helping people connect & discover true intimacy

Beyond Hope:
A marriage on the brink of divorce after an affair

I have worked with many couples who thought their marriages were beyond hope. They come to me as a last resort. A common statement I hear is "If this doesn't work, it's all over."

Eric* and Gail* were in that exact spot. "Our marriage was at death's doorstep. As far as I was concerned, there wasn't a whole lot left," Eric remembers. His life was completely torn apart when he learned that Gail was having an affair. Still very much in love with Gail, Eric wanted to work on their marriage. But Gail was not interested at all. In fact, she had already left the marriage, mentally and emotionally.

Both were Christians, but each had drifted away from God. Gail said, "I know I was very far from God but I was trying to justify my actions. 'God wouldn't want me to live with someone like this.' So I thought it was okay to lie to Eric about where I had been and whom I was with. I really believed I could justify having an affair. I was ready to leave and get on with my life somewhere else." Gail thought Eric wouldn't want her anymore and kick her out. But he didn't and Gail became so depressed she couldn't get out of bed for three days.

Desperately Seeking Help

As desperately as Eric wanted to hang on to Gail, she was just as desperate to get out of the marriage. Eric refused to believe it might be over. Eric asked Gail to stay and go to counseling. Reluctantly, Gail agreed. "I didn't share the hope Eric had that our marriage could be saved. But he didn't kick me out. In fact, he did exactly opposite of what I expected. Somewhere in the deepest depths of my heart, I felt like this was my last chance to really be helped."

When they first came into my office, I must admit that I haven't known two people to be at such opposite ends of the spectrum. Gail was severely depressed and somewhat suicidal. Due to her fragile state, I handled her very delicately. Although she was the one who had committed the sin of adultery, I did not exhort her.

Very opposite to Gail, Eric was resolutely clinging to God, believing Him for the impossible. Still, I don't think he was ready for what I said next. He was dumbfounded when I asked him, "Are you prepared to experience more pain?" He couldn't believe there could possibly be more pain than what he was already experiencing.

I deal with each person I counsel at a different speed, so to speak. My motto is: Truth is never optional, timing and method is. I must bring people to the truth, but I do that when they are ready to handle it appropriately. Gail needed to be a little stronger emotionally first. I just asked to her not to leave home for the moment (she agreed). But Eric needed to know what was coming in the counseling process.

The revelation of Gail's affair was just a symptom of much deeper problems. Eric had only scratched the surface of his pain because we would begin to confront the lies both of them had lived under for years. Even though I had hit Eric with the truth of the coming months, I encouraged him not to give up hope. God can work in situations that seem impossible.

Establishing Confidence

Over the next couple of months, facing the lies would be very difficult and frightening for them, so the counseling room would need to be a safe place. Gail was very skittish emotionally at first. She was very confused by Eric's response to her. He didn't reject her, but kept on loving her. She knew she had the support of Eric. Now it was my turn.

Slowly she began to believe that I had her best interest in mind. Her trust of me grew when she realized I wasn't going to condemn her. Most Christians who have sinned believe they will be condemned with the truth. I wanted to help Gail see that the truth would set her free. I didn't want to condemn or reject her with it.

My goal was to create an environment, through God's power and guidance, where Gail and Eric could be free to be themselves in each other's presence. In order to peel away the layers of hurt and protection to express their deep thoughts and feelings, they had to feel it was safe.

I don't ask people to trust each other right away. It's ludicrous to tell somebody they need to trust someone who just betrayed them. I do ask them to work on building an environment of respect where each can learn to share their feelings in safety.

Who's in Control?

Frequently when couples first come to see me, they ask me, "What do you think? Is there hope? Will our marriage make it?" I have the same answer for everyone. I am not God; I cannot control what happens. What we can control is what we do this very moment. Let's just go through this process and trust God. We'll leave the end result in His hands.

The control issue was tough for Eric. Admittedly, he said, "I am a control person. I had to learn to give control over to God and focus on me—I had to change. All this time I wanted Gail to change, but I discovered that God wanted me to work on myself and to give Him the rest—He would take care of it all."

When you have been betrayed, it's very hard not to focus on the shortcomings of the other person. Eric had to stop looking at what Gail had done wrong and focus on what he needed to do.

Digging Deeper

Although they each had a very different childhood, Eric and Gail grew up seeing betrayal from both parents. In Gail's situation, her father left her mother when Gail was a teenager. She said, "I think they both betrayed each other but my father physically left. My mother then withdrew. Besides my sister and me, she didn't have anyone else in her life. She depended more on me and I became her emotional caretaker."

Eric recalled his childhood this way: "My Dad would betray my Mom by withdrawing from her. He really wasn't emotionally involved with her. My Mom would then betray him by ridiculing him to us, the children. Betrayal was going both ways. I then repeated the pattern in my marriage to Gail. Mentally, emotionally and spiritually, I was not intimate with Gail—I didn't know how to be based on the example set by my parents."

Our views of the opposite sex and relationships are formed in childhood, mainly from our parents. This is what Gail's mother passed on to her daughter: "After my father left, my mother intimated that I should have relationships and then leave. She was so bitter towards my father, I think she passed this bitterness on to me. When it came to men, I thought it was okay to be involved but don't get married or have anything serious—just have a relationship, then leave. I got into a pattern of that."

Once this pattern was set in place Gail never totally gave herself in any relationship. She would get involved and get her needs met to a certain point then she would back out. This continued into her marriage, leading to vulnerability to an affair.

Eventually it became safer to Gail outside the marriage than in it. When Eric would wall himself off emotionally from Gail, she was hurt and sought someone else to meet her needs. Gail only found a false or counterfeit intimacy. The deception in affairs is that someone believes they can be more themselves than with their spouse. Confronting this lie is difficult because when a person is entrapped in this pattern, the counterfeit intimacy feels real. In truth, the potential to be totally intimate is within marriage—the way God designed it.

Peeling Back the Layers

By the time they came to see me, Gail didn't want Eric to touch her. He felt painfully rejected. Often our concept of what we need each other for is distorted. A man thinks that if his wife doesn't give herself to him, he is going to die.

In reality, although we need sex, the most important thing a man needs from his wife is letting her inside of him emotionally. To be known in this way, a man needs to be emotionally vulnerable to his wife. There is nothing scarier to a man. "I had never let Gail know me before. The thought of it filled me with pure fear. If I let her know me and it's not good for her, then I'm rejected even more."

Now this is the paradox I run into constantly in the path to healing. While Gail was the one who had an affair, Eric was the one who really needed to change first. We would work through Gail's issues slowly, unraveling the wrong thinking and the lies from her background, leading to bondage to a destructive pattern. But because Eric was seeking God, he was ready to hear what I told him next.

"Eric, you're going to have do something that will cause you more pain. You're going to have to risk being so vulnerable that it's going to scare you half to death. I can tell you this, you're not going to want to do it."

If he did he would experience an emotional intimacy and a "connectedness" so deep—completely without the physical—it would blow his mind. Eric was willing to believe me and began to open up to Gail.

Miracle and Mystery

When you connect emotionally, the physical will take care of itself. In some cases, it just takes a little time. Gail was still somewhat repulsed physically toward Eric. It took a long time for her to be able to let go. But the more she felt an emotional connection with Eric, the more willing she was to let go physically.

Eric backed off from a physical relationship until Gail was ready. He took his cues from her. At first, Gail was only comfortable with a little hug, then she was able to move on to holding hands. Eric never forced her into something she wasn't comfortable with. As he gave Gail time and space, her physical "feelings" returned.

God has made us as sexual beings. But what we often don't know (and experience) is that sexuality is 3-dimensional: mental, emotional and physical. When we try to meet our sexual needs outside of God's way, we will neglect one of the three aspects of our sexuality. When that is the case, true intimacy cannot be shared. In the context of marriage, a man and woman can become one. This beautiful intimacy is truly a miracle and a mystery in this imperfect world.

A Marriage of Hope

Every situation is different, but many marriages come to the point of believing they have no hope. They begin to believe the lies of the world that say it's better to split up—for the sake of the children, for their own happiness. "I can't see how God would want me to stay in this situation the rest of my life."

But at the point of absolute helplessness and hopelessness you meet the God of hope. In His grace, you can experience the true meaning of intimacy. In looking back on the recovery process, Eric now says, "Throughout this whole time, God loved me and was involved in everything that was going on. In the midst of all the tragedy, I had such a thread of joy. It was unmistakably the hand of God."

*not their real names

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