The Unfaithful Spouse: Should I Divorce or Try to Reconcile?
- Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
- 2012 9 Sep
“Everybody in my family tells me to divorce her. My Mom will be furious if I don’t. She called Shelly some pretty bad names. Called the guy she was involved with worse names. She insists that I file immediately.”
“Why haven’t you?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’m hurt. Deeply. But we had fourteen years together. My kids don’t say anything, but I can see how worried they are. They don’t know the details, of course, but they know things are bad between Shelly and me. If I divorce her, do I tell ‘em what their mother did? And do I lose my kids if I divorce? Mom says that a good lawyer can take the kids away from her because of what she did, but I don’t know…”
“Yeah, you have a lot to consider. What do you really want? If you could just snap your fingers and get it, what would you wish?”
“I’d wish she never met Jarrod. That she hadn’t gotten involved with him.”
“Uh-huh. But since you can’t change the past, how would you change the future? Again, what it is that you truly want?”
“I want this to be over. I want my wife to love me. I want peace and trust and security. I want what I thought we had but turns out we didn’t…”
I could put a name to the man in the conversation above. Actually, hundreds of them. If you prefer, I could change the pronouns and provide hundreds of women’s names instead. Since 1994, we have worked with thousands of marriages, many affected by infidelity, though all the other problems have been represented in quantity as well. Control and domination, addiction, anger, stepfamily difficulties, in-law problems, and more lead people to contact us for help. They do not always call to seek help to save their marriages; sometimes they call because they feel confusion about whether they should divorce or try to reconcile their marriages.
When offended spouses ask my counsel, I suggest they consider five things as they make their decisions.
First, do not allow your family or friends to make your decision.
We need our families. We need them even more during times of crisis. We want their support, love, and understanding.
However, following their advice in trying times may lead to poor consequences.
When we hurt, those who love us also hurt. Because of their love for us, they can become very angry and bitter toward the person who caused our pain. Often, that creates within them strong negative feelings about that person. Therefore, they usually do not wish us to continue in a relationship with the one who hurt us. Instead, they want to protect us from the offender. Because the safest route to our not being hurt by that person again is to end the relationship, those who love us may want us to do just that.
Sometimes their urging us to end the relationship actually is the wisest course of action. However, sometimes it is not. Their love for us may blind them to the possibility of rescuing the relationship and the benefits that reconciliation brings.
If your spouse has hurt you – especially by infidelity – bask in the love and security of your family and friends, but seek advice about how to deal with your straying spouse from wise and experienced people who do not carry your hurt in their hearts.
Before making your decision about divorce or reconciliation, seek balanced counsel rather than biased counsel.
Second, do not try to hurt the one who hurt you.
A woman who caught her husband in his second illicit relationship packed her things and her children and moved back to her hometown. In a phone conversation, she told me that her friends wanted her to do everything she could to destroy her husband’s reputation as well as annihilate him financially. When I enquired whether she intended to do so, she replied that she told her friends she had enough hurt on her own and did not need to take on theirs as well.
I told her how impressed I was with her maturity. She understood a principle that many seem to miss: Vengeance leads to bad decisions, and bad decisions lead to bad consequences.
Vengeance attempts to make the other person hurt as badly as you hurt. It never fully satisfies because you can never be sure that the other person hurts as badly as you do.
Demand justice, but forego vengeance. Vengeance may hurt the other person, but the emotional damage it does to you may be far worse. Collateral damage, such as the long-term effect on your children, financial stress, or dividing your mutual friends, may well be the worst of all. Vengeance usually hurts the vigilante more than the intended target.
If you intend to hurt the one who hurt you, you will not make a wise decision about whether you should divorce or reconcile. If you wish to make the best decision for your future acknowledge your hurt, but do not let your pain cloud your judgment.
Make the choice that benefits you, your children, and your future, rather than a choice that ultimately hurts you more. To do that, acknowledge your hurt, but do not focus on repaying the hurt.
Third, consider your spouse's heart.
A woman sat in my office after discovering her husband’s infidelity. She talked about how her family, especially her father, wanted her to divorce her husband and, in the process, punish him severely for what he had done. After we talked about the danger of heeding advice from family and friends, and the detriment to her own heart and soul if she sought vengeance, I asked her a question.
“Is he a bad man who did a bad thing or is he a good man who did a bad thing?”
She enquired as to why I would ask that question. I explained that good people sometimes do bad things, but that if they are at heart still good people, they may be worth rescuing. Good people who regret bad behavior and want to make things right tend to be better people than they were before their indiscretion.
“So,” I asked, “Is he a good man worth taking the risk to rescue, or a bad man that you should get away from and stay away from for the sake of you and your children?”
She decided he was at heart a good man. She took the chance, and they worked out their problems. They have a strong marriage today.
If you find yourself wondering how to tell if a person is good or bad, I suggest you evaluate how he or she was before the infidelity or other bad behavior. Obviously, a person committing adultery is not doing a good thing, though the adulterer temporarily may have deluded him- herself that the unfaithfulness is not wrong. However, if at heart the adulterer actually is a good person – one with strong morals and sense of right and wrong – likely he or she eventually will come to regret the infidelity and seek to make things right. Therefore, rather than considering only the present situation, consider who your spouse is and has always been. That may provide insight into what he or she will be in the future.
If the straying spouse has ended the illicit relationship and wants to make the marriage work, that usually means that at heart she or he is a good person. If the straying spouse continues in the infidelity, he or she may still be a good person at heart who in time will come to his or her senses and regret the unfaithfulness. If you have any reason to believe that your spouse is a good person who did a bad thing, it may well be worth the risk to try reconciling.
Before making your decision about divorcing or reconciling, consider your spouse’s heart and evaluate whether he or she is worth rescuing.
Fourth, think of the future as you make your decision
Suzy Welch wrote the book 10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea. She explains that when making a decision one should consider the impact in the short- and long-term. She suggests considering the consequences of your decision in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years.
If you could rescue your marriage and make it good again, what could be the consequences to you, your children, and your spouse in 10 minutes, in 10 months, and in 10 years? On the other hand, if you divorce your spouse, what might be the consequences in 10-10-10?
Our experience with thousands of marriages indicate that if a couple can work out their difficulties, learn to forgive, create the right boundaries to prevent future problems, and do the things that make love grow, the marriage will be stronger after the affair than it was before the affair. No, the affair did not make it stronger. The “wake up call” and the subsequent building of a solid relationship made it stronger.
In considering 10-10-10, realize that being divorced does not automatically guarantee finding a new mate. Forgiving and reconciling can lead to a better marriage than before. Divorcing leads to being alone if you do not find another mate.
Even if you do find another mate, that relationship also has risks. Every relationship does.
When considering 10-10-10 in making your decision to reconcile or divorce, think of the effect on your children in ten years. Children do better when they grow up with their biological parents. Additionally, holidays, seating and honors at your children’s weddings, potential half-siblings, and many other matters will become part of their lives as well as yours if either you or your mate marry someone else.
Divorce or reconciliation both have consequences now, in a few months, and in the years to come. Think carefully about whether to end the relationship now or to risk another try at making it work well.
Fifth, seek the proper help
If you think you may reconcile, find the right help. Forgiving and reconciling do not happen naturally.
Help in Understanding How It Happened
It requires understanding how the infidelity occurred so that boundaries can be set to prevent it ever occurring again. Sometimes gaining that understanding causes pain in both the betrayer and the betrayed. Realizing why your spouse developed an emotional bond with another person can be extremely painful. Beyond that, you may face your own flaws if you happen to discover any unwitting contributions you made to situations that opened the possibility of unfaithfulness. That does not mean that you take responsibility for your spouse’s adultery, but that you recognize any of your marital imperfections.
Help in Putting the Marriage Back Together
Deciding not to divorce requires understanding how to forgive and reconcile. Reconciliation occurs in phases. It starts as a decision and, if done well, develops into an emotion. Learning how to make the decisions involved in the reconciliation process and knowing how to evaluate the process as it happens is very important.
Ultimately, the goal is not to reconcile for the sake of reconciliation, but to learn to love deeply.
There are many professionals who can help you through deciding whether to reconcile, and then, if you wish, to actually accomplish the reconciliation. They can help you love again and have a better marriage than you had.
Joe Beam is a best-selling author and chairman of Beam Research Center, an organization that provides marriage help to hurting couples. For more information on his workshop that saves troubled marriages that are in danger of divorce, click here.
Publication date: September 28, 2012