How can you forgive your spouse in the aftermath of sexual betrayal?

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:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14 thoughts on “How can you forgive your spouse in the aftermath of sexual betrayal?”

  1. Thanks for the comment Eva … yes it’s a process, and often times a lengthy one. Maybe what makes it even more complicated is that oftentimes people wrap forgiveness, reconciliation, and trust all together. And they are three different things. Of the three, I am guessing that trust takes the longest to rebuild, and is the easiest to lose if a spouse relapses or lies. But lack of trust doesn’t mean lack of forgiveness. It just means that a spouse has been burned one too many times and is going to be much more careful. Thanks again

  2. I am finding it very difficult to start the healing process of forgiveness. I feel I am having such a hard time because I have not recieved full disclosure from my husband, eventhough I have told him that it is somewhat stalling the forgiveness process, he still refuses and says I know everything, well…I know for sure that he has not disclosed everything. I am finding that as of latley, I am beginning to withdraw from him emotionally, I know they say that this must be done but it is not a good feeling and I am not sure if it is healthy. I have been through so much devastation, hurt, walked out on, he has threatened divorce, moved out twice, badmouthed me to his\my family, saying I was crazy, he did nothing wrong, the list goes on, I have been loving and faithfull to this man since day 1. we have children, two girls, I have never been so scared in my life, this has been a real wakeup call as to what this world has become, sometimes I just want to take my girls and run. Thank you for this great website, thank you for reading and if you have the time, maybe you can give me some advice.

  3. I should probably give you more details, he has been attendig a weekly 12 step program for about 5 months andhas been sober for 3 months.

  4. Annette,

    A formal disclosure is key….did you ever get one?

    I’m in a similar boat….although my husband started going to a 12 step program and to a CSAT but has dipped back into denial and isn’t going. He swears that his “sponsor” told him that since he doesn’t have daily urges that he isn’t a SA. I find that hard to believe as there are plenty of binge-purgers out there. My husband is also a covert incest survival and has a older woman fetish (related to his mother). At any rate, I went to an amazing trauma workshop (6 day) at ISH in LA and one thing that I learned is the trauma caused by staggered disclosures/discoveries. I had that for the last year and I feel like I’ve been hit by 5+ planes (like 911). It’s been horrific.

    My husband is in denial – says that the two CSATs have told him that he isn’t a SA – although I know that not to be true. It breaks my heart and I’m going to set my boundaries on this next week (with the help of our marriage counselor). I know that I should be grateful that he as least seeing a therapist that is helping him recognize his pattern of behavior (prostitutes followed by affairs with older women, then CL ads (when money ot tight). He thinks he has it “under control” now which the article on this website talks about (“white knuckling”) – a recipe for a relapse.

    I’m trying to let go but the trauma of the past year has taken it’s toll – I’m so nervous about getting hit by yet another tsumami.

    One thing to consider is a full disclosure with a lie detector. I’m going to insist on it – along with a one day trauma workshop at ISH so that he understands the 12 trauma that SA partners experience. Dr. Manwalla has nailed it, and really understands what we’ve gone through.

    Annette – I feel your pain. I know it’s been a year and I hope that you have found peace. Let me know what happened – I’m curious and hopeful that you’ve found peace.

    Deb in CA

  5. Annette and Deb,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m very sorry to hear about what is happening. I totally agree with the approach of a number of spouse/partner therapists and workshops that treat disclosure of sex addiction as a form of trauma that needs to be addressed. I see so many partners of addicts struggling to deal with what has happened, and not understanding how devastating it is for them.

    Annette, one of the things that you mention is so common, and so very frustrating: SA’s will often seek forgiveness from their partners without giving full disclosure. In essence they are asking their partners to forgive them when their partner doesn’t even know what they are forgiving! That’s not fair, and it leads to confusion, resentment, and emotional distance. Additionally, it sounds like their is some significant denial and blameshifting going on. Sorry to hear about that.

    Deb, I am also sorry to hear about what is going on with your husband. It sounds like you’ve been through a lot. It sounds like your husband is stuck in the all-too-common “diagnosis trap.” I have very strong feelings about this … too many people get caught up in trying to figure out whether someone is a sex addict or not. The label is confusing because different people define it in different ways … and if a person wants, they can probably find someone who will agree that they are NOT one. But the label of sex addict doesn’t matter … what matters is the pattern of ongoing struggle, breaking boundaries repeatedely despite promises to stop … whatever you want to call that (addiction, dependance, compulsivity, besetting sin, bad habit) it will require massive effort to deal with it.

    I actually created a video for a program I run called “The Recovery Journey” that deals with this very topic. Check it out … you might find it helpful:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8RWsjjJH6Cs

    Once again, thanks for commenting.

  6. Thanks Mark. I viewed your video and it makes sense. I think that my husband is caught up in the “shame” of the sex addict label – he even stopped going to SA groups because apparently someone told him if he doesn’t have daily urges, then he’s not an addict (which I know isn’t true). My husband is so afraid of the label that he is finding anyone to tell him that he’s not a sex addict, which is getting in the way of his treatment. He is seeing a trauma therapist – which I know is better than nothing. I am going to set my boundaries in terms of what I need in order for him to stay in the house during his recovery which I think will be helpful for me. This is tough stuff!

  7. I have been dealing with my spouse for 5 years now and can”t find closure to this problem. We have assisted to therapy, we serve the Lord, but somehow, TRUST cannot fully come to be a reality. We got officially married recently and I just tested him on a porn email and like I suspected…. he responded. He continued on messenger (at his office at work) only to sustain what he expected to be a life sex encounter. surprisingly, I popped up on his cam and the rest is complete horror. He is firmly rooted on his love for me and justifies his act like one where his medication was absent..Being that he was without it for almost 2 weeks now. That he has achieved a lot but that any visual stimuli can end up like this. he has asked for him to forgive him… and I did many years ago. But I just cannot trust him. What am I supposed to live? A fair life for him, in trying to help him and honoring God through obedience? or an unfair life for me lacking of trust all the time… This is driving me to a lot of hurt and disappointment. We have a family, a beautiful one… I love the Lord. I pray and fast to break this but in my flesh, this is all so hard. I feel so lost…

    1. Lisa,

      Wow – that sounds like a dramatic – and probably traumatic – experience. Sorry this happened, and sorry to hear that trust is broken. The real challenge here is the same that people have in a variety of situations: to control what you can control, and surrender the rest. I certainly agree with the approach of a spouse to be careful and discerning about exerting trust to someone who’s broken it (even though I wouldn’t recommend engaging in your own sting operation!). You’ll have to decide what you need to do to take care of yourself and your kids. In your question, you suggested a contrast between a fair life for him, or fair life for you. I don’t think it necessarily works out and an either/or proposition, but if you have to think of it that way, I would suggest you think in terms what what’s best for you, rather than for him. Usually when partners of addicts try to sacrifice themselves to support the addict, and give him more chances, it winds up just enabling him by shielding him from consequences. My wife is a counselor, and she works with these issues directly … don’t hesitate to contact me and set something up with her if that would help.

      – Mark

  8. Hi there. 7 weeks ago I found out my husband had cheated on me. For the past 7 weeks through hunting for answers and pushing my spouse into confession I have found out he has been with 24 different women over 70 times in the past 5 years. Through out ivf through my pregnancy through the first 2 years of our daughters life. He says he’s disgusted at his behaviour and he couldn’t stop himself and he will never do it again etc. I had absolutely no idea. I have been the happiest I’ve ever been over this period of time and believed we were in a loving ‘special’ marriage. I am completely devastated. I don’t even know where to begin to start to forgive. I love my husband very much and have a young child to think of I cannot just give in and walk away but in struggling to keep the dark thoughts and images out of my mind. I live in fife in Scotland and I have no idea where to go for help. We went to the go who referred us for counseling. We have had 2 sessions so far 1 per week and it has been focussing on my husband and his past. I feel like I need help now to process my feelings. Some days I don’t even want to get out of bed. I’m crying or I’m shouting and with a toddler to take care of it’s hard going. Help??

    1. Helen,

      I’m so sorry that this has happened. I think your story is not at all uncommon, and one thing especially sticks out to me. You say that the marriage seemed good and that you felt so happy. That’s not all that uncommon when a man is acting out a lot. Instead of dealing with conflict and the normal kind of frustrations any relationship has, an addict will just be nice and then withdraw to acting out. He may even treat his partner especially “nice” out of his sense of guilt. So the spouse has an unrealistic sense of the relationship. Sad but often true. 🙁

      I hope you’re getting support. Please contact me directly if there’s anything more I can do. Blessings.

    2. The marriage is over. Do not work on this marriage, it will only hurt you more than you’ve already been hurt. It will destroy your life to work on this situation. This is not a man. What has been done to you is pure evil. Get out now. You deserve a wonderful life. I have a similar situation and have been “working on it” (the marriage) for 5 & 1/2 years and in that time was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer and a myriad of other health issues. ‘Working” on a situation like this will destroy your life. Get out now. I have now woken up and am getting out, but now in a weakened condition and with many ensuing health needs. Please, treat yourself like the precious gold that you and your daughter are. Get out immediately, this man is endangering your life. He is incapable of living truthfully. Again, I have “tried” with my soon-to-be- ex-husband for over 5 years, and I am the one who is suffering, increasingly so. You have endured a life of betrayal, the worst pain in human experience. He is incapable of marriage.

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