In part 1 of this case study, Dr. Les Carter outlined how to counsel “Bob and Jane” through the discovery process after Bob’s infidelity was revealed and what signs indicate a couple is ready to begin a restoration process. In this article, Dr. Carter describes typical issues couples must focus on to rebuild a new relationship and how to follow up with a couple when formal counseling is concluded.
How can you know if Bob and Jane are ready to begin working to repair their relationship? I look for two things: full disclosure of the affair and genuine remorse on Bob’s part, including an awareness of Jane’s feelings and needs. If those are present, you can begin the rebuilding process by identifying which struggles are typical for the couple, so you can ask good questions and delve into particular areas of need. Here are some typical examples.
Couples seeking to rebuild their relationship will need to confront the emotional issues each partner faces.
The offended partner:
- Will feel anger.
- Will have fear, wondering, “What’s next? What happens if our relationship comes apart? If I decide to trust my spouse again, will I just be duped?”
- May question his or her own guilt for the affair: “Was I just not enough?”
- May want to forgive, but struggle to do so.
The offending partner:
- Will feel anger. Adultery is an act of rebellion, and anger is closely related. Whenever there’s been adultery, look at the offender’s anger, frustrations, tensions, irritability, annoyances, and conflicts. Almost always there has been a pattern of poor conflict resolution, which makes it easier for the person to justify adultery.
Most couples connect fairly well when life is conflict-free, but the real mark of maturity comes when couples connect well amid conflict, with empathy, understanding, and patience with each other. That’s where many couples fall short, so this leads to counseling on a couple’s conflict resolution skills, their issues with anger management, why they may feel threatened by different perceptions, and their defense mechanisms.
- Will demonstrate a resistance to control. Many will say, “I felt like I was held back from being the real me,” whether within the marriage, their family of origin, or even their experience of the Christian life. They may see Christianity as a life full of obligations and rebel against it. An affair can be their way of saying, “I don’t want anybody telling me what to do.” Instead of drawing their sense of well-being from their faith, they look elsewhere for “freedom.” It’s good to challenge the roots of that view of Christianity by asking, “What kind of control issues have you had in your personal history and in your current life? And how does this affair fit into that?” Your goal is to appeal to a conscience that is attached to their commitment to God, so that living the right way ceases to be a duty and becomes a desire.
- Will display emotional cravings for significance. Every human being wants to feel loved, affirmed, and understood. Often a person seeks that in a third party. He or she needs to ask, “What made me feel so needy that I was willing to make a choice that would go against my convictions and values? What does that say about my heart?” Perhaps the person has a weak conscience, or a hardened one that doesn’t feel much guilt. If that’s the case, you need to help the person explore what that reveals.
In Bob’s case, he was accustomed to being the brightest guy in the room. At work he was around a lot of other bright people, so he didn’t always get the accolades he wanted, and he began questioning his value. Meanwhile, Jane was an independent person who excelled professionally and as a mother. I asked Bob, “Where does your sense of worth come from?” Most of Bob’s sense of self-worth was externally based—his income level, influence, and reputation. When those were less secure, he had nothing internal to draw from.
I asked Bob, “If I were to ask you where the ultimate sense of worth in a person’s life comes from, what would you say?” People, especially from a church background, know that the correct answer has something to do with Jesus or God, so they’ll say, “Well, God.” Then I asked, “Okay, but what does that mean?” Bob had not really taken time to ponder that.
I also asked Bob and Jane, “Was there a good expression of love between the two of you? Where did it sometimes leave you feeling empty? Have you maintained a sense of connectedness that has been satisfactory to each of you?”
- May evidence raw egotism. Our sin nature causes us to live controlled by self-absorption. Maturing, godly people understand that and put a check on it. But others allow their self-absorption to run their lives—“It’s just me and my impulses.” Such a person needs to address beliefs about the goodness of humility and self-control. If they are good things, what would they look like in their lives?
Together, the couple also has to look outward and consider:
The impact on the rest of the family
What are they going to say to their children and other family members? When holidays and birthdays roll around, they will be interacting with many who are wondering, “What’s going on with Bob and Jane?” Here, I don’t think the offending party has the right to call the shots and say, “You can tell this person, but you can’t tell that one.” A person who has gone outside the marriage is not entitled to control that.
The possibilities of STDs and pregnancy
The offended partner will wonder about sexually transmitted diseases and will want both partners to be checked by a medical doctor. The possibility of a pregnancy must also be faced and explored.
Boundaries to contact with the third party
Sometimes the affair has been with a parent of a child’s friend, or someone at church, in the neighborhood, or even within the extended family. The couple has to come up with boundaries with respect to that person. My rule of thumb is, if the third party’s future presence is probable, that person needs to be given a clear set of boundaries: “This is what our marriage can withstand; this is what we cannot withstand.” The husband and wife need to establish strong boundaries about what kind of contact is reasonable or not reasonable. This needs to be mutually agreed upon, not imposed, but it’s something that should be in place.
The rebuilding of trust
Trust is not going to be restored quickly. If a couple declares soon after the affair is discovered that trust is fully restored, I’m extremely skeptical.
There needs to be an ongoing commitment to discuss the many factors, including the emotional ones, that go into the making of the marriage and the breakdown of trust. There needs to be a lot of discussion about who they are and where they’re going.
I ask couples to go through a back-to-basics set of questions: “Why are you here? Why are you on this planet? Who put you here, and what purpose do you have? Your answers to those questions will give direction to where you’re going in your relationship. You need to consider, ‘What do I owe God? What is my purpose here, first before God?’ Then, as you understand your calling, what implications does that have inside your marriage, as a parent, as a friend, as an extended family member? What implications does that have for the kind of character that you build from the inside out, and the values and principles that you build your life on?”
When there are substantive discussions about all that, the couple is going somewhere good. They are also going somewhere good when there’s a lot of discussion about the hurt, the anger, or the disconnect that’s been there historically, so they can come up with better alternatives.
Time: the essential ingredient
I tell couples, “Love is spelled T-I-M-E.” I encourage couples to sit down together at least three or four times a week, particularly in the early stages of recovery. They need to do some catch-up: “How are we doing? What’s been happening today? Do you have any questions that you want to ask? There’s something on my mind that we need to talk about.” The couple needs to budget time for these discussions between counseling sessions.
These times may occasionally turn into a more frivolous kind of discussion, maybe with a funny story that one wants to tell the other. In the past they’d quit doing that, and they need to do more of that going forward. But first and foremost, they need to budget the time and be willing to discuss those personal matters. They may also read books or attend classes at church. Maybe they have a small couples group where they can have a biweekly discussion about personal matters. The main thing is that couples do not assume that after counseling they will just go back to business as usual. Deeper, more frequent communication must have a very high priority.
Journaling is another extremely useful tool. Making journal entries three or four times a week about what they are learning about themselves or what they’d like to know more about their partner gives them something to talk about with their spouse. Those discussions may raise issues to be brought into the counseling office. But anything that helps the couple talk about general issues as they impact their personal relationship gives them the best of both worlds.
Bob did some serious soul-searching once he and Jane began counseling, and for many sessions, both of them would come in with a satisfied feeling that said, “We’ve been married for twenty-five years, and this is the first time that we’ve really talked on this level.” They liked it!
As a counselor, the pitfall you want to watch for is smugness. Sometimes after people have been caught in adultery and time passes, the pressure, tension, and stress become less intense. They begin to think, “Good. I can go back to some of my old habits.” They start getting relationally lazy, when in reality both people in a marriage need to remember the kind of fall they are capable of. They can never say that they’ve perfectly arrived. There is always a possibility that the old man that Scripture talks about can take over, so they can’t relax their efforts.
For that reason, once couples finish counseling, I have them come back once a month or once a quarter for some checkups. It helps them to know that they will be coming in to talk about their marriage.
A format for follow-up
Every case unfolds differently, so your follow-up will focus on the particular issues that you have identified with the couple during counseling. Let’s say that one couple has identified an emotional neediness that had grown between them. To maintain progress, they need to continue with a lot of time of affirmation and connection, with date nights and Friday evenings sitting on the back porch, enjoying good conversation.
Another couple may have had a history of contention over minor issues, so they needed to learn how to argue more cleanly and productively, to pick their battles more carefully. In your follow-up, you are going to focus on the primary hot spots that need the couple’s attention. “How are you doing? Give me examples of some recent times when it hasn’t gone so well.” You don’t want that vulnerability creeping back in. When you keep asking good questions and provide continued accountability in areas of weakness, you can help a recovering couple to maintain their healing and restoration.
Thinking about your ministry
- Biblically speaking, what elements are necessary to address when couples in crisis struggle with fear?
- Biblically speaking, what role should guilt play in our lives? When is it not helpful?
- Biblically speaking, what elements are necessary to address when couples in crisis are struggling with unresolved conflict?
- How would you advise a couple in crisis to let others in the family know about their trial?
- How would you respond to the news from a couple you’re counseling that an affair has resulted in an STD or a pregnancy?
- What is necessary for trust to be reestablished? What is your role as pastoral counselor in this process?
Want more of Dr. Carter’s counsel on this subject? Read Caught: Key Questions to Explore in the Aftermath of Adultery.