Devastated! For most wives, that word describes sexual betrayal. When a woman confides that she’s discovered her husband’s porn habit or his infidelity with an online sexual encounter, what do you say to help? What can you do?
Here are five good first steps to take:
- Listen, listen, listen
The woman in front of you just had her world rocked, and a primary way to love and help her NOW is to know her and understand her situation. Too often, wives who find out about their husband’s porn problem hear others minimize their pain. “Is it really that bad? You’re making such a big deal out of this! It’s not like it’s with a real person!”
No, this is a big deal! Porn, along with its many ancillary behaviors, means that her husband has gone outside the marriage and engaged sexually with others, and the fact that it’s an online image, person, or fantasy persona doesn’t matter.
You’ll need patience and self-control too, to hear her heart and resist the urge to overwhelm her with interrogating questions, advice, resources, or actions you think she must take now. No, make your initial priority to love her through listening, comforting, and knowing. Don’t be afraid to cry with her and get angry at sin with her. Give her hope from Scripture, like Psalm 32: 8: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you.” Leaning into Jesus will give you everything you need to gently help this wife do the same.
- Understand that sexual betrayal is traumatic
This wound can trigger paralyzing fear, depression, sadness, confusion, and bitter anger. Any combination of these is a normal response! Your willingness to grasp trauma’s impact is vital. God will enable you to hold the pain of sin and the hope of Christ together as you enter into this wife’s situation and the swirl of emotions that are crashing over her, and perhaps onto you, as well.
- Offer practical help and love-in-action
Are there practical ways to help her today or this week? Childcare, meals, making phone calls? If she discovered her husband’s sin rather than him confessing it, she may need help knowing how and when to confront him and may desire that someone be with her for this scary conversation. The goal is for all things to be “brought into the light” (1 John 1:7) so that the couple is facing the truth of their situation and not a façade. This is the healing path that Christ is calling them to walk: honesty, humility, and a new beginning through the gospel of grace which enables repentance.
God will enable you to hold the pain of sin and the hope of Christ together as you enter into this wife’s situation and the swirl of emotions that are crashing over her, and perhaps onto you, as well.
If everything is out on the table already, yet her husband is resisting repentance (say by minimizing what he has done), and refusing to get help, she may need guidance and encouragement to speak with a pastor or another trusted spiritual leader, effectively ‘outing’ her husband and his sin. This marriage is in crisis, and it needs outside help from one or two mature believers. This kind of sin and the pain it causes won’t just work itself out in isolation.
- Check in on her and follow-up
Follow up is not just important, it is probably the most powerful help you can give. A text, call, FaceTime chat, walk around the block are simple ways to help her not feel so alone.
Do not fear getting in over your head, or that to love this woman means signing your life away. Yes, you will be giving her your time because right now she’s hurting and needy. Focus on this week and not on an unknown future. Reach out to her with love, even if this week your presence can only be a series of text messages that say you are praying or a Scripture passage. The main thing is: keep in touch.
- If you’re her husband reading this, you must be completely honest
This means full disclosure of what you’ve been involved in. Not the nitty-gritty details, but enough to be fully known. I cannot emphasize how painful it is when a confession comes in like a slow trickle of admissions over weeks or months. Ongoing deception will be crushing to your wife, and it will profoundly damage any attempt to rebuild trust.
If you need help, listen to a podcast by Brad Hambrick called False Loves. Steps 4 and 5 regarding repentance and confession are particularly practical. God is with you in this humbling and scary process, and you can only take responsibility for your obedience and not your wife’s response to your confession.
These 5 points will help you connect well with a hurting wife. She, and the marriage, will need lots of different kinds of help over time. But utilizing these five things will help her move forward on the right foot, gently helping her to trust Jesus to bring healing to her heart and wisdom over the long haul.
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, every broken marriage has two sinners contributing to it. A wife is never responsible for her husband’s sin, yet I’ve seen God use the trial of sexual betrayal to bring transformation to so many wives. One woman said,
“I was not only bitter towards my husband but marriage in general and ultimately towards God as well. If God was sovereign, why did he allow me to marry a man with such a struggle that was so isolating for me? As God worked on my heart through a couple of friends who journeyed with me through this season, I began to see that I needed grace as much as my husband. My lack of forgiveness was just as despicable to God as his pornography. At the foot of the cross, we were equally in need of Christ’s mercy.”
Hurting wives and struggling husbands need Christ’s mercy, just like those of us who want to love them well and wisely. Hopefully, these five steps can assist you in doing just that.
Ellen talks more about this on her accompanying video: What Should I Say to a Hurting Wife? These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
14 Mar 2018
In the second part of this two-part blog on how to help wives whose husbands are looking at porn, Ellen gives five key things to say and do, at the beginning, to effectively help.
Click here to read more on what Ellen is saying on her blog: Wives and Porn: What to Say or Do that Really Helps – Part 2
08 Mar 2018
What to say to a friend who has discovered her husband has been looking at porn is important. What NOT to say is even more critical. Ellen gives five common remarks wives hear from friends and leaders, well-meaning comments that are anything but helpful and encouraging.
Click here to Ellen’s blog, “Wives and Porn: What Not to Say after She Knows.” And click here to read our harvestusa magazine, “Just What is Godly Sex?” where there are two articles on how marriages can heal after sexual sin: www.harvestusa.org/magazines
Another wife, another victim of her husband’s porn problem. Another marriage reeling in pain and shame. I kept listening to her reading her journal.
“God, I come to you very weak and broken, grieved over my husband’s sin. I feel shocked, betrayed, angry, distrustful, and sad at sin’s corrupting power – very aware of my own desperate need for grace as I confront him.”
I wrote these words in a journal entry when I discovered that my husband had been viewing porn. Although I knew of his struggle prior to our marriage, I naively assumed that he was finished battling porn and that our marital bliss would provide the antidote he needed against temptation. I felt my dream of a happy, secure marriage in which I felt compellingly beautiful to my husband were instantly shattered that afternoon.”
In the ache of her raw emotions and pain, what would you say to this woman if she reached out to you?? I’ve sat with hundreds of women over the years who’ve faced the trauma of a husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. As if being betrayed wasn’t enough, many people tell these women unhelpful things that heap more confusion and pain onto their situation.
Here are five things never to say immediately to a wife after she learns her husband has been unfaithful sexually through sins like pornography, adultery, and sexual fantasy.
- “Well, you do realize don’t you, that most men, including Christians, struggle with these things?”
This kind of response minimizes both the ugliness of sin and the real pain a wife experiences. Yes, reports keep coming in with staggering and sobering statistics regarding how many men (and increasing numbers of women) are struggling with pornography addiction. However, as well meaning as it may be to attempt to normalize sin, these words will wound rather than help a wife just after she has learned that her husband is also a struggler.
- “I know it seems impossible now, but God is going to make something so beautiful out of this! Before you know it, you’ll be looking back on this with praise and thanksgiving!”
Those who want to truly offer comfort and help to a wife need to avoid spiritualizing her pain, which is something so easy for us to do when we feel uncomfortable.
A time will come when we will need to challenge and exhort this hurting woman with God’s redemptive purposes through trials. Often however, a wife first needs to be comforted and known by someone, to be able to hear and comprehend what God’s bigger picture may be. It’s always a good idea to encourage someone to look to Christ; it’s just as important, however, to discern what a traumatized person is ready to hear and receive.
- “Wow, if you think that’s bad…listen to what so and so’s husband did! At least what your husband did isn’t ___________________.”
One-upping someone’s difficult circumstances rarely leads to Christ-centered encouragement. Furthermore, minimizing a woman’s specific situation and pain attached to it can be devastating. Comparing stories so as to make a wife’s own not seem so bad will actually communicate that she shouldn’t make a big deal out of it.
- “I know you’re hurting right now, but I have to ask you, how often are you having sex with him? Have you asked him recently if there were ways you needed to change your appearance to please him?”
Oh, the anger that boils up in my heart when women tell me this is what friends and spiritual leaders have said to them in the vulnerable minutes after they reveal their anguish! Sex shared in love between a husband and wife is important. However, a lack of sex is never the cause of another’s sinful choices. Never place blame on a wife for what her husband has pursued and done. Two people contribute to every broken marriage in one way or another, but God holds each of us responsible for our own sinful choices.
- “What?! Are you kidding me? Men are all the same…and we all know they’re after one thing: satisfying their own selfish lusts. Time for you to get OUT of this marriage.”
Sexual sin is a grievous breaking of the marriage covenant between a husband and wife. There are many marriages which do not survive the anguish of this form of betrayal. However, there are many marriages which not only survive but thrive in a rich new flourishing after a long season of healing, hard work, forgiveness, and restored trust. You don’t know what can happen, so never make definitive pronouncements to a wife whose world has been rocked.
Now that we’ve covered some of the don’ts, next week I’ll share several do’s that can guide you in offering both truth and mercy to hurting wives.
Ellen talks more about this on her accompanying video: What should I NOT say to a hurting wife. These short videos can be used as discussion starters in small group settings, mentoring relationships, men’s and women’s groups, etc.
14 Jan 2014
The discovery of sexual sin in a marriage is usually a devastating experience for the faithful spouse. In an instant, everything is forever changed by the disclosure. The marriage you thought you had does not exist. Maybe it never did. Your whole world is turned upside down.
You might not be able to think straight, sleep, or eat. Your emotions may feel out of control. All these are typical responses you might have to the relational betrayal of sexual infidelity.
Sexual infidelity is clearly contrary to biblical teaching (Matthew 5:27 –28). As the reality of sexual betrayal sets in, the first question that you may begin to ask yourself is, “What do I do now? Do I stay in this marriage or do I leave?” This is never an easy question to ask or answer. Leaving a marriage is clearly an option in the aftermath of sexual sin (Matthew 5:31-32). However, there is no biblical mandate that requires leaving the marriage after sexual sin.
As difficult as it may sound, waiting a while before making this important decision is often the best option. The betrayal of infidelity triggers a trauma-like response that can last from six to eight weeks. During this period of time, it is often difficult to think clearly, making it unwise to make important life decisions. Only after the initial trauma response has subsided can difficult decisions be addressed. Inviting wise counsel and resources to join you in the process of making those decisions may be profitable to you and your marriage. This is not a decision that should be made alone or impulsively.
So how do you decide whether to stay or go? Wrestling with this issue after sexual betrayal is normal. It is natural to look for ways to eliminate and reduce pain. If your goal is to feel better or lessen your pain, leaving might do that, but it probably will not bring you the relief that you desire. Unfortunately, broken hearts are painful, whether you remain in the relationship or not. Leaving the marriage will cause separation, but not necessarily pain relief.
Remember that while the marital covenant between you and your spouse has been breached, the relational covenant between you and God is still intact. No matter what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are called to fulfill the commandment to love God and others well (Matthew 22:37-39). As difficult and insurmountable as the issues in your life seem, God can make a way through the current difficulties for you and your spouse, if you choose to pursue that path. Your goal then should always be to do what loves your spouse and points him or her towards God. Whether you choose to stay or not, you need to first answer the question, “What loves my spouse best by pointing him or her to God?”
There are three issues that might be helpful to think through as you wrestle with your decision: safety, repentance, and reconciliation.
If it is unsafe for you or your children to live in the same house with your spouse, then separation is recommended. Safety is not simply related to dealing with a violent or threatening spouse. Safety issues include how the spouse is responding to concerns about medical testing. If physical sexual contact has been made with someone else or is suspected, issues like testing for STD’s and HIV need to be addressed immediately, regardless of any decisions about the future of the relationship.
A marriage that feels unsafe to a betrayed spouse can be made safer by the assurance that comes from knowing that the sin is being addressed through appropriate accountability, church discipline, and counseling. No one can promise that the infidelity will never happen again, but strong stop-gap measures can be put in place as some insurance that it will not. Sufficient attention to stop-gap measures that address the sinful behaviors and relational patterns that accompanied them can make a distressed marriage feel safer. Restoring trust in your spouse is going to take a long time, but you can feel a certain level of safety when such measures are invested in for positive changes in your marriage.
Repentance is turning away from sin and towards holiness. Nothing can give you more hope than watching your spouse actively pursue repentance by deepening his or her personal relationship with Christ. Failure to see this, on the other hand, may be a sign that repentance is not really taking place. Sometimes when there is a long history of the sexual sin, what loves a spouse best and points him or her towards God is the exact opposite of what has been tried in the past. Old sin patterns often need new interventions, and sometimes this might include separation or divorce.
Reconciliation requires a decision from both you and your spouse to re-enter the marital relationship. Reconciliation is an emotional process that will include many difficult ups and downs. God will invite each of you to reconciliation with him and then with one another. Invariably, the marriage at the end of this process will be stronger than the marriage was when it entered the process. In the midst of this, there will probably be times that you will question your decision to stay all over again. If there is a focus on reconciliation by both partners, then there can be perseverance through the hard times.
Finally, there is nothing more that you can do than attempt to fulfill the law of love that Jesus has given to each of us. Whatever your decision, to stay or to go, you will have loved well if your goal is to bless your spouse by pointing her or him to God.