The pain of adultery is raw and intense. No metaphor does it justice, but if I were to try to describe it, I would picture being kicked in the stomach, sending you reeling in confusion, and knocking you to the ground. As you lie there on the ground trying to get your bearings, you discover that what has actually happened is that you've been stabbed in the heart. Suddenly you become aware of the sharp, piercing pain of betrayal, and then of the surrounding dull ache of everything you thought was your reality suddenly being exposed as fake. Everything you loved and wanted and had been living for, in an instant of discovery and recognition, feels like a lie.
If the spouse leaves, add in all the emotions of divorce along with the emotions of adultery. I described my emotional state as an enormous ball of tangled yarns that I had no idea how to unravel. For a while, I didn’t, because I simply couldn't. I sank into a depression, a shadow of myself, my children my only motivation for getting up in the morning and for plastering on a fake smile to get through the day. I realize now it wasn’t a true depression, but simply a natural and necessary season of grieving.
One day, finally, I felt strong enough to begin to tackle that ball, one string at a time. Self worth. Fear. Abandonment. Betrayal. Loss of the relationship itself. Loss of the dream of the amazing marriage I had wanted to have. The lifelong marriage I had wanted to have.
Let me just stop here to add a disclaimer- some of these emotions came from the fact that my husband left, and was not open to reconciliation. Healing from divorce is a whole different topic, which I will write about at some point, and there are steps a couple would need to take together to heal a marriage after adultery. What I want to share here are things that were instrumental to my personal healing, with the prayer that it would encourage someone needing to rebuild after this type of betrayal.
2. Counseling – In many situations going to counseling feels like the final straw in the ultimate admission of weakness. Your sense of worth is already damaged, and now you have to pay someone to be your friend, to listen to you, and to help you know what to do because you are too clueless about your own life to know how to move forward. You have to know, it isn’t weakness. Pride in thinking you can see a situation clearly when you are so close to it you can’t help but be near-sighted is weakness. Counselors have seen a lot. They will listen, but they are trained to read between the lines, and to see the things about your situation that you may not. If you are a believer in Christ and that the Bible is God’s Word, find a counselor who believes as you do. You don’t want someone who calls themselves a Christian counselor, but merely tops psychology with a dusting of Scripture- this kind of pain and loss requires a counselor who counsels with the compassion of Christ, and from a Godly worldview.
I say this only because I have seen all too often counselors both in the church and outside it who believe that in cases of adultery, divorce is the only option. According to Scripture, it is permitted and certainly justified, but that doesn’t mean that every single instance of adultery has to end in divorce. If the offending spouse is repentant and willing to go through the process of breaking ties with the other party, rooting out sinful thought and behavior patterns that led them down the road of adultery, and earning back the trust of their spouse, reconciliation is possible. However, you probably know already that when you love someone deeply, you may very much want to trust them before they can actually be trusted, and moving forward with a spouse who is not truly walking a road of repentance can lead to much more hurt and destruction.
A good counselor can see from an outside perspective, removed from the heated emotions, and can help discern where both parties are in the process of healing. Their participation, or that of a trusted minister or mentor, can be vital in ensuring future success of a marriage that has endured this type of betrayal. If you go to one and you don’t feel right about the first person you go to, don’t be afraid to try someone else. Find the person who listens to you, encourages you, and who you feel comfortable being vulnerable with.
3. Repentance – What? But my spouse is the one who sinned, not me! And yes, that’s very true. The sin of adultery seems to outweigh so many others. But we know, maybe not in our hearts at a time when we are broken, but at least in our heads, that God does not put a measure on sin. In His grace, He used the time of processing my husband’s adultery as a time for self-examination for me, as well. Yes, my husband made the choice he made, and it was a sin against both God and me, but what negative thing might I have contributed to the marriage? For me personally, it was self-righteousness- every sinful act that he indulged in caused me to feel better and more righteous than he was. How enjoyable is it to live with a spouse who thinks they are better than you? This does NOT justify his actions- my sin did not make his sin acceptable- but part of my process of healing was to not make everything about him, but to come clean before God about my own sin. This was the part that helped me to grow from the trial. Something that seemed at first to break me, in the end, became another step in my sanctification. So what sin do you need to repent of? Have you been in any way unloving? Unyielding? Have you indulged in sexually sinful behaviors yourself?
4. Forgiveness – Oh, yes. You knew I would go there. It’s such a hard, but necessary thing to do, and it’s okay if it’s a gradual process. It starts in your heart- ask God to help you be able to forgive your spouse for the hurt he/she caused you. You may have to keep on asking, because you may not really be feeling that forgiveness for a while, and that’s okay. Eventually, it may help with your own healing process to TELL your spouse that you forgive him/her. Before doing this, you need to be sure your heart truly has forgiven and is right, because you don’t know where their heart is. You may receive a tearful apology and a plea to come running back into their arms, but the harsh reality is- you may not. You must be sure if and before you choose to take a step like this that it is only for a true and healthy release of the situation, and not with any expectations.
If the spouse asks for your forgiveness first, it’s okay if your heart is only partially ready to forgive. It can take some discernment to know whether their heart is sincere in repentance, and if so, whether it is repentance with readiness to do work toward reconciliation, or if they are merely sorry to have been caught, or for whatever consequences may have happened as a result of their adultery.
And yes, forgive the “other” party… This was the last step for me- at first it never even crossed my mind that I needed to forgive her. Yet as I progressed through my healing process, I realized I was being held back by something. I asked God to reveal what it was, and one night in a Bible study class it hit me- I needed to forgive the “other” woman. It was easier than I had expected- easier than forgiving my spouse. I saw her as yes, a participant, but not the one with the ultimate choice that left me on my face with the wind knocked out of me. I never spoke to her- just released the attitude of resentment that I held in my heart- the comparing of her to me- what did he see in her? What did she have that I didn’t? Once I let it go, I gained a large piece of myself back. One day, out of the blue, she did send me a Facebook message asking for my forgiveness. I didn’t find it until much later, long after the wound had healed, but knowing she felt sorry gave me a level of respect for her I had not had before- helpful, since she is now my children’s stepmother. (More thoughts on forgiveness: “Forgiveness 101-Simple Steps to Letting it Go”, or “Forgiving the ‘Tough’ People- When Forgiveness Doesn’t Make Sense”)
One day I stumbled across Isaiah 54:5- “ ‘For your Maker is your husband- the Lord Almighty is his name- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The Lord will call your back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit- a wife who married young, only to be rejected,’ says your God.”
Wow. That was me to a “T”- a wife deserted, distressed in spirit, who married young, only to be rejected. For months I meditated over that verse, identifying every way in which God could fill the husband void. He became my security, my Provider, my source of love and companionship, and ultimately filled and healed my heart until I was completely content, even as a single mom with a “divorced” sticker across my forehead. Those labels no longer mattered to me because I finally knew my real identity.
John Piper made the statement, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Though I certainly didn’t do everything right in those years, I believe ultimately God was glorified because I finally learned to be satisfied in Him. It’s a lesson I, unfortunately, have had to re-learn in subsequent seasons of trial, but hey, God isn’t finished with any of us, thank goodness.
If adultery has happened to you and you are still floundering and gasping for air, be patient with yourself- give yourself grace. These thoughts are easy to quickly skim as bullet points on a page, but the process of healing took months, even years, to walk through. Start small. Say a prayer. Call a friend. Pick up your Bible and read a chapter. Cry. And cry. And cry. And know that it’s ok. It WILL BE ok. YOU will be ok.