How does a wife respond to her husband’s sexual sin?
By Penny Freeman & Nancy Groom
Look for the Signs
In a broken world we all must face the consequences of sin – our own sin as well as the sin of others. For a woman whose husband is addicted to pornography or sexual sin, this dual battle of facing both her husband’s betrayal and her own struggle to respond appropriately can be excruciating. How can she best love her husband during his gradual, often lengthy journey of growth, maturity, and change? And how can she endure if he refuses to work on restoring their marriage unity? These are important questions for wives whose husbands struggle with any form of sex addiction.
The shock of discovery and his initial pursuit for help often give way to an unsettling sadness and real confusion about how to move on down the road. Fortunately, some women married to sex addicts eventually find that their husbands’ movement into change and accountability has actually strengthened their marriages. Spouses who choose the path of on-going honesty and repentance can enjoy the reward of a more satisfying union. However, many wives find themselves facing an ambiguous husband, a husband not committed to working hard on his issues, a husband who promised faithfulness but won’t sever ties with his idolatry of lust. How is such a woman supposed to live as God’s daughter in that kind of circumstance?
There are, of course, no easy answers. Wives of sex addicts are on a path that is both frightening and largely unchartered. But there are signposts that mark this path of marital disappointment, landmarks that identify for travelers that they are on the road that will bring them to their destination. When the way to a destination is new, it is comforting to know what to expect. What signposts can a disappointed wife expect to see along her journey toward renewal in her life and marriage?
Signpost #1: Anger, Shock and Numbness
When the issue of sexual unfaithfulness comes out into the light and a wife finally is confronted with the reality of her husband’s struggle, it is common for her to react with shock. There will likely be much anger and crying, which may not be pleasant but is healthy and normal. However, within a few weeks it isn’t uncommon for the wife to then feel numb. The initial adrenaline of discovery and the burst of energy to find help wear off as the realities of daily living settle in.This is a crucial time during which a woman needs support and guidance. Her overwhelming pain will surely tempt her to shut down emotionally or to build walls protecting herself from more hurt. Under the layer of shock and numbness are her broken dreams about marriage and life. She rightly expected marital faithfulness but found betrayal, and it is enough to stagger even the most pragmatic wife. Having discovered her husband’s addiction to pornography or sexual sin, her life has been profoundly altered. Certainly no wife is foolish enough to think she has married a perfect man. But living with a husband who has deeply failed her at the core of their intimate relationship plunges a woman into huge ambivalence. She longs for the intimacy of marriage, but how can she go on giving her heart to her wayward husband? This part of her journey is neither pretty nor simple, but it is, in fact, God’s invitation to the redemptive process of grief.
Signpost #2: Good Grief – Mourning the Loss
Grieving is not a popular experience, but it is absolutely necessary for the restoration of a marriage in which a spouse has crossed moral boundaries. Grief is a deep emotional reaction to a loss. Our culture legitimizes mourning the death of a person who is important to us. Less supported, however, is grief when something less tangible “dies.” Moreover, the shame attached to sexual sin and the fear of exposure to others (especially in the Church) makes this experience of loss even more isolating.
Scripture, of course, is not silent about grief. In fact, mourning is often spoken of as a normal part of living in a fallen world. Did not Jesus say in Matthew 5:4, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted”? Comfort comes to those who mourn, and Jesus was speaking to a very large audience when He said those words. The psalmist reinforces this concept by reminding us, “The Lord is near the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God seems to expect that our hearts will be broken relationally, and when we experience this He intends that we bring our crushed and broken hearts to Him for His comfort. Nor does God expect our expressions of sorrow to look pretty or to be worded in calm and logical prose. David’s psalms were anything but serene. He often began by complaining or beseeching God to pay attention to his circumstances and to punish those who were harming him. Of course he usually made a shift from distress to worship and from anger to gratitude for God’s love. But never does he pretend that life is not difficult.
Many other men and women in Scripture struggled with painful relationships and disappointing events, and they did not hesitate to bring their grieving hearts to God in earnest prayer, telling their Creator how they felt. Consider Moses’ complaint in Numbers 11 or Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 1, or Job’s many lamentations, especially in Job 23. Even Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears” as He faced his imminent death (Hebrews 5:7). God’s people do not run from grief. Rather, they boldly enter it, for there they find the waiting arms of their heavenly Father.
Our culture, unfortunately, seldom teaches us how to handle our emotions when our world is shaken. People today don’t often share the Scriptural perspective that sin has altered the experience of life and all of creation groans in waiting for the finality of redemption. But we can take God’s word for it: It is normal to groan about damage to one’s heart and marriage. Naturally we want to know how long this grieving stage will last, but there is no perfect timetable. Grief must run its course. We will know when our grief has crossed the line from healthy mourning to entrenched self-pity. God will surely show us (even while we’re still grieving) how to move toward loving others who have hurt us. And be prepared. God always starts with the person whose attention He has at the moment – which may be the offended one, not the offender. One winter’s day while journaling about my own heartache at having been disappointed by someone I trusted, I (Penny) felt entitled to list for God all the reasons I should never trust my heart to anyone again. Tired of being hurt, I was on a roll. My litany of mistreatment went back to childhood, including such sorrows as sexual abuse, being stood up for two proms in a row, and several experiences of being betrayed by close friends. I ended up feeling justified for never letting my heart be mishandled again. “It just isn’t safe!” I self-righteously concluded. Quietly I waited in the sun-drenched warmth of my room, confident that God would comfort me by affirming my self-protection. Instead He gently guided me to this question: “And just whose definition of “safe” shall we use — yours or mine?”
I was caught; the sin of my own heart exposed. My view of safety had been entirely self-focused: I wanted to never be hurt again. Furthermore, my commitment to safety meant I would never love deeply again, and thus I would cease to reflect the Father I was called to imitate. My own self-consumed heart was juxtaposed to my Father’s long-suffering heart, He who had not spared His own Son to insure my eternal safety. In repentance I saw once again God’s commitment to love the unlovely, which of course included me. How could I not show to others the same love I had myself received? Grief does not nullify our obligation to love others. Rather it reinforces it.
Signpost # 3 Accepting the Risk of Loving the Unlovely
Any woman married to a sex addict wonders how to move from the anguish of betrayal to the risk of trusting her husband again, knowing she is likely to be re-disappointed because sensual gratification is such an easy-to-obtain commodity. If she understands that her husband’s sin is to seek refuge from stress and to sexualize his disappointment with life, she knows there will probably be further failures. But a wise woman becomes a helpmate ever better suited to her husband if she will remember that she no less than he is tempted to handle the pain of life in sinful ways.
The ground is always level at the foot of the cross, each of us carrying our dignity and depravity in ways unique to our own particular history and temperament. And because of the hope of the gospel, a marriage can be rebuilt when both husband and wife enter together the humility of being sinners who need grace. The process may be long and painful, but the rewards are sweet. One major part of loving the unlovely, therefore, is the risk of offering forgiveness, which essentially means not “holding on to wrongs suffered,” as described in 1 Corinthians 13:5. My pastor says it like this: “Forgiveness means taking the snapshot you have of this person (a snapshot that may have been at one time accurate) and shredding it.” How can a wife begin to shred this picture of her husband as infidel? This is the work of warfare praying.
Signpost #4: Prayer Warfare
A wife begins to risk her heart as she prays for God to change her so she can love her spouse as God Himself loves him. Inviting God to show her His view of her husband will allow her to see him not only as a sinner, but also as a man designed to reflect God’s purpose in a dark world. How would her husband be if he no longer were in bondage to sexual sin? What kind of man would he be if he understood the depth of God’s love? What would it look like if he became the protector to her that he was designed to be? How might their marriage change if his heart was captivated by the beauty of God ‘s gift of sexual unity in marriage and he cherished his wife as He found himself cherished by His Holy Suitor?
Seeing her husband from God’s perspective can rejuvenate a wife’s respect and passion for him. As a woman reflects on how her husband is caught in the foolish web of illicit sexual gratification, she can begin to pray for his soul in ways that honor him as the image-bearer he is called to be. In prayer she can re-commit herself to her marriage, longing for her husband’s restoration and allowing God to bring His grace to her so she can in turn offer it to her fallen husband. Such a wife cannot stay hard or bitter. When she aligns herself with God’s purposes, offering her heart to God to soften and fill, she will be able to love well the man who has caused her much sorrow. What a reflection this is of God’s own love, which ever extends toward those who have caused Him sorrow.
Signpost #5: Facing an Ambiguous Outcome
There are times, however, when in spite of a wife’s perseverance in warfare praying, her husband remains in bondage to sexual sin. Despite her seasoned prayer on his behalf he refuses to become the man God and she are inviting him to be. What can a wife do in the face of his hard-heartedness?Such was the plight of Abigail, as described in 1 Samuel 25.
She was married to a foolish and rude man (Nabal), and though we know little about her, surely her life with a boorish man occasioned many moments of intense prayer between her and God. And out of the wisdom and faith nurtured in Abigail’s walk with God, she took an amazing risk, jeopardizing her life to save her household and to protect David’s reputation as God’s man. This she did by literally standing in David’s way as he marched to take revenge on Nabal for disrespecting him. Abigail’s intervention not only saved the lives of many, but it also changed the course of David’s personal history.Then, when Abigail went home to her drunken husband, she shrewdly timed her intervention of truth telling for when he was sober, at which time Nabal appears to have had a stroke. Scripture then says, “About ten days later the Lord struck Nabal and he died” (v. 38, emphasis mine).
For ten days God let Abigail live in a situation that had gone from bad to worse with no guarantee of a positive outcome. If I had been Abigail, I would have been furious. “Oh, great! This is how I’m rewarded for following You? Now I have to take care of an abusive stroke victim?!” How could Abigail have gone on? I am convinced it was only because of her connection with God. Only by His grace could she have lived without allowing her circumstances to harden her heart toward God. For wives whose husbands are in bondage to pornography or other sexual sin, it will take much prayer and shrewdness — which only come from hours spent in prayer, asking the hard questions about what the next step should be. It also will involve at times a willingness to fight with her husband as well as for her husband’s soul.
Signpost #6: Productive Fighting: Hard Consequences for Hard Hearts
How can a wife engage in productive fighting on behalf of her marriage? For one thing, she must choose her battles carefully, discerning which issues are worth being addressed and which must be overlooked. Nor should she struggle by herself. She may need a mentor to come alongside her, helping her to see her situation with “new eyes.” Also, if her husband is a believer, she may be able to bring her situation to the attention of the elders of their church. The discipline outlined in Scripture is designed to reach a soul dulled by sin to matters of conscience. Moreover, the hardest consequence a wife may face because of her husband’s continued disobedience could include divorce, and she will need the support of good men from her church to pursue this difficult step if it becomes necessary.
In the meantime, keeping a soft heart but a hard line is a difficult balancing act. A godly wife’s tone and mood should be firm, winsome, and brave. She must require what God requires of her husband – faithfulness and holiness. A wife can say hard things to her husband if her words communicate her sorrow if he persists in sin. For example, in order to protect her health she may need to require that her husband be tested for sexually transmitted diseases before she can receive him again sexually. She might say something like, “It grieves me to enforce this, but it is necessary for our future relationship. I will be deeply sorry if you refuse, but I will also celebrate your repentance as I see the steps you make toward restoration in our marriage.” A hard line need not be drawn with a hard fist.Being available to fight with her husband for her marriage will require much strength.
A wife focused on challenging her husband in these ways will need support. Talking with a counselor, being involved in a support group and coming to her pastor with her concerns will be an important practice to keep her from feeling isolated. She also needs a wise ear to help her discern her own motives as she plans how to respond to her spouse.This work will be exhausting.
To love another this well will cost her dearly. She must compensate for the sorrow she embraces by seeking rest in Her Heavenly Father who promises His presence to “those who are brokenhearted and crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). Allowing mature friends to walk along side her as she does this work will also provide her with strength and refreshment.
These then are six signposts along a wife’s path toward wholeness when her husband’s sex addiction has been exposed. Recognizing the signposts is not always simple, nor is the journey linear or clean. But it is a journey of hope for any woman who will allow her heart to be broken by the effects of her husband’s sin and yet be softened toward God and toward her husband. Only as she commits herself to spend time with her heavenly Father can she love from a heart that longs to see her husband restored and conformed to the image God has for all His men. On such a journey, no woman is ever alone, for Christ Himself will companion with her and bring her finally Home.