faithful spouse for not being further along in the grieving process is cruel. Deep wounds do not heal in a day. It will likely take significant time for the faithful spouse to heal and forgive such grievous sin.
3. Don’t support marital reunion without real repentance.
When sin takes place, Scripture teaches repentance is in order (e.g. Mt 18:15-17, Lk 17:3, 2 Cor 7:10, Heb 10:26-27, etc.). The temptation is to short-change this process of repentance in the hopes of keeping the marriage “intact.” However, I highly discourage giving into such a temptation. It does not help either party as it doesn’t actually deal with the spiritual cancer–i.e. the adultery and accompanying lies.
Furthermore, encouraging marital reunion prior to true repentance on the adulterous spouse’s part can open up the faithful spouse to considerable risks. In training for suicide prevention, I was told, “past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.” The default in a marriage ravaged by adultery is that it will likely happen again. Personally, I have no desire to have to explain to a faithful spouse with a positive STD test why I encouraged him to ignore the signs that his wife had not repented of her adultery prior to their being reunited.
Would you bet your actual life on the belief the adulterous spouse has changed his/her sinful ways and truly repented? The faithful spouse is doing exactly that in reuniting with the adulterous spouse. So, if you would not bet your own life in reuniting with the unfaithful spouse, then I suggest not betting someone else’s life either in encouraging or pressuring them into a risky reunion.
1. Do remind him that he is not at all responsible for adultery.
The temptation is strong for the faithful spouse to take partial blame for the adultery committed against him or her. I think this temptation is heightened for Christians as we want to look humble and avoid the “bitter” label. Gently remind them that they did not give into the temptation to commit adultery. Their unfaithful spouse did. And they cannot control this situation any more than they can control the heart of another human being.
2. Do allow them to express their emotions freely (and physically safely).
Part of the healing process is to allow the full expression of grief. Everyone grieves in their own way, and it is important that we respect their grieving. Give space for a friend to grieve safely. Give them your presence free of condemnation. Anger and sadness are appropriate responses after discovering adultery.
Listen to their angry rants, give them a hug, or go for a walk with them to burn off some angry energy. They will be emotionally raw, and you may be uncomfortable. Allowing them to grieve is not about making you feel comfortable. Honest feelings of betrayal, anger, pain, rejection, abandonment, and even alienation from God need to be expressed and heard.
In sum, I hope next time you find yourself caring for a friend who has just discovered such adulterous betrayal that you now feel better equipped to extend God’s love to them.
***This article was originally written as a pitch for relevantmagazine.com and sent to them on January 4th, 2015. They have chosen not to publish it as I have received no reply from them indicating interest. (Their own guidelines for writing for them tell writers to consider their articles unusable for the online platform if they do not hear back in 6-8 weeks or so.) In light of this admitted disappointment, I have decided to publish the article here as I believe it may be helpful to you all.