Should You Stay with a Spouse Who Cheated?
- Joe Beam President, Marriage Helper
- 2014 23 May
“People tell me I should divorce her. Forget her. Find someone else. She admits she was in love with the guy...but she says it’s over and she wants to make our marriage work. Asked me to forgive her. I don’t know if I can.
“Am I a fool to consider staying with her? Could I ever believe she really loves me? Will I ever quit thinking about the two of them together? What if he tries to get her back? Could I trust her not to go? Can I ever trust her again about anything?”
He paused, dropped his chin and said, “Part of me wants to walk away. Part of me wants what we had before. I don’t know what to do.”
Countless times over the last twenty years, I heard similar questions from men and women whose spouses cheated. Infidelity runs rampant. Every week people call our nonprofit because of it. Desperate people ask us for help to rescue their straying spouses who say they no longer love them. Penitent people ask us if there is any way to convince their spouses to forgive them for their unfaithfulness. Many, similar to the story above, say their spouses asked to be forgiven and taken back but struggle with whether they should...or even could.
We help people in any of those situations.
SEE ALSO: What to Do When Your Spouse Wants Out
In this article, I address those making a decision about whether to forgive and reconcile. My suggestions come from years of experiences with multitudes of marriages affected by adultery.
First, Consider Your Spouse’s Character
A vast difference exists between good people who do bad things and bad people who do bad things. Good people sometimes do bad things. Stupid things. Terrible things. Yet, they still differ substantially from people who do not have good hearts.
If prior to your spouse’s straying he consistently lacked integrity or morals, or manipulated, used, and discarded you and others with little to no regard for your welfare or emotions, why give him another chance to hurt you? God may change him, but you cannot. If he acted that way before straying, do you believe he will act differently now?
However, if before his adultery he demonstrated love, compassion, integrity, and other evidences of goodness, he likely is worth rescuing.
During his affair, he probably displayed characteristics that caused you to question his heart. People who cheat typically lie, manipulate, and sometimes say mean, hurtful things. Some stray into activities contrary to all they believed and stood for before. Crossing one boundary often leads to crossing many. They display behavior that understandably causes others to categorize them as bad. However, before you label him as that, ask yourself whether his behavior during the affair was consistent with who he was before, or whether it was as if he had changed into someone else.
If he became someone else, then he likely is a good person who was doing a bad thing. His actions contradicted the man he once was. If he now demonstrates penitence and asks for forgiveness and reconciliation, do not view him only as he was during the adultery, but remember who he was before it occurred. In short, consider the possibility that he is a good person who did a bad thing and now wants again to do right.
If he is, and you choose to forgive and reconcile, you have a strong chance of making your marriage better than it was before.
Second, Consider Your Own Heart
You have every right to be hurt and angry if your spouse strayed. You need time for hurt and anger to heal. If people try to convince you that you must let go of your hurt and cease your anger immediately, ignore them. That would only bury the pain deep within you and nothing good comes from that. Your repressed anger eventually will erupt, not once but many times, causing both of you to suffer far too long.
However, if you wish to hold on to your hurt rather than learning to forgive over time, getting back together will harm both of you. Years ago a woman told me the only reason she stayed with her husband after his affair was so she could remind him of his reprehensible deed every day for the rest of his life. They lived unhappily until finally he could no longer stand the misery and left her. It would have been less painful and more merciful for each of them if they had ended the marriage quickly.
If, on the other hand, you are willing to learn to forgive, your pain will heal and you can love each other deeply again. The pain does not disappear immediately...or even quickly. Yet making the decision to forgive sets you on the path not only to heal your pain, but also to heal your relationship.
You may wonder if you can get the images out of your mind of your bride being in the arms of the other man. As difficult as that is for you to imagine now, they will with time subside and finally dissolve. You also may wonder if you can get past the harsh or mean things she said, or the fact that she told you she loved him. With time that, too, will heal.
Any emotions she felt for him will completely disintegrate with time. Her asking you to take her back clearly demonstrates that she wants to be with you. Trust that.
Deciding to forgive is the first step. There are more. In our workshop for marriages in trouble, we guide participants through six clear and essential steps for reconciliation. They require specific actions from both the forgiver and the forgiven, including how to reestablish trust through accountability.
Third, Consider Your Future
If your relatives and friends know that your spouse cheated, you likely heard from some of them that you should divorce the scoundrel and, in the process, make him pay dearly for what he did. They love you and feel great hurt because you hurt. Therefore, for your own sake, please realize that the love they feel for you makes their counsel questionable. They may be driven too strongly by a desire to hurt the one who hurt you.
Rather than considering revenge, you would better serve yourself (and your children, if you have any) by contemplating what good could come from reconciliation, and what bad could come from starting anew with someone else if you choose not to be alone.
As one woman said, “When he asked me to forgive him and give him another chance, every person I asked for advice told me I could never trust him again. They urged me to get on with my life. But even though he had been gone long enough that I had already started seeing someone, I realized that while taking him back was a risk, so was this new relationship because every relationship is a risk. Who knows how much that man, or any other man I chose to love, might hurt me someday.
“I knew that at heart that my husband was a good man. The things he did were terrible. He hurt me...and our children...deeply. Not just what he did but the things he said. Yet, my heart told me his asking to come back meant he wanted to be the good guy again that he was before. It took some work to rebuild trust. There were times when I wondered if I’d made the right decision. But it’s been 25 years now and I’m so very happy that I gave him another chance. So are our kids.
“I guess I could have found a good man to marry...I didn't want to live the single life...but there was no assurance of that. I know the man I forgave and took back is a good man. A very good man who did a very bad thing in the past. Our life together isn't defined by the past, but where we are now. We love each other more deeply than we ever did...I think than we ever would have...because now we know what we have and how important it is to both of us.”
Finally, Ask Yourself These Questions
- Is my spouse a good person at heart who has done a bad thing?
- Has s/he asked sincerely and humbly to come back?
- Am I willing to experience my hurt but also to learn to curb any of my actions that would hurt him/her back?
- Am I potentially willing to learn to forgive and reconcile?
- If s/he is truly penitent and willing to do the things to earn back my trust and make our marriage good, could our life together be good?
If you answered yes to enough of these to cause you to think that perhaps you need to take back your straying spouse, trust your heart. Consider trying it. Create boundaries and establish rules that give you peace. Seek professional help if you need it.
Consider coming to our workshop for marriages in crisis so that in three intense days we can help you know how the affair happened, how to make sure it doesn't happen again, how to create the environment that rebuilds trust, and how to forgive and reconcile for a wonderful future together. Call us toll free at 866-903-0990 or email us at [email protected]. We understand that every situation is different, and we want to help you make your decision, or to make your marriage good if you have already decided to take back your spouse.
Publication date: May 23, 2014