Infidelity: Prevention and Recovery
Although most wedding liturgies include a promise of faithfulness, some pockets of society seem to accept infidelity as normal behavior to be tolerated or ignored. Sexual and emotional affairs, however, destroy trust and damage families. After an affair, a couple may recover and build a relationship that is stronger than ever, but not without a lot of pain and hard work - and usually not without assistance. Churches can help couples protect their marriage bonds by alerting them to the normalcy and danger of extramarital attractions, encouraging them to take steps to prevent affairs, and supporting them through a healing process if affairs occur.
A young couple starting out their life together might find it difficult to believe they would ever be tempted to be unfaithful, but extramarital sexual attraction does happen, even while couples seem very much in love. Any weakness in the marital bond, such as ongoing disappointment, accumulated resentment, or failure to communicate clearly and effectively, increases an individual’s vulnerability to extramarital temptation. Couples can protect their marriages from affairs by recognizing this possibility and establishing clear boundaries for their relationships with others, while nurturing and strengthening their own relationship.
During pre-marital counseling or classes, couples should be encouraged to discuss their feelings about fidelity and to develop a safety plan for whenever they find themselves seeking opportunities to be alone with someone else or tempted to keep secrets from each other. Churches can offer marriage education and enrichment classes that focus on communication and the importance of nurturing the marriage relationship, using such resources as Willard Harley’s His Needs, Her Needs and Scott Stanley’s The Power of Commitment (see resources list below). Churches can also promote retreats and events offered through organizations such as Better Marriages (www.bettermarriages.org), Family Dynamics Institute (www.familydynamics.net), and others reviewed in Marriage and Family Ministry Resources Recommended by United Methodists (/minister-to-people/marriage). Providing scholarship assistance and child care can encourage couples to attend. Through their preaching, pastors can address the sacredness of the marriage bond and the normal stages of marriage: The Dream, The Disillusionment, The Discovery, and The Depth (see Sustaining Love, in resource list below). Sermons and class discussions can also focus on how seemingly small, harmless steps can lure us into danger and the importance of resisting selfish impulses that can hurt our loved ones and destroy our families.
Discoveries of infidelity shock and deeply wound betrayed spouses. Some will interpret the betrayal as their own failure, rather than that of the unfaithful spouse. Even those with healthy self-esteem may wonder how they could have misplaced their trust or missed clues that something was amiss. Most will feel as though they have been robbed of something very precious – the sexual and/or emotional connection they thought was theirs exclusively. They will feel that the marriage relationship has been contaminated and that the safety they felt in the relationship was just an illusion. Often they will have difficulty trusting themselves again, not to mention trusting the betrayer. The loss of trust may even include loss of trust in God.
Skilled therapists can work with both individuals and with the couple together to help them process what has happened and repair the damage. Pastors are not necessarily trained to provide such delicate, intense, and long-term therapy, but they should know who in their area is and make referrals accordingly. Such counseling may include confronting the unfaithful party and insisting that the extramarital relationship be broken off completely. Or, if that person is not willing to end the affair, an experienced counselor can help the betrayed spouse understand the addictive nature of affairs and decide how long to wait for the other to regain his/her senses - and what to do in the meantime.
Even when the unfaithful partner fully repents, it can take two years or more for the relationship to fully recover. A skilled therapist will encourage the unfaithful spouse to tell the betrayed partner whatever he or she needs to know in order to reconstruct the story of their relationship and respect whatever boundaries and restrictions are required in order to rebuild trust. This might include sharing of email passwords, more frequent check-ins by phone, and full disclosure. Betrayed spouses will need to talk about the affair in order to discover its meaning. Was it impulsive or compulsive? What did the straying spouse experience in the affair that was missing in the marriage? Contrary to popular belief, it may not have been about sex, but perhaps companionship, fun, or emotional connection. The betrayed spouse cannot, of course, be blamed for the choices and behavior of the unfaithful person, but may eventually understand his or her contribution to the partner’s vulnerability. During this period, couples benefit from supportive relationships with others who have been through similar experiences (see The Beyond Affairs Network, below) and from those who value the marital covenant.
The church should clearly endorse fidelity, loyalty, and commitment, as well as healing for broken relationships, especially in the face of media messages to the contrary. Worship experiences that acknowledge the human tendency to stray from our values and that emphasize the power of God’s grace can encourage persons in trouble, such as betrayed or straying spouses, to feel safe asking for help. Churches can place relevant books in the church library, display pamphlets addressing various personal and family challenges, and promote marriage strengthening events. Couples who have successfully recovered from affairs might serve as mentors to help guide struggling couples through their recovery process. Ongoing opportunities for marriage education and enrichment both help prevent couples from sliding into affairs and strengthen couples recovering from them. Such initiatives can generate a marriage-friendly atmosphere and create a community that honors, preserves, and restores marriages, reducing the risk of infidelity and supporting healing whenever it is needed.