Bob and Jane are in their fifties. They’ve been married for over twenty-five years and have college-age children. Lately Jane has begun to wonder if something is going on in Bob’s life. He’s been more evasive, more distant; he doesn’t seem very interested in her. Recently she’s been more eager to connect sexually than he has been, which has not been their history. Jane is wondering, “Have I done something to offend him?”
Bob often has to travel for his job, and Jane notices that when she later asks him about whom he’s with and what kinds of things he’s doing in his off time, he gives short, general responses. She notices that he guards his phone carefully. Whenever he gets text messages and she asks, “Who’s that from?” he’ll give a vague answer: “Oh, just someone from work,” or “I’m working on a project,” increasing her suspicions.
Bob doesn’t let the phone out of his sight, so when he’s in the shower one evening, Jane retrieves the phone and discovers many text messages from another woman we’ll call Patricia. Jane knows that Patricia works for Bob’s company, and they frequently attend the same conferences. In the past, Bob has mentioned Patricia in connection with the kind of work she does, but recently he hasn’t talked about her at all.
Jane decides to call Patricia and confront her about the text messages. Patricia is nervous; she wants to know what Jane knows and doesn’t offer much information. But it’s clear that there has been a personal connection between Patricia and Bob. Jane then confronts her husband about Patricia. With a panicked look, he says, “Well, we’ve had a few dinners together, maybe a couple of lunches, but that’s all.” After more probing by Jane, he admits, “Well, maybe I kissed her. I think I did, but I’m not sure.”
Of course, you don’t forget kissing someone. So Jane does more detective work and finds emails between Bob and Patricia. She gets his cell phone records from the phone company and discovers many additional phone contacts with Patricia, and the story of the whole affair comes out. Now, Bob and Jane are in my office. Bob is scared to death that he’ll lose his job if his superiors find out, so he’s very general in what he shares in my office. After a few sessions, they don’t come back for a couple of weeks.
Finding out about others
Then I get a phone call from Jane, who says, “There are more developments.” While talking further with Patricia, Patricia says to Jane, “There are two other women you might be interested in contacting.” Jane finds out that Bob has had affairs with two other women within the company. What should she do now?
Thinking about your ministry
- How much does the situation that Bob and Jane face compare to the types of scenarios you’ve dealt with in your ministry?
- What challenges have you faced in trying to work with such cases?
Digging for hidden truth
Bob and Jane are not an unusual case in my counseling practice. There has never been a case of adultery in the history of humanity that wasn’t associated with cover-up, deception, and lying, which is exactly where Bob found himself. He’d had a series of relationships with at least three women, maybe more. The question is: What do you do about it as the pastor/counselor?
Map out the extent of the problem
You need to go through the discovery process in a thorough way. The number one issue is the issue of deception. When I’m counseling people like Bob and Jane, I operate according to what I call the Rat Theory, which says, “If I see one rat on this side of the wall, might there be ten more behind the wall that I don’t see?” Very often that’s the case. There can be all sorts of episodes where the person has been spending money on another person, having meals out, or sharing very confidential information. The person who has committed adultery may shrug that off and say, “Well, that’s not pertinent,” but it is. There might be times when the offender will say, “Well, it only happened once or twice,” when in fact it’s been going on for a year. So you need to know everything: how many times it happened, where it happened, how much money was spent, who knows about the relationship.
Use a variety of tools
You’re going to want full access to the offender’s text messages, emails, and credit card statements so you can know that the deception is over.
It may be that the offended spouse (Jane, in this case) has permission to call the third party (Patricia) and ask about what happened. A lot of folks will say, “Well, that could get ugly and uncomfortable.” And the response is, “Yes, it might be, but if that’s what Jane wants to do, she has permission to do that. Bob shouldn’t get in the way of any discovery.” Obviously, Jane shouldn’t be obsessed about calling the third party repeatedly, but anything that promotes openness should be allowed. Things like passwords to the computer should be shared and there should be accountability regarding time, schedule, money spent, and whom you’re with. All of that must be out in the open.
Take the time to get the whole truth
The time needed to get full disclosure varies from case to case. Sometimes unfaithful spouses just want to get everything out in the open. They’re tired of the person they’ve become and they want to be done. I recommend asking that person to write out a timeline: when they met the other person, what they did, etc. Even what seemed to be innocent contacts with the third party should be included on a sheet of paper, so you can see exactly what you’re dealing with.
There are other offenders who say, “Okay, anything to get my credibility back.” They’ll confess only what they think they need to in order to resume life. They make the excuse, “Well, I don’t want to hurt my spouse any more than I already have, so I’m going to tell only enough to get my spouse off my back.” That’s not a good approach. Over time, truth has a way of rising to the surface. I recommend saying, “Let’s go ahead and get it all out now, because if more comes out in a month that you didn’t disclose now, restoring the relationship will be that much harder.”
Usually it takes a few weeks before the whole story comes out. At that point, the offended spouse may have questions that neither I nor the offending partner has thought about. A random question may bring new information out in the open, and you need to allow the process to unfold. But you can tell the person who has had the affair, “You need to be open and honest, and provide gut-level disclosure, even if it’s embarrassing, even if it hurts. If you’re ever going to have trust return to your marriage, your spouse has to know that he or she can believe what you’ve said.”
Thinking about your ministry
- What tools for “getting the whole truth” could you add to your work with couples after an affair?
- Given the turmoil an affair creates, what reactions from the offending party are not helpful? What have you learned from this case study?
- How can you address the probability of deception as you counsel?
Offering hope for the future
When couples come to you with problems like these, it’s important to let them know, particularly at the beginning, that God allows pain because pain has a purpose. They need to listen to what the pain is telling them, because the pain is saying that they have missed the mark on some level. A phrase I use is, “Never be afraid of a crisis, because crisis can create growth if you let it.”
Let folks know that they’ve got a hard road ahead. A lot of issues are going to come up, and sometimes they are going to need to confront each other about the pain and hurt. But instead of looking at it in a blaming or judgmental way, they can look at it and ask, “What’s it trying to tell us?” When they listen carefully, they will find good answers.
Couples will look to you to tell them that just because something awful has happened, it doesn’t mean it’s the end of their world. Things will change, perhaps drastically, but that’s okay. Scripture is full of stories about people who had very difficult, dark moments and later found themselves in positions of great influence because of their ability to respond to painful situations with a listening ear, a willing heart, and an adjustment in priorities.
Signs that restoration is possible
Here is what to look for as evidence that offenders are ready to rebuild their marriage.
Offenders accept responsibility for their behavior. Someone may say, “Well, it happened, but I was drunk,” or “She made a pass at me, so it’s her fault.” Or they flip it back onto the offended spouse and say, “If you hadn’t have been so distant, this would never have happened.” People who accept responsibility offer no excuses and don’t place blame anywhere except their own shoulders. They don’t blame it on alcohol, the other person, the marriage, or the vague word stress. They simply say, “I did it and it’s been building for some time.” They need a clear and unambiguous acknowledgment that “this is me, and this is what I did.”
Sometimes people will say, “That just wasn’t me.” My immediate reaction is, “Well, then, who was it?” They’re really saying, “I don’t like to admit that I have that person inside me.” But that is who they are, and they need to take full responsibility.
Offenders show empathy for the offended. Certainly there are times when the offended spouse is not easy to live with, and it would be tempting for the betraying spouse to focus on those failings. But he or she can’t do that. This spouse needs to show a lot of empathy for the offended spouse, acknowledging the depth of the hurt, and the spouse’s right to feel angry. What if the offended spouse feels the need to talk with a trusted friend or family member? Rather than saying, “No, you can’t do that,” the empathetic offender recognizes, “When you’ve been hurt like this, you need to some allies who are there to support you.” The offender makes no attempt to force that emotion to go away. He or she accepts that there are going to be some feelings of insecurity. At the same time, the offended spouse should not allow those conversations with friends to breed resentment or lead to gossip.
Offenders acknowledge guilt. In Psalm 51, David goes before God knowing that he sinned not only against the woman, her husband, his family, and his nation, but ultimately against God Himself. The person who has had the affair needs to recognize, “There is something in my life that’s way off. My spiritual values have gone off the path. My desires and wants—what I told myself I ‘needed’—have run away with me. I have made decisions that I feel awful about.” He or she needs to agonize. You want to know that the person is hurting and struggling. Not in a punitive way, but in a disciplinary way. When Peter denied Christ and then the rooster crowed, he went off and wept bitterly. That was probably the moment when he became fully committed to his relationship with Christ. I’m not going to say that a person must wail and cry, but you want to know that the person is going through some real agony, asking, “God, who am I? How did I get to this place? What does this tell me about me? What does this say about my need to get my life right first with You, God, and then with the people You have entrusted to me?”
Offenders are committed to long-term accountability. The offending spouse needs to have an ongoing accountability with the partner, with a trusted friend, with a minister, or with a counselor for as long as it takes. Whether it is six weeks, six years, or the rest of their life, offenders need to be fully accountable on anything the offended partner needs to know, be it cell phone, credit card statements, etc.
In addition, offenders commit long-term to maintaining good communication regarding the spouse’s needs and feelings. It’s the day in, day out effort to say, “Let’s make sure we have time together for good conversations. Are you doing okay? Are there any questions you have for me?” When the offending partner takes initiative to keep communication open, that’s a good indication that it’s possible to move toward restoration.
Thinking about your ministry
- How do you help distressed believers understand their hope in Christ?
- What makes a Christian’s hope different from the “hope” of a non-Christian?
- How do you assess sincerity in repentance?
In part 2, Dr. Carter will discuss moving toward restoration and following up when counseling is completed.
Cindy Beall offers more food for thought on this issue in How to Help the Spouse Who Stays in a Marriage After an Affair.