By Benjamin Deu, MA, LMHC, Seattle Christian Counseling
References “NOT ‘Just Friends’” by Shirley P. Glass, Ph.D with Jean Coppock Staeheli
Rebuilding a marriage after infidelity is hard. You have the problems that opened the doors for unfaithfulness combined with the carpet bomb that is an affair. Your partner does not trust you. This can be difficult to swallow. You struggle with their refusal to believe you are committed to reconciling with them. Telling them about your day is more like an interrogation. There is no magic trick to getting them to believe you again, but there are some things you can do to nudge them in that direction.
1. End all Contact with your Affair Partner
The only exception is if you must interact with them for something work related. People often meet their extramarital partners through work, which makes it difficult to lose all touch with them after they end the relationship. No one likes to end a relationship. Oftentimes affair partners will continue to try to contact you because they do not have any reason to end the relationships. You need to make it clear that you will not talk to them about anything other than essential work topics or have anything to do with them socially– no more coffee, no more lunches, no more chatting when you run into each other at the grocery store.
Can’t we just be Friends like Before?
What part of “no more contact” didn’t you understand? Being “just friends” is how you got into this mess in the first place. After an affair, the partner who strayed is often worried about how their extramarital partner is getting along. It is none of your business. Checking up on them to offer sympathy only makes it harder for the two of you to go your separate ways. The only way to get your spouse to trust you again is to show you are committed to them and only them.
Breaking off contact with someone you had a passionate, emotional (and possibly sexual) relationship with is hard. Unfaithful spouses often feel the whole range of unpleasant emotions associated with a break-up, even though it was an affair. It can be tempting to renew the relationship, or just ask they how they are doing. Don’t. Any unnecessary interaction is an opportunity for temptation. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41 NIV) As Jesus reminds us in this verse, you may have good intentions, but sin can always find a foothold to overpower and corrupt you.
2. Tell your Spouse if you Contact the Affair Partner
As most affairs begin at work, it may be impossible to avoid your former lover altogether. If this is the case, tell your spouse when you interact with them. This may seem counter-intuitive because it seems like you’re creating opportunities for them to get upset all over again. While your spouse may get upset, they will appreciate you being forthcoming about your communication with your former affair partner.
This builds even more trust when you do it without being asked, or tell them about interactions they easily could never have found out about. Consider the example of Terri and James. James has just ended an affair with a woman from work. When Terri asks him about his day, he tells her not much happened. When she asks him whether he saw his former partner, he says he did, but it was only to ask about a project. This is much worse than if James had acknowledged it himself. James’ reluctance to tell Terri about the encounter makes her feel as if she has to monitor his behavior because he might still be hiding things from her. Had James told Terri outright that he spoke with his former lover, she would have been unhappy, but she would not have felt as if he was still trying to conceal his relationship from her. (109)
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Phil 2:3-4 NIV) By being forthright with your spouse about your contact with your former affair partner you are looking to their interests– assuaging their anxiety and providing a foundation for them to trust you again.
3. Help your Spouse Check up on You
“Knowing what is really going on is the only way a traumatized person can begin to reestablish trust.” (109) This means the best way to get your spouse to trust you again is by making your life an open book. The more willing you are to share your interactions and activities with your vulnerable spouse, the more helpful this will be. “You can turn over the beeper, share the cell phone bills, and share your e-mail correspondence. If your affair was an Internet affair, share your Internet history file.” (109)
This part of the process can be unpleasant. You feel as if your every interaction with others is being scrutinized, but you owe it to your partner. You rendered it impossible for them to trust you. Now it’s up to you to fix that. But that doesn’t make it any harder to humble yourself and accept your spouse’s prying questions. Remember– pride has no place in a Godly marriage.
Consider the lesson in Luke 16, “Whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Luke 16 10-12 NIV) You misused your marriage and your spouse’s trust. It is only natural that they would not want to give it back to you to misuse again.
This is not about punishing you by taking away your privacy; it is about relieving your partner’s source of anxiety. Some suggestions: do not take calls into other rooms (if you must, tell your spouse who called and why) and let your spouse know if you are going to be late. Glass uses the analogy of a parent waiting up for their teenage driver. Every moment their child is late for curfew is just another moment for them to imagine what they look like wrecked in a ditch. The longer your spouse sits wondering what is keeping you, the more certain they become you must be off sneaking around. (110)
Christian Counseling for People Recovering from Affairs
If you are at a loss for how to regain your spouse’s trust after you have been unfaithful, consider meeting with a professional Christian counselor. A counseling session is an ideal source of scripture-based, therapeutic insight for your marriage problems. The counselor can advise you on the best ways to be honest with your partner and regain your trust. They can also help your spouse deal with their anxiety.
Professional-Christian-counseling Flickr user Joe Houghton
How-to-build-trust-after-affair Flickr user InstantVantage