The process of working through an affair in Christian Counseling
Rushing toward commitments is the wrong approach to marriage counseling
When couples pursue counseling because of marital infidelity, they often rush to reestablish or trust or a commitment to the relationship. Counselors may encourage this because they think it will make the couple feel more secure or that it will facilitate healing. However, Dr. David Schnarch of the Marriage & Family Health Center in Colorado, discourages this approach. He argues, “For people at low levels of differentiation, trust is nothing more than dependency.” For those unfamiliar with Dr. Schnarch’s work on differentiation, the term refers to how developed a person is individually. Do they depend on others or their marriage to establish who they are as human beings, or do they base their identity on intrinsic characteristics and strengths? Kind of a, can they stand on their own two feet, thing.
How to Rebuild Trust Post-Adultery
Marital infidelity renders the marriage environment uninhabitable for trust. One member has already demonstrated their unwillingness to be trustworthy. Agreeing to continue to trust them fuels a system that does not work. For instance, say you have a friend who often comes to you to ask for money. They always say they’ll pay you back but never do. Eventually, you’d stop loaning them money, right? It’s the same principle when a married couple sits down in a counselor’s office and vows to remain committed to each other. Obviously, the marriage system is so flawed that it’s forced the couple to see counseling. What sense does it make to promise to keep it going?
This attitude seems to contradict the lessons of 1 Cor. 13 that love always trusts and believes. However, several times in the New Testament, believers are told to be wary of close relationships with non-Christians, and to avoid altogether willfully unrepentant “Christians.” This is not to say you should immediately divorce your spouse for cheating on you, but it does establish a precedent that you should be careful of how close you allow yourself to get to this person.
Therefore, rather than perpetuate a system that has proven faulty, couples need to work toward developing personal integrity that enables them to be trustworthy. (Dr. Schnarch refers to this a raising your level of differentiation.) An adulterer needs to come to a place where they realize they cannot blame their spouse for their choice to cheat, and they are not going to get anywhere if they try to contextualize their sin. As Dr. Schnarch points out, if they had any integrity, they would have sought to correct marital issues or gotten a divorce, rather than violating their marriage commitment.
Also, rushing toward reestablishing trust may cause the resolute spouse (the one who has remained faithful) to trust her or himself less. This decrease in trust may prevent them from becoming a stronger individual, or more “differentiated,” as Dr. Schnarch terms it. Dr. Schnarch argues the safest space a person can find is not within a relationship, but ultimately within his or herself. For Christians, this means finding a refuge in Jesus Christ, “for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) Clinging to another person and looking to them to validate your identity forces you to depend on them for your sense of self. This kind of “hero worship” can be regarded as idolatrous, considering believers are to look to Christ above all others. This can also be perilous given the mercurial nature of human beings. People sometimes let you down. Relationships improve with increased individual development because people choose to preserve and cherish their marriage because that’s what they want; it’s not just what the institution demands.
Don’t Take Your Spouse’s Adultery Personally
People seek counseling because they need help, not commitments. Committing to maintain your relationship doesn’t fix your problems, it just means you’ve agreed to be stuck with them. Schnarch claims that making a lot of decisions and agreements in the early stages of counseling creates an unstable foundation for marriage reconstruction. This is because the commitments aren’t based on anything positive or worthwhile. While committing to one another may comfort spouses dealing with marital infidelity, it doesn’t help them. This is because the resolute spouse is agreeing to trust someone who has demonstrated they shouldn’t be trusted, and both are committing to a marriage system that obviously isn’t working.
Schnarch proposes that couples, rather than reaching for that Band-Aid of commitment, deal with their pain in a different way. He says empty treaties are not a productive use of the pain experienced by the spouse who was betrayed. He suggests the resolute spouse work to raise their level of differentiation, which will help them to stop taking the adultery so personally. While the resolute spouse may have areas where they can improve their contribution to the marriage, it’s not their fault their spouse cheated. A person makes a choice to be unfaithful, and there’s no reason the resolute spouse should take responsibility for that.
You will have plenty of time to recommit to the relationship later. Use the time in your counselor’s office to evaluate the mechanics of your marriage from a Christ-centered approach. But remember, fruitful counseling takes time. You’re working to correct years, possibly decades, of unhealthy interactions and unproductive communication. You need to slow down, and take advantage of this opportunity to overhaul your broken system. Infidelity arises because something isn’t working. Rather than rushing to slap a bunch on patches on your marriage, take advantage of the opportunities counseling offers to make long-lasting repairs.
Images cc: freedigitalphotos.com -“Love Triangle” by marin