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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Godly Sorrow: The First Step to Healing a Hurting Marriage

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, Marriage Recovery Center
  • Updated Jul 11, 2011
Godly Sorrow: The First Step to Healing a Hurting Marriage

Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family?  Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to

"I don't know what you expect from me," Tom said hotly.       

"I've ended the relationship," he continued. "I can't do anything about her calling me. I've told her twenty times to leave me alone. I'm starting to get mad at you."

"Mad at me," Tonya said incredulously. "Mad at me? After you've had an affair, you're mad at me?"

"Yeah," Tom said. "You won't leave it alone. I've said ‘I'm sorry' a hundred times, but that's never going to be enough for you."

I was saddened as I watched Tom and Tonya who had been married for ten years with two young children try desperately to put their marriage back together. Both felt violated and betrayed—Tom, from the years of tension prior to his affair and her current acrimony, and Tonya from his affair and reluctance to take drastic steps to protect their fragile marriage.

"What do you expect from me?" Tom continued angrily. "I can't make her quit calling," he said, referring to the woman from the affair who continued to leave him emails and phone messages.

"Yes you can!" Tonya said. "You've got to be willing to do whatever it takes to protect me and our marriage from her. I don't care if it takes a Restraining Order. I want her out of our lives."

Both Tom and Tonya were frustrated, and had called me to help sort out their immense difficulties. On one side of the room sat a man who was clearly guilt-ridden about his affair, yet had shared privately that this was not just a dalliance. He did not want to hurt "her" in his efforts to renew his marriage.

On the other side of the room sat Tonya, a grief-stricken and angry wife, desperate to save her marriage, yet nearing the end of her capacity to cope. Dealing with his affair was horrific, and now listening to one excuse after another was making her ready to bolt.

Caught in a stalemate, Tom wanted Tonya to be patient while he hoped the other woman would fade into the sunset. Yet each passing day brought another e-mail or text message. As I reflected on Tom and Tonya's struggle, I was reminded of another couple I saw recently where the wife had for years written checks for which she had insufficient funds. She had lied about her activities, always covering her tracks, borrowing money from friends and family to make up for the overdraft charges. Upon finding out, her husband demanded her to be accountable for her actions. However, rather than offer to be open about her money and allowing her husband to monitor her spending, she demanded to "not be treated like a child," and manage her own money. She resented his anger, defending her actions.

In both of these situations I noticed a distinct tendency for the defending partner to avoid taking complete responsibility for their actions. I watched as the husband, in the first situation, danced and maneuvered rather than fully protect his wife. More concerned for the woman of his affair, he left his wife unprotected and vulnerable. I watched in the second situation as the wife tried to bargain her way out of having to really deal with her dishonesty. She, too failed to really appreciate the damage she had done to their marriage.

In both situations I was reminded of the Scripture that reads, "Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regrets." (2 Corinthians 7:10) As I reflect on this Scripture, I suggest the following actions:

First, if there is Godly sorrow, there will be a radical turning away from the sinful actions. Godly sorrow brings repentance—a complete turning away from behavior that hurts and wounds others. In fact, the turning away must be a radical and decisive action, leaving no doubt in the wounded person's mind of their intentions.

Second, this ‘turning away from' stems from a moral and Biblical conviction. They feel sorrow for their action, and this sorrow propels them to make things right. They are so convinced of their wrongdoing that they are willing to give 120% to make the proper impression. Their heart has been touched, and feeling compassion for the one they've wronged, they must take action.

Third, the turning away must be above and beyond ‘normal' expectations. The one who has wounded the other must leave no doubt in the injured person's mind of their intent to heal their relationship. They one who has wounded their mate must seek to meet their mate's specific needs, proving to them they are serious about healing every aspect of their marriage.

Finally, after these steps are taken, the couple is able to explore other relationship factors underlying their difficulties. These factors cannot successfully be explored, however, until safety in the relationship is restored. Attempts to look at ‘both sides of the story' will only create an opening for the injuring party to avoid taking full responsibility.

I'd love to hear from you. What do think about these two different situations? 

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.