In the process of recovering from sexual struggles, restoring relationships is vital … and hard. When sexual strugglers are married, their addiction / compulsion has led to repeated sexual betrayal in one form or another. Unlike other addictions, sexual addiction strikes at the heart of the marriage commitment. How can someone forgive that?
In the past year, my wife has started counseling wives of sexual strugglers, and we are now counseling couples together who are dealing with sex addiction and betrayal. After working exclusively with men who are struggling, it’s been interesting to get more of the spouse’s perspective on recovery. Here are some observations about forgiveness and restoration, for the spouses of sexual strugglers.
1. Forgiveness can’t be rushed
I have come to believe that it is foolish and destructive to try rush the process of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a simple, one-time event. It is a process that takes time. Many spouses of sex addicts face an added burden because they feel they should forgive their spouse, but don’t feel ready to do so. Or if they do extend forgiveness, they continue to have feelings of hurt and anger, and don’t know how to express them.
Both addicts and spouses need to understand that the decision to forgive is different from the process of forgiving. We can’t simply decide to forgive and then move on as though nothing has happened. In the process of forgiving, feelings of sadness, hurt, and anger will come and go. Instead of being squelched (“I shouldn’t be feeling this way”), they need to be accepted and heard. Then, over time, the overwhelm of these feelings will diminish.
One danger to watch out for in the marriages of sex addicts is for the spouse to feel pressured to move too quickly to forgiveness and reconciliation, without processing the feelings of betrayal and anger that naturally arise. We are taught as Christians the need for and the power of forgiveness. Sometimes it is assumed that forgiveness can (and should) be quickly extended, and that once the person decides to extend forgiveness, then the matter should be left in the past. But it doesn’t work that way.
2. Forgiveness is like grieving
In many ways the experience of a spouse in the aftermath of sexual betrayal is like the process of grieving. This makes sense, because the aftermath of sexual betrayal, and the process of restoration of a marriage involves a lot of grieving.
Grief takes time, especially when we’re grieving the loss of someone we dearly love. No one can rush the process. The only way to “quickly grieve” is by blocking the negative feelings that come up, and thereby not really grieving.
It’s important to recognize that grief comes in waves. Sometimes after a stretch of relief and relative internal peace, something will remind us once again of our loss, and the feelings of sadness will overwhelm us again. The same is true with the feelings of hurt and anger that we deal with in forgiveness. We will work through them, and reach a point of peace and release, only to find ourselves confronted days or weeks later with a new wave of the same feelings of hurt, anger, and loss.
3. Everybody forgives differently
Just as no two people grieve alike, so no two people forgive alike. The spouses of addicts need to be given the space and support to process their feelings in a healthy way. It is often striking how differently spouses respond to sexual sin. Some men I work with have amazingly “tolerant” spouses, and some have spouses at the other extreme who who are bitter and unable to let go of their suspicion and anger. There are certainly all kinds of reasons for this, but neither extreme is helpful to the struggler or the spouse. There is no common time-table for forgiveness.
4. Forgiveness and reconciliation are separate issues
Lewis Smedes, in his wonderful book Forgive and Forget, defines forgiveness as the decision to surrender one’s desire to retaliate against the one who wronged us. It involves letting go of our desire to harm the person who harmed us. To do this, we need compassion, time, and support.
But choosing to let go of our desire to hurt someone in retaliation does not mean we now trust them, or are willing to stay in the same relationship with them. There may be changes to our relationship. Nancy Hull-Mast writes this: “Often we’re afraid to forgive others who’ve hurt us because we believe that, in doing so, we are permitting what they’ve done. This is not true. When we forgive, we are saying, ‘I pardon you, I give up any claim for revenge, you are no longer an enemy.'”
To establish new boundaries does not mean we have not forgiven someone. We can forgive them, but not reconcile the relationship. We can forgive them, but redefine how we relate to them. In their defensiveness, a sexual struggler might protest, “But I thought you forgave me!” Remember that forgiveness and reconciliation are different things.
5. Spouses often need someone to help them in the process of forgiving
It’s vitally important for spouses to have safe places to process their hurt and pain in ways that are healthy. If the only person you can share this with is the spouse who wronged you, it might be overwhelming and discouraging for him/her. You might feel the need to hold back your true feelings out of compassion or fear that your spouse might leave.
What do you do about the feelings that are stuck inside you? Find a therapist or pastor you can trust, and if possible a group devoted to helping people process sexual betrayal. More and more of these groups are available today.
Two cautions are in order when it comes to seeking out help from others:
(a) If you go to a spouse support group (like S-Anon), be careful of the health of the group. Some of these groups can be populated and/or led by people who have not processed their own wounds in healthy ways. Rather than encourage you and offer you hope, they may infect you with their own cynicism and despair.
(b) Beware of the danger of leaning on friends to provide listening ears who don’t support your goal of a healthy relationship. Some people may have unprocessed pain of their own, and when you tell them about your experience, their un-dealt-with anger will cloud their judgment and ability to provide healthy perspective. We need friends who will support, not commiserate, with us.
So what do you think? How is forgiveness going in your life and relationship? I’d love to hear your thoughts and responses to this article in the comments.
By the way, we’re making our Recovery Journey program available at a much reeducated cost as an e-course. We have a module written just for the spouses/partners of sexual addicts. Learn more about the program by going to http://recoveryjourney.com
This article was originally written some months ago – as evidenced by the dates of the comments. I put it here on the front page though, because I wanted newcomers to the site to see it. Hope you found it helpful, as well as the discussion below: