Over 23 years in pastoral ministry, I have been privy to more marital disaster than I would ever have imagined. Some couples call it quits, some couples soldier on and some couples recover miraculously. They don’t just survive, they thrive on the other side of moral and sexual collapse.
Why is that?
What do they do that other couples don’t?
While we should never think there is a magic formula for marital happiness, there does seem to be certain Gospel actions associated with miraculous recovery.
Couples who survive and thrive after a serious moral failing tend to do the following:
1. Confess sin specifically and appropriately
Trust cannot be reestablished apart from specific and appropriate confession. Both of those adjectives are important. By ‘specific’ I mean with reference to specific commandments.
Avoid phrases like “I’ve made some bad decisions.”
No one knows what that means and it sounds like something less than a full confession of sin. It sounds like a confession of bad taste or awkward timing, and it falls far short of what is required when a marriage covenant has been assaulted by sexual betrayal.
Instead use phrases like:
“I committed adultery”.
“I broke the 7th commandment”.
“I committed sexual immorality”.
“I violated my marriage vow”.
That is the sort of confession that very often summons grace and mercy. If you did it, own it. It is the fastest and only way back.
Also make sure that your confession is appropriate. By ‘appropriate’, I mean exactly the amount of detail desired by the offended party. There is such a thing as too much detail. Be aware that the details of your moral failing have the potential to run on infinite loop in the mind of your wounded spouse. Find out how much detail he or she would like to have. Tell them that you will disclose as much or as little as they would like. But give them time to think about it.
I recommend saying something like this:
“Honey, I committed adultery. I had improper sexual contact with so and so beginning on such and such a date. It was a violation of my marriage vows and it was totally inappropriate. I am willing to tell you as much or as little about it as you would like to know – but you can know this for sure. It’s over. I ended it, I’m ashamed of it and I am totally committed to making sure that nothing like that ever happens again.”
Say that and then be quiet. Let your spouse stew in that for a while before telling you how much or how little detail they’d like to receive.
There is no moving forward until you have done that.
But then after that, you need to do this:
2. Establish reasonable limits and boundaries
Nobody wakes up on a Tuesday and decides to blow up their marriage. Sleeping with a prostitute or having an affair with a co-worker is not just something that happens. It is never just bad judgment, it’s always the result of bad habits and porous boundaries. If you don’t fix that, then you’re not on the road to recovery.
After a moral failing, your spouse has the right to rigorously edit your habits, relationships and behaviours. If you don’t like that, then consider not having the affair in the first place. If you want to recover, you have to surrender some freedom.
I recommend the following:
- Regular, unscheduled, unannounced cell phone checks. Your spouse now has the right to pick up your phone out of your hand at any moment of the day and to review your browsing history and text log. This is non-negotiable.
- A full review of entertainment habits. What shows are you watching? Your spouse has the right to cross anything off the list. What time do you go to bed? Your spouse has the right to demand that you go to bed when he/she goes to bed. Do you have a weekly night out with friends? Your spouse has the right to cancel that night or to insist on regular check ins. Again, non-negotiable.
- A full auditing of friendships and associations. Most affairs begin as inappropriate friendships. Your spouse is supposed to be your best friend. Your spouse is supposed to be your confident. If you have been dividing your friendship inappropriately, your spouse has the right to direct changes. He or she has the full right to cancel any threatening opposite-sex friendship. You get one goodbye email. If the friendship is with a same-sex person and is of a non-sexual nature, it may also be deemed a threat to the marriage by reason of influence or quality. Your spouse has the right to demand a 6-month pause in that friendship. If you want to recover, this has to be on the table.
You aren’t recovering unless you’re changing. Change is hard. And so is accountability. Couples who survive and thrive after a serious moral failing:
3. Commit to rigorous and embarrassing accountability
Again, both of those adjectives are important. By ‘rigorous’ I mean regular, scheduled and frequent. By ‘embarrassing’, I mean invasive, awkward and specific.
I remember when I decided to get serious about my own sexual purity. I made a decision to invite a friend to ask me 5 embarrassing questions every time we got together. They were horrifying. They were graphic, awkward and borderline inappropriate – but knowing that I would have to sit at that coffee table and look into the eyes of my friend and answer those embarrassing questions was, in a sense, the last nail in the coffin of my fallen sexual nature.
Newsflash: People don’t enjoy shame. Use that to your advantage.
Shame is not always a bad thing in the Bible. God says that sometimes shame can keep you from doing stupid things and it can save you from facing future punishment. We see that in Jeremiah 8:
Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush. Therefore they shall fall among the fallen; when I punish them, they shall be overthrown, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 8:12 ESV)
Learn how to blush. Put yourself in a position to answer horrifying questions on a fairly regular basis. If you won’t do that, then you won’t likely recover.
Fourthly, if you want to survive and thrive on the other side of a serious moral failing:
4. Feed your spiritual and marital affections
The simple truth is that most people do what they want. Therefore, the ultimate solution to marital failure is to want the right things – or rather, to want the right people. Until you want God and your spouse more than you want to satisfy your animal desires, there will be no recovery from moral and sexual failure. You can’t just “willpower” your way out of this; you have to love your way out of it.
That suggests two things simultaneously. First of all, you have to grow your love for God. I think it would be hard to find a person who is totally enthralled with Jesus and having an affair on his wife. Perhaps such a person exists, but I haven’t met him or her in 23 years of pastoral ministry. Behind almost every marital disaster I’ve ever been privy to there lies a much neglected spiritual life. There is a person who is too busy to get to church. Too busy to read her Bible. Too engaged with the children to be in a Small Group. You just don’t meet a lot of spiritually vibrant adulterers or fornicators or pornographers. Rather, lack of discipline becomes lack of desire becomes lack of wisdom becomes lack of self-control becomes marital disaster. If God doesn’t satisfy you then you will seek out satisfaction in dark and dangerous places.
Secondly, you have to grow your love for your spouse. Some couples make the disastrous decision to cease all sexual interactions while they process their marital failure. While it may be necessary in extreme cases to pause long enough to ensure that it is safe to continue, in most cases the wisest course of action is to invest generously and immediately in renewed marital affections. The Bible nowhere counsels husbands and wives to engage in extended periods of abstinence, on the contrary, Paul said:
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:3–5 ESV)
You can’t necessarily “sex your way out of trouble”, but it’s very hard to get out of trouble without regular and generous sex in your marriage. Love each other. Be generous with each other. Be kind to one another, and you might just forget what it was that you were looking for in the gutter.
Go on dates.
Write awkward poetry.
Hold hands in the dark.
Do all the things you used to do before you got busy, lazy and stupid.
And then lastly:
5. Forgive each other as God in Christ has forgiven you
Before you are husband and wife you are brother and sister in Christ. Jesus said: “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3 ESV).
If your brother, who is your husband, or your sister, who is your wife, commits an act of sexual and covenantal betrayal it will hurt like nothing you’ve ever experienced before.
But you can recover.
Have it out. Scream and shout. Throw something! Get it on the table. Fight for your marriage and for the soul and salvation of your spouse! But if he repents – if she repents – then forgive him. If he confesses his sin, specifically and appropriately, if she agrees to reasonable limits and boundaries, if he commits to a process of rigorous and embarrassing accountability and if she feeds and fuels her appropriate affections – then forgive her.
As God in Christ has forgiven you.
That’s the Gospel; now preach it to yourself and believe it as a couple.
You can recover!
You can grow!
You can change!
You can forgive!
And your marriage can come back from the dead.
Grace does the most remarkable of things – in the life of a sinner and in the story of a broken and shattered marriage.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter