We were young. Our marriage was young, and should have still been in the honeymoon stage. In fact, I thought it was. Until my husband went crazy over another woman. And my world fell out from under me.
I rarely think of that anymore. Although there was a time when I thought I’d never think of anything else. But that was 38 years ago. And now, as we’ve recently celebrated our 40th anniversary, I look back and only see the beauty the Lord brought from it all…
When I said, “I do,” it was for life. Divorce, for me, was not an option. I had a great example in my parents’ marriage. Seeing them weather many a storm and always sticking together. And still together, 60 years later. I grew up thinking marriage is for keeps. And then the ax came.
I had never guessed that while I struggled during a difficult pregnancy and childbirth, my husband was having a little fun on the side. Until he announced his intentions of moving away with her.
It was the blackest period of my life. I didn’t know Christ then, or that he would help carry my burdens if I but asked. My friends and family lived far from Colorado. So I took my 3-month old daughter and returned to my parents. Heart-broken, shattered, and with nothing to live on.
I’d always suffered from low self-esteem, even with loving parents and a slew of good friends. The betrayal only confirmed my thoughts. I’m not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough. Just something to throw away, abandon, and get rid of. To trade for another of (obviously) far greater worth and beauty.
And then a couple months later, he called. “I love you, and I’d like to try again.”
And spent me spiraling once again into pain, anger, and confusion. Easy for him to say, but I’d been through a lot, and wondered if I could ever trust again. Yet I knew I loved him, in spite of what he’d done. And felt our marriage was worth another try.
So he joined me in Michigan, where we should have (but didn’t) get professional counseling to help us through. So our rebuilding process took even longer. Especially with the added stress of a newborn, and living with my parents while job hunting. But by trial and error, and lots of commitment, we made it through.
And now this is where I should put the 10 steps for rebuilding a broken marriage.
But I don’t have them. Nor do I believe they really exist, because each couple and situation is different. But I can share what I learned, and say that rebuilding takes time and work on both sides. It means going through a lot of ups and downs, wondering if you’ll ever make it. But if both parties are willing to change and work at it, there is hope. And you can find light at the end of that spiral.
1. Both spouses need to seek and extend forgiveness.
The wrongdoer needs to admit his or her guilt and ask for forgiveness.
The adulterer is 100% at fault for their affair. No one forced them or drove them to it. It was their choice, and their spouse is not to blame. So he or she needs to admit their guilt and ask for forgiveness. And then start making amends by making greater and specific commitments to the marriage. A truly healthy marriage follows a rule book.
Yet in all marriages, both spouses play a part in creating marital happiness and togetherness. When unhappiness or problems arise, both partners usually bear some blame, no matter how small an amount.
The betrayed needs to admit that he or she bears some responsibility for the marriage difficulties, and seek forgiveness for their part.
Joshua Coleman, a leading psychologist and counselor, states in his article Surviving Betrayal: “This can be a bitter pill to swallow if you are the person who was betrayed. Yet it is a step that must be taken if the relationship is to be saved.”
In our case, I had just struggled through a pregnancy with nine months of constant nausea and vomiting. My only relief (when not at work) was sleep. Already a person who faced great difficulty in sharing, openness, and sincerity, those difficulties made me even more absent and unavailable. So my young husband, already struggling over this and now frightened over fatherhood, decided to seek solace elsewhere. And then ran from responsibility, leaving me recovering after a difficult childbirth, and learning to care for a newborn, alone.
So as we worked at rebuilding, we started seeing how many things we BOTH needed to change and work on. Things that had undoubtedly led to our unhappiness.
2. Both spouses also need to forgive themselves.
I had to learn to stop blaming myself. And work on my poor self-image and the lack of worth that the betrayal had added to.
And my husband needed to forgive himself. Yes, he had done great wrong. But living under constant guilt and self-incrimination would not fix it.
3. Talking about your feelings helps the healing process.
The problem is real. And it needs to be dealt with, not just swept under the carpet. In fact, the well-known clinical psychologist, Edward Dreyfus, advises in his article After the Affair: “If one is going to rebuild the relationship, one cannot do so while maintaining secrets and telling lies and half-truths.”
The feelings are there, they’re real, and denial will not make them go away. Open and sincere (though painful) communication of individual feelings has a big part to play in rebuilding trust, and starting the healing process.
The betrayed person needs to feel heard.
He or she needs to express how greatly their self-esteem and feeling of worth has been injured. And needs to know, as well, that their pain, anger, and grief are normal AND legitimate. And know that their spouse understands how deeply they have been wounded.
And the betrayer needs the freedom to express what made him or her unhappy in the marriage. And to explain any confused feelings or mental state at the time.
Their actions were wrong, but feeling unhappy, confused, or scared was not. And he or she needs to know this. But also needs to learn how to deal with these things in a wise and proper manner.
4. Put it in the past and move on.
The pain and problems must be dealt with. But we knew that the time must come when we would just need to drop it. Not that you just forgive and forget. I don’t think we ever forget, nor should we. Because we can learn from our pain and from mistakes, if we choose to. But rebuilding takes looking ahead, not behind. It means learning from mistakes, while keeping our eyes on the positive change that is taking place.
5. Make a firm commitment to rebuild.
The greatest weight of this falls on the wrongdoer.
In our situation, it helped a lot that Mario returned to me after realizing that I would never betray him like the other woman was her own husband. That one thing helped a lot to restore my sense of worth. Reminding me that I did have good qualities, like faithfulness, commitment, and loyalty. I was a person worth loving and keeping, after all.
It takes real work to rebuild. The wounded person needs a lot of affirmation. When we have deeply wounded another, let us never wrongly think we can heal that gaping wound with a one-time kiss and “I really love you, and will never do that again.” Trust has to be reacquired. And the person’s heart and love won all over again.
But the injured spouse has their part too: avoid criticizing or shaming.
They are not constructive and do not promote healing. Remember, you’re trying to rebuild, not tear down. And remember, too, that betrayal is a terrible mistake, but not always a sign of some permanent character defect.
In Surviving Betrayal, Coleman also shares that “researcher Martin Seligman advises that people try to think of their partners’ flaws in non-absolute terms.” It helps to remember that we all can change.
So I had to remind myself that forgiveness means no finger-pointing. He had already admitted his wrong, and continual incrimination would not mend anything, or do either of us any good.
6. Set new rules.
Rule Number One: Accountability.
Your spouse has a legitimate need and right to know where you are, what you’re doing, and with whom. It’s the only way to rebuild trust.
If this seems exaggerated, put yourself in the shoes of the betrayed. Each time the door opens they wonder, “Where is he or she going? To meet that other person, or even a different one? How can I trust someone who was so deceitful before?” Wouldn’t you need to know, to feel sure? And if you can’t tell your spouse where you’re going, what you’re doing and with whom, perhaps you shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
Rule Number Two: Don’t allow other friendships to grow too strong.
Especially with those of the opposite sex. If we’re discussing problems with others instead of our spouse, that’s a problem. Or if we feel freer to share our heart with another, we need to work harder at home communication.
Rule Number Three: Don’t let things build up.
Commit to working things through as they come up, with love and patience. By addressing differences with openness and sincerity, molehills don’t turn into mountains. But this also means intentionally deciding to leave unkind, destructive criticisms unspoken. Share what you think and how something makes you feel — but without belittling or tearing down. Don’t voice criticisms unless you have constructive suggestions to offer as well.
Rule Number Four: Work on intimacy.
Growing apart and lack of intimacy damage marriage greatly. Commit to not shutting your spouse out of your life, thoughts, and dreams. It’s important to make time for each other, real communication, and physical intimacy.
With time, true commitment, and a lot of work, marriages can survive betrayal. And come out even stronger.
Our marriage became stronger because we learned: 1) The right way to deal with problems. 2) The importance of making time for each other. And 3) Of making our marriage our top priority. Children are important, and friendships are great. But nothing is more important than communion with your soulmate.
And now we know that if we weathered that storm, we get through almost anything! And we have the added blessing of being able to encourage hurting couples. Through experience we can say, “We know it’s hard; we’ve been there. But there is hope. It takes time, but with a lot of work, your marriage can heal, and even come out better.”
Especially if we walk committed to each other, and hand in hand with the Lord. For the one who created marriage can also surely teach us how to build one.
And a marriage with him in it, is like a cord of three strands — stronger than ever. Ours is living proof.
Someone might be able to beat up one of you, but not both of you. As the saying goes, “A rope made from three strands of cord is hard to break, (Ecclesiastes 4:12).
Disclaimer: Although I am a certified counselor, the information in this article is offered as personal advice and testimony, not professional counseling. Don’t make try to make it on your own, like we did. Please seek pastoral care and professional help.