As I look back over the years of adultery and divorce, one of the most difficult things I had to do was to discern when to call it quits in my marriage. As a Christian, I was raised knowing that marriage is a sacred covenant between man and God, a commitment to love and cherish for as long as we both shall live. Divorce was never a word I allowed to enter into my vocabulary. I never dreamed that I would be a statistic.
After the revelation of my husband’s affair, I made the decision to fight for my marriage—to extend forgiveness and let God make our marriage better than ever. For about six months, I fought to regain trust, to forgive, to put bitterness behind me. But, I eventually realized that I was the only one fighting for the marriage.
My prayers began to change. “Lord, please show me if I need to hang in here and fight,” I would beg Him. The answer, in my mind, was silence. My friends who were close to me and the situation began to tell me that God was showing them it was time for me to walk away. But, I couldn’t hear God saying that. After all, have you ever heard a sermon where the pastor tells you to throw in the towel? Never…and I would never want to hear a pastor say that. God can heal every marriage, but He doesn’t always. Therein is the struggle of God’s sovereignty vs man’s free will.
I struggle with whether to even throw this out, and I am certain that there will be negative backlash to it. However, I do believe that God does give permission to walk away in the case of marital unfaithfulness. When you know that your spouse has been unfaithful, when you have the undeniable proof or admission of guilt, I encourage you to give God and forgiveness a chance. However, when you have done all you know to do, when you’ve prayed all you can pray, when your closest, most godly advisors are telling you to walk away, and yet you can’t hear God telling you that it is ok…then, consider the list below.
(I will use the pronoun “he” only for simplicity; I realize that for every man who cheats, there is a woman also involved.)
Has the unfaithful spouse admitted to his sins? My gut reaction was to protect my husband, and I made the mistake of keeping his transgression private. I allowed him to hide from the truth of his actions, and, therefore, continue in a life of secrecy. But, confession of sins is vital to repentance. Depending upon the circumstances, it is not necessary for the unfaithful spouse to tell everyone you know. However, it is essential that he admits the truth to those closest to you—children (if age appropriate), parents, close family members. In my case, my ex-husband should have been willing to confess to the church because it was directly impacted by his actions.
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. James 5:16
Is your spouse allowing you to express your hurt? To process the betrayal, you must be able to talk about it. You must be able to express the multitude of emotions with which you are dealing. Keeping it all bottled up inside will damage both of you. For the first six weeks or so after my husband’s affair was discovered, he was fairly open to me talking about my emotions. However, I soon began to hear, “You are going to hold this over my head for the rest of our lives, aren’t you?” My response was to shut my mouth and bottle it up. The offending spouse, if truly repentant, will understand that he has done great damage to you and will be willing to hear your heart ache. He will realize that your pain is a consequence of his actions, and will be willing to endure for your sake. I am not saying that your spouse should be the only one you talk about these feelings with, and it most definitely should not be the only topic of discussion. But, there will be times when you will need to talk about it with the one who has caused the pain. He should be willing to listen and cry with you, understanding that he is responsible and accepting that responsibility.
Does the offending spouse allow you to check up on him? When a spouse has been unfaithful, trust has been completely shattered. You no longer trust anything your spouse says. You will find yourself checking on him to see if he really is with Dan. Is he really at the office? He said he was going to run by the bookstore; I wonder if he is really there? He said he was going to the gym, but I wonder if that was an excuse to see her? If your spouse is truly repentant, he will understand that you need to allay your fears by checking on him. He will gladly hand the phone to Dan so you will know he really is with Dan. He will allow you to drive over to meet him at the bookstore. If he is going to be late, he will gladly call you and let you know why he is late and how long it will be. He will do whatever is necessary to help you rebuild trust.
Is he willing to go and participate in individual and joint counseling? If your spouse had an affair, you need an impartial and experienced third party to help you navigate the murky waters. Perhaps it is a pastor at your church or your church may recommend a licensed counselor. Whatever qualified person you can find will be an essential step to your healing. The counselor can help you both see areas where you need to surrender to God and change your thinking. He will help you discuss touchy issues that you might otherwise find difficult to discuss. My husband and I found a godly couple who had successfully navigated the waters of adultery (he was a former pastor). Although I faithfully met with her, my husband refused to meet with him after he suggested that at some point my husband needed to apologize to the congregation he had been pastoring. I eventually sought out a licensed Christian counselor who told me it was time to divorce. At that point my husband forbade me to return. I knew the end was near.
Is your spouse sharing with you? Do you know your spouse’s passwords? Is his phone off-limits to you? Does he regularly try to keep his computer away from you? After several months of trying to keep things together, I found that my husband never had any incoming or out-going calls listed on his phone. He only used a work computer, and I did not have access to it. Caller ID was always blank. Although her husband and I communicated regularly, they had become very adept at hiding things from us. Phone calls did not register on the phone bill if they went to voicemail. A new business line was a convenient way to communicate. Rather than using a computer, he was using his cell phone and keeping the history wiped out. If there is anything suspicious, you need to confront. You need to express your concerns and consider if he is hiding something from you.
Is he spending time alone with God? God is the Healer. He is the one who can help your spouse change his ways. He is the One who sets the prisoner free. If your spouse is not making time alone with God a priority, if he is not taking the family to church, if he is not stepping into the role of spiritual leader (men only), then you need to wonder if he is seriously repentant. My husband actively took us to church as a family for about eight weeks after the revelation of his affair. He then suddenly lost all interest in church and even told me he did not miss it one bit. I now know that the timeline of quitting church corresponds with the exact time he began to communicate with her again.
Is he accusing you of the same sins he committed? I had an opportunity for an affair about nine months after his affair was revealed—and I found myself awfully close to the fire. However, I ultimately decided to walk away. Suddenly, I was the one sneaking around to see a man—any man that even said hello to me. If I went to the store, I was actually going to meet a man—even though I came home with a car full of groceries and a receipt to show where I had been. If I went out walking, I was just walking to the corner and then getting picked up by a man—just as he had done for several years. When I was working a night shift at the hospital, I was really with someone at their house. All of the things he had done were suddenly projected onto me. In my opinion, he was looking for a way to shift the blame from himself and onto me. He was unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.
Is he taking the lead on healing the marriage? About six months into our attempted reconciliation, I reached a place where I realized I was the only one putting any effort into healing the marriage. That was the moment I took off my wedding ring and vowed never to put it back on my finger until I saw him working at healing. The offending spouse—if truly repentant—will be willing to do whatever is necessary to keep the marriage together, to give you security. And there is no timeframe for when it ends; it ends when death separates you. After months of enduring, I gave one last chance: I told him I would go to counseling but he needed to take the lead and call the counselor. He could not comprehend why it was his responsibility to call the counselor and schedule the appointment. He refused to make an appointment, and that is when I made an appointment with a divorce attorney.
Is he willing to accept the consequences of his actions? All of the above illuminates this point, but I must re-iterate it. Please understand…you must be willing to love, respect, and forgive. You must not hold it over his head. You must be working to get closer to Christ and allow Him to show you the sin in your own heart. If you are doing all of that and he is unwilling to accept the consequences—broken trust, lack of security, emotional distress—then there is a problem. You must not allow this problem to be swept under the rug and not be dealt with. If you are going to endure the pain, then you want your marriage to go from good to great—as we all know God can do. Just because you forgive does not mean there are no consequences.
I know how difficult it is to hear God say that it is ok for you to walk away from your covenant marriage. I know the emotional distress as you strive to hear His voice telling you that He understands. I know how badly you want to hang in there, to fight, to not let go because you made a commitment. And, for some of you, God will tell you to hang in there a little longer—and He will resurrect your marriage from the dead.
However, there are others of you who have endured such tremendous pain and anguish. You’ve done everything you can do. You’ve prayed all you can pray. You are seeing the signs that your spouse is not truly repentant—perhaps, like my husband, continuing in his adulterous ways. God may just be telling you that it is ok for you to walk away. Some of you may find that by walking away, your spouse wakes up and is truly repentant. Others, like me, may end up divorced and five years down the road and still see no repentance. I’m not here to tell anyone to walk away—especially if you sense God is telling you to hang in there. But, for those of you who are struggling to make the decision, I hope that the above guidelines may help provide clarity in your decision.
(By the way, I know there will be those people who tell you that divorce is never appropriate for God’s holy, chosen people. While God says he hates divorce in Malachi, I believe it is because He hates the pain that His children must endure because of divorce. He also clearly says that divorce is wrong except in the case of marital unfaithfulness… Hold your heads high and know that He loves you no matter what! And, I love you too!!)