Is marriage over after an affair? I can tell you that it doesn't have to be. Here's how to save it!
"If you know anyone whose marriage has been affected by an extramarital affair, raise your hand."
If you asked this question to any group of adults, what percentage do you think would raise their hands? My guess is 100%.
It’s a fact of life in the modern world. Surveys differ as to the exact percentage, but I believe that my friend Bill Harley, author of His Needs, Her Needs, is on target when he states that 60% of American marriages are affected by an extramarital affair sometime in the course of the marriage. To better understand extramarital affairs, I sorted them into three large categories with several subcategories.
The Short-Lived Affair lasts from one night to several months and is primarily about sex. Subcategories included Revenge Affairs, Affairs of Opportunity (at the right place at the right time to do the wrong thing), Self-Esteem Booster Affairs, and more.
The Permission Affair has become more prevalent with the graying of morality. It was once called Swinging, later Wife-Swapping, and now its participants just call it “The Lifestyle.”
The Relationship Affair is the most difficult to overcome. It typically starts as friendship that evolves into shared emotions and eventually shared bodies. The reason it is tougher to overcome is because those in Relationship Affairs usually are in love with each other.
That’s why so many of these affairs lead to divorce, no matter how strongly you tell the person that s/he is sinning and no matter how hard the offended spouse tries to save the marriage. If you’ve ever tried to help a person madly in love with someone other than his or her spouse, you know the frustration. Of course, because of such passages as Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, churches usually grant the offended spouse the right to start over with a new mate, and few blame him or her for moving on with life after being cheated on.
May I offer another possibility?
It’s true that the cheated spouse may divorce the cheating spouse and find a different path for the future. However, wouldn’t it be better for everyone – cheated, cheater, children, church, and community – if there were a way to rescue the straying spouse, heal the hurts, and guide husband and wife back to a marriage of love and commitment? Though we in the “marriage business” usually don’t proclaim this little jewel from the rooftops, if a marriage survives an affair it will be stronger and more loving than it was before the affair. (We tend to keep that to ourselves so that some idiot doesn’t think, “Hey, I know how to make my marriage better…”)
However, salvaging a marriage when one spouse is in love with someone else usually isn’t accomplished by pointing the adulterer to scripture, logic, or consequences. If I had space, I’d explain why. (You can read about it in chapter four of my book Your LovePath.) The short version is that they are driven by strong and compelling emotions that they’re convinced you have no way of understanding. Therefore, you are dismissed, along with your Bible, lectures, and piety. Very often they’ll even tell you that God sent the lover to them.
So what do you do to save these marriages?
Based on my experience (75% success rate in saving these marriages over the last decade), I suggest the following to both the offended spouse and to all Christians attempting to help:
- Believe that an affair – even an exceptionally strong Relationship/Love Affair – is not necessarily the end of a marriage. It may well be, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t give up. Keep praying and keep doing the right things, no matter how hopeless it may seem at the moment.
- Don’t beg, cajole, or attempt to manipulate the adulterer. S/he is already emotionally on edge; emotional actions from you exacerbate the situation. Be firm and calm. (This is especially important for the offended spouse NOT to do.)
- Don’t try to convince him or her that the lover is a bad person or primarily responsible for the affair. That might work in a Short-Lived Affair. It always causes a person in a Relationship Affair to develop an “us against the world” union with the lover.
- Drag out any divorce proceedings as long as possible. The intense emotions involved with being “madly in love” last anywhere from six to thirty-six months. (see Your LovePath) Though the straying spouse may become angry and try to manipulate the offended spouse into divorce (“I’ll make things tougher for you if you don’t go along with me…”), the abandoned spouse should be strong, endure the other’s wrath, and drag it out as long as possible. There is a very real possibility that the abandoning spouse will eventually lose the intensity of desire to be with the lover.
- The abandoned spouse should demonstrate his or her ability to not only survive but prosper without the abandoning spouse. S/he must concentrate on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. This accomplishes two things. 1) The abandoned spouse needs this for him- herself. 2) The abandoned spouse becomes more attractive when strong and self-sufficient.
- In fervent prayer ask God to bring chaos, financial distress, and anything else He will do to cause pain as a result of the sinner’s actions and to make it difficult for him or her to continue in the affair.
- The abandoned spouse needs an attorney that will protect his or her rights, finances, and the like. Though this may sound vengeful, this attorney should make the divorce as painful as possible – financially and otherwise – to the abandoning spouse. Expect that spouse to react with anger. However, making sin have strong negative consequences is the right thing to do.
- The church should practice discipline, though in our day and age that hasn’t nearly the effect it had in Bible times. It’s just so easy now to walk down the street and go to another church. However, if done in love and compassion, it still may have the needed effect.
- Practice intervention. (If you need more information on how to do this, see the Intervention Document.)
- Convince the straying spouse to take one last action before ending the marriage. Sometimes the abandoned spouse does this by offering a concession such as “I’ll give on this point in the divorce if you do this.” Sometimes a friend, church leader, or even the person’s child may convince him or her that for conscience sake s/he should do one more thing to see if there is any hope.
In my weekend turnaround workshop for marriages in crisis, we have many couples who come because someone convinced the abandoning spouse to attend for conscience sake or to get some concession. Over nearly a decade we’ve witnessed one seemingly hopeless marriage after another turn around during that weekend.
Whether you use our services, your own counselors, or someone else, the message is the same. We MUST NOT give up on marriages because we think that either spouse is beyond rescuing. Don’t give up on the power of God and what He can do to change someone's heart if only we do our part.
In the words of Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never give up."