There may be nothing so destructive to a marriage as adultery. The eradicated trust, the deep wounds of betrayal, and the feelings of guilt create a perfect storm, wreaking havoc from which many never come back. If this is your current situation, know that through the pain there is hope.
Some couples recover, rebuild, and are stronger than ever after infidelity. It may seem impossible now, but there is healing on the other side of this… if that’s what you both want.
Based on years of research, my experience as a licensed marriage counselor, and the doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, these 5 steps are crucial if your are to heal your home, hearts, and lives.
STEP 1: SEEK COUNSELING
“Members [sometimes] expect too much from Church leaders and teachings—expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities… If you have a question that requires an expert, please take the time to find a thoughtful and qualified expert to help you.” – Elder M. Russell Ballard, BYU Devotional, November 14th
A well-trained, compassionate, tough therapist will be necessary, more than in any other marriage situation, to navigate the complex landmine of heartbreak and anger, push for accountability, help with empathy when one partner doesn’t have it for the other, and guide you to a place of trust, hope, and healing.
STEP 2: THE AFFAIR HAS TO BE OVER
“By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins- behold he will confess them and forsake them.” – Doctrine and Covenants 58:43
An affair is any relationship with a potential romantic competitor which crosses boundaries that ought to be reserved for the marriage relationship. In this sense, there is a spectrum of behaviors that might be considered “cheating,” from having an emotional confidant, to keeping secrets, to “sexting,” to actual physical intimacy.
If you’re going to rebuild your marriage, that entire other relationship has to be over. Done. There’s no “toe in the pool” and no “we can still be friends.” If your spouse wants to send one final brief communication along the lines of “I need to save my marriage, so this will be the last time we communicate. Please do not contact me. I’m blocking your number” (or email, or social media, or all of the above), they may do so if you agree to it (you certainly don’t have to) and if they do it under your supervision. No long goodbyes.
If you’re spouse is unwilling to break off communication with the affair partner, that may be all the answer you need to know.
STEP 3: YOUR SPOUSE TAKES FULL RESPONSIBILITY
“Every man expressed a willingness to take accountability for his own sins.” – Mosiah 29:38
It takes two to create most marriage struggles, but in the case of cheating, the affair itself was the choice of just one of you. Whatever issues you had in your relationship, there were other ways to handle it.
While you can both be responsible for marital hardship, the partner who had an affair needs to own that choice, 100%, without trying to pass the blame for their actions. Again, a good counselor can help with this.
A professor of mine once said, about a couple in your situation, “Until his remorse equals the pain he’s caused her, she can’t ‘get over it.’ If his remorse doesn’t equal her pain, she’ll worry that he’s not taking this seriously and cannot trust that he won’t do it again.”
The spouse who had the affair needs to apologize, sincerely and completely. How many times? As many as it takes. Being fully responsible means sacrificing privacy, being totally honest and transparent, and being committed to understanding how this happened so that it will not happen again. It also means living with the guilt of breaking a spouse’s heart and striving every day to make that right.
STEP 4: YOU’LL NEED A FORGIVING HEART
“He that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive. But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out.” – Doctrine and Covenants 42:25-26
Let’s be clear: forgiveness and trust are not the same thing. You should forgive your spouse. Whether or not you stay together, carrying hurt, anger, and bitterness inside of you will only hurt you. It’s been said that holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
That said, forgiveness is a process. It’s a daily walk. It’s an intentional push-back against the voice inside you screaming for revenge, for justice, for retribution. It takes time. Generally it’s not a one-time thing.
Forgiveness can be freely given, but trust has to be earned. Your spouse has to be humble, accountable, transparent. They have to prove their trustworthiness to you. The hard part for you will be opening your heart to trusting them in time. It will still be a scary, vulnerable choice that you’ll need to make. But it will be necessary if your marriage is to heal.
STEP 5: YOU’LL NEED TO FORTIFY YOUR MARRIAGE (AND YOURSELVES)
Clear boundaries. Improved communication. Elevated intimacy and connection. Understanding what went wrong and how to intervene and redirect far earlier. Rock-solid conflict resolution. Overcoming affair trauma and rekindling sexual desire. All of these, and more, will be necessary mileposts on the journey from devastating betrayal to secure, united married life.
If your marriage has been rocked by an affair, consider my online course “Healing from Infidelity,” free for Third Hour readers.
Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips.