Can a Christian marriage survive sexual betrayal?

Sexual betrayal is perhaps the most intimate and painful violation that can occur in a marriage, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it should be easy to forgive and move on with life.
Dr. David B. Hawkins

Sexual betrayal is perhaps the most intimate and painful violation that can occur in a marriage, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that it should be easy to forgive and move on with life. Rarely do I see couples rebound quickly from such an intimate and personal loss. Thankfully, however, it can be done. Let’s consider what needs to happen to recover from sexual betrayal.

First, there must be a complete and total separation from the other person/ situation. It’s impossible to heal if your mate continues to dabble in pornography, or if they are unwilling to set firm boundaries so that relapse is unlikely. A decisive and permanent break needs to occur from that other person or opportunity. The betrayed person needs to see, and feel, their mate’s dedication to living a safe and pure life.

Second, there must be safety for the couple to process ongoing feelings about what has occurred. Since there are natural feelings of anger, resentment and betrayal, and these feelings are likely to last for some time, the couple needs to agree upon a place and time to talk about these feelings on an ongoing basis. The betrayer often wants to “get on with life,” leaving the “betrayed” to deal with their feelings alone, when what is needed is an agreement to talk about the problem in a reasonable way, for a reasonable amount of time. The couple needs to agree not to hurt one another with their words, only aggravating the problem. These agreements, when kept, create safety.

Third, guard against being judgmental and perfectionistic. It may be tempting, when feeling betrayed, to narrow your view of your mate, seeing only their sinfulness. Feeling righteously indignant, it’s tempting to see the other as “wrong/ bad,” and yourself as “right/ good,” as you rehearse their wrongful actions.  Such dichotomies are not likely to be true, and certainly are not helpful to healing. Rehearsing resentment hurts you and your marriage. We need to remember that we’re all capable of any sinful action. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3: 23)

Fourth, the couple must determine why the betrayal happened. In some cases, the betrayal has nothing to do with the marital relationship, and more to do with sexual addiction or other emotional issues. In other cases, it has everything to do with the marriage. With wise counsel you can determine which is the case for you and set out on a course of healing weak areas in your personality/ marriage. For this to happen, of course, both need to be willing to consider the part they’ve played in this betrayal.

Fifth, the couple must embark on the task of rebuilding the marriage. With such a momentous infraction, the relationship may never be the same. Innocence has been lost and it is easy for cynicism and resentment to gain a foothold. Again, with godly counsel, the creation of safety and writing new history into your marriage, you can move forward. In fact, this marital crisis can be an opportunity to grieve what has been lost, learn from the experience and strengthen weak areas, and forge a new and exciting relationship. You can learn not only to forgive your mate, but to offer support and love to one another, further strengthening the marriage. 

Answer excerpted from Pornography, Adultery, and Sexual Betrayal by Dr. David B. Hawkins. Click here to read the article in its entirety. 

David Hawkins, Ph.D., has worked with couples and families to improve the quality of their lives by resolving personal issues for the last 30 years. He is the author of over 18 books, including Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken MarriageSaying It So He'll Listen, and  When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You. His newest books are titled  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and  The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt.  Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.

Originally published September 28, 2007.