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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Recovering from an Abusive Affair

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Marriage Recovery Center
  • 2014 24 Mar
Recovering from an Abusive Affair

We often are involved in very difficult work at The Marriage Recovery Center. We make no bones about the fact that we are available to help you save your marriage. Not only do we want to help you save your marriage, but we want your marriage to thrive, which is certainly in God’s divine plan for marriage.

Yet, there are certain traumatic experiences that make saving the marriage more difficult than others and I wish to write about that today. It pertains to what I’ve described as the abusive affair.

Cheryl and Tom came to The Marriage Recovery Center in absolute distress. Cheryl had just discovered Tom’s affair and both were reeling from the aftermath of it.

One of my first tasks as the Psychologist at The Marriage Recovery Center is to make an accurate assessment of what is happening, and then lay out a very clear plan for healing. In most situations, couples come with humility and are ready to change. They are willing to do the hard work involved in restoring their marriage.

In some situations this is not the case, and one of those situations is what I call the abusive affair. As I listened to Tom and Cheryl’s story, a handsome, professional couple who had been married over twenty-five years, I was very concerned. Not only had Tom not fully taken responsibility for his affair, but he subtly blamed her for it. He also refused to alter his life to help her heal, leaving her in even more emotional distress. His affair, combined with his failure to set healthy boundaries on his relationship with the other woman created an abusive situation, making healing impossible.

As I listened to their story, I questioned them regarding several critical factors:

  • Had the unfaithful partner completely ended the affair, perhaps in a demonstrable manner for their mate?
  • Had the unfaithful partner taken full responsibility for the affair, not blaming their mate in any way?
  • Did the unfaithful mate demonstrate “a Godly sorrow leading to repentance”?
  • Was the unfaithful partner willing to do whatever it took to be accountable, transparent and trustworthy?
  • Was the unfaithful partner willing to be patient while their mate worked through the traumatic experience?
  • Was the betrayed mate willing to hear painful truths about the affair?
  • Was the betrayed mate willing to explore what might have been broken in their marriage before the affair?
  • Was the betrayed mate willing to do the hard work of rebuilding their marriage, giving their mate another chance?
  • Were both partners able to see how God could use this tragedy for good? (Romans 8:28)

When each of these questions is answered affirmatively, there is great hope for their marriage. When any of them are answered negatively, there is significant concern. There are several twists in the above recipe that not only make it difficult to heal, but in fact can create an abusive environment.

In this particular situation Tom had to be soundly confronted to set healthier boundaries regarding the woman with whom he had the affair as well as take full responsibility for his actions. Fortunately he accepted my confrontation and this set the stage for he and his wife to begin healing.

Let’s consider some serious red flags to rebuilding a marriage after an affair and what may constitute an abusive affair.  

First, failure to completely end the affair. Obviously this is a nonstarter. The one who had the affair must be willing to completely end the affair and take significant actions to send a message to their mate, and the one with whom they had the affair, that it is over. Done. Finished. A mistake that should never have happened. Failure to take such actions sends a huge message to both the person and to the mate and creates an atmosphere where healing is impossible.

Second, failure to accept responsibility. When the individual who had the affair fails to fully accept responsibility, this leaves the betrayed spouse floundering. Taking responsibility requires the individual to not only acknowledge wrongdoing, but to acknowledge the ripple effect and damage they have done. They must “own” all aspects of the damage they have done and understand the severity of their actions. Furthermore, they cannot shift any responsibility onto the mate, taking full and complete responsibility for their destructive choices.

Third, failure to exhibit a Godly sorrow. The betrayed mate must have a sense that the mate who had the affair is truly sorry for what they have done and exhibits “a Godly sorrow” (II Corinthians 7:10). Not only have they acknowledged wrongdoing, and the severity of it, but they exhibit contrition. They are tuned into their mate’s pain and the role they played in causing it. This is not a one time only event, but ongoing actions that reflect contrition.  

Fourth, failure to be fully honest and transparent going forward. Healing cannot occur without complete honesty and transparency. The one who violated the trust must be willing to alter their life significantly to assist the betrayed mate in regaining trust. This may require profound sacrifice, at personal cost, in order that the betrayed begins to feel safe and trust again. This often requires changing work habits, phone decisions, travel arrangements, and anything else needed to restore trust.

Finally, failure to invest fully in healing. Both must be willing to make rebuilding the marriage the utmost priority. This means that everything takes a back seat to restoring the marriage. There is no expense or effort too great to save the marriage. Failure to give restoration this effort is tantamount to being incredibly destructive with the marriage. Patience may be required as the betrayed mate finds their emotional footing again.

Again, there are steps necessary to effectively heal from an affair. It will be an incredible, but doable challenge. Failure to take necessary steps adds insult to injury and in some cases is emotionally abusive. You can heal, individually and as a couple, but only with utmost care and effort.

We are here to help and offer phone/ Skype counseling on issues related to this article. Please go to our website, and discover more information about this as well as the free downloadable eBook, A Love Life of Your Dreams, including other free videos and articles.  Please send responses to me at and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.

Publication date: March 24, 2014