I am a Christian.
That means radically different things to different people, so I better explain before some people stop listening because of how they interpret those 4 words.
It is not a result of or linked to a political party or stance.
It doesn’t inform the reader as to my scientific understandings.
It certainly doesn’t ally me to hate-filled people whose identities are defined by those they despise.
It merely means I trust in what Jesus Christ did and does to make me right with God and that I seek to correctly apply what He taught in our own culture and time.
I seek to apply the truth and am convinced that only truth sets people free.
The only reason I am making this “claimer” (rather than disclaimer) is because of the topic I was invited to write on… the limits of marriage under some of the worst circumstances…
And my thoughts on this are largely informed by what I believe is the truth about marriage.
Marriage, as handed to humanity from On High, was intended to be a living parable of how the Creator loved His people… and His love has been best defined by sacrifice.
Marriages in our modern culture fail most often because marriage is being “used” to accomplish things it was never designed for.
This is like trying to hammer a nail into a wall with a vase.
The problem is not really the vase itself; the problem is that vases aren’t meant to accomplish that task.
Marriage wasn’t designed fundamentally to make sure our needs are met. Anyone who has been married very long (and I get chuckles on this in every wedding I perform) knows that marriage is really a pretty awful way to blithely get your needs and wants met. Why?
It wasn’t designed for it.
But it is a great way to spend the rest of your life sacrificing for another person to make sure they get some of their needs and wants met. (I am not talking about some twisted co-dependent “my identity cannot be distinguished from meeting your desires” junk.) I am talking about a sober and charitable decision to concern myself with the interests of another even when it costs me to do so.
Knowing that this is where I start the conversation, you can imagine what a challenge it is to write about when to move on after your spouse has cheated. In defense of this understanding of marriage, in fact, there is an old Hebrew story of a prophet who is instructed to marry a prostitute. When the wife goes back to her life of prostitution and is unfaithful, he is told to go redeem her again…
Because this is exactly what God does for His people.
However, I do think that the time comes for many people… and that sadly it is always a result of selfish vanity – hardness of heart – on at least one person’s part, and it may not be the one who is having to finally file for divorce.
The truth is that it may take two people to create a great marriage, but it only takes one to destroy and live in disrespect of the covenant.
At the simplest level, though there is still much debate over this, there are two potential motivations for divorce that The Judeo/Christian Holy Bible (the source for the teachings of Jesus Christ and His immediate followers).
The First is infidelity/sexual immorality. Jesus is quoted as saying, in Matthew 5:32, “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
All discussions as to gender issues, cultural details aside (which could take thousands more words than I have here), it seems that Jesus himself allows that a divorce for the reason of sexually immoral conduct (of which adultery was certainly among the list) was allowed, though certainly not commanded, or even encouraged.
Second: the early Christian Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthian Church (7:15) seems to indicate that if a person is abandoned, they may move on. Of course, there is also great debate on this, but at a cursory reading, this seems to offer the second possible motivation. For more on both of these, I refer you to David Instone-Brewer)
So, back to the original question. When is it time for a spouse who has been cheated on to move on? When can they “wash their hands” of the guilt and sense of failure and close the chapter of their lives that involved being married to the cheater?
Probably never, completely. This life just doesn’t work that way.
However, there may be a time to make the end of the marriage official… and I think there are some questions that one must wrestle with honestly along the path to reaching this decision:
1. Is my unfaithful spouse penitent? Are they remorseful? Are they trying– and making a sincere effort? (more on this in a second).
2. Am I making a sincere effort? Am I still holding back that puzzle piece that might give the marriage an actual chance? Often, and not surprisingly, unfaithfulness comes in a marriage with other problems – and the main problem maker is usually the one who cheats! The faithful spouse may think “well, at least now I will get a better marriage since they are trying to win me back.” When even that doesn’t happen, the resentment can be deep, understandably.
3. Honestly, what has been tried? Are there any options available to me/us that I am not trying? Counseling, Intensives, Accountability, Rehab? Community, Psychological evaluation? What are the excuses? Whose excuses are they?
4. Can you trust again? Not at first, for sure, but can you see that the day would come? Do you see a day in which you would predict that your spouse will never be unfaithful from that point on? Can you predict a good and redemptive future? And, this is important: have you given yourself enough time? It can sometimes take a long time to even imagine a positive future. I believe in being patient.
5. Are they insisting on still cheating? Are they not willing to make the vow “forsaking all others” from this point forward, or are you still being abandoned? Have they fully divorced themselves from the other person?
6. Back to number 1. Repenting is a term that means to change direction. It is more than words, it is deeds and life. Is the unfaithful spouse indicating with consistent deeds that they regret what they have done? Are they willing to try to re-pursue your heart?
Be honest with yourself about these questions. I am confident that honest and candid answers to yourself (maybe with a friend and between you and your counselor) will help clear up what your next steps must be. Something so important, you will want to know that you have made the valiant effort. Then, if the day comes and you recognize it as the day to say goodbye, you will know you have been steadfast.
I want to offer one case study: unfaithful husband is caught and claims to want to save the marriage. In every meeting with every counselor he claims this. However, the husband is still living, for work reasons, in a different town than the rest of the family… she begs him to either move back with the family or divorce her, but he will do neither. Stalemate. However, his words are always that he wants to move back, but it is just too tough. I, the counselor, ask if he has even looked to see if getting a job in town is possible. He says no. Finally the wife draws a boundary. “Write up your resume and send it out to 12 people in the town” or she would interpret his refusal as him asking her to file for divorce. He had SIX MONTHS to do this small thing. He didn’t get it done.
Such a low bar to jump, right?
When we went through these questions, and after sober thought and prayer, she decided it was time. It was very hard and divorce didn’t make life suddenly easy, but she believed that after the infidelity and this abandonment, that it was time.
Marriage is sacred and must be protected, and I think it is noble to seek to nurture it even after unfaithfulness, but there must come a time. I am sorry I don’t have a simple 5 point checklist, but I don’t think we would truly want it to be easy… and the 6 questions above, when dealt with honestly, should create some clarity for you, I hope.
Make clear, that neither I nor anyone else should blame the infidelity on the victim spouse. Did they help in screwing up the system? Probably (though honestly, I don’t think always)… but the decision to engage sexually with another person of one’s own free will is exactly that – one’s own decision.
No spouse can be, should be, nor is, responsible to make sure that their spouse remains faithful.
In any case, a new marriage is needed after an affair. Hopefully, and with grace and forgiveness, repentance and pursuit, the new marriage can be with the same spouse.
I hope that maybe the understanding of what marriage is, and isn’t, will have new hope for your marriage and can get new help. The Jesus of the Bible loves to “make all things new.” Blessings on you as you seek to live out that living parable that God intended our marriages to be!
About the author
Chris Legg, LPC, is a licensed minister and professional counselor. He is the Campus Pastor for FBC Tyler’s South Campus and he runs a thriving therapy practice in Tyler, Texas… counseling, speaking and consulting. He is a graduate of Texas A&M and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, with degrees in Religious Ed. and Marriage and Family Therapy. Chris and his lovely wife Ginger have been honeymooning since 1993, and have been blessed with four great kids.
Learn more about FBC’s South Campus at www.fbctyler.org/sc
Contact Chris, read articles, and look for other resourcesat his website at www.chrismlegg.com.