The Bible’s Viewpoint
Can a Marriage Be Saved After Infidelity?
“I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, and marries another commits adultery.”—MATTHEW 19:9.
WITH those words Jesus Christ made allowance for a Christian to choose to divorce an unfaithful mate.a However, what if the innocent mate chooses to preserve the marriage and the couple resolve to rebuild their relationship? What challenges lie ahead for the couple, and how can they meet those challenges successfully? Let us see how the Bible helps to answer these questions.
A House Demolished
We must first understand the magnitude of the damage caused by infidelity. As Jesus Christ explained, the Originator of marriage purposed that a husband and wife be “no longer two, but one flesh.” He added: “Therefore, what God has yoked together let no man put apart.” Yes, marriage is designed to link humans inseparably. When a person breaks the marriage vow by committing adultery, agonizing consequences ensue.—Matthew 19:6; Galatians 6:7.
Testifying to this is the distress experienced by the innocent mate. The effects of adultery can be likened to those of a hurricane that shatters homes. Dr. Shirley P. Glass observed: “Several patients I’ve worked with have told me that it would have been easier for them if their spouse had died.” Granted, some who have lost their mates in death may disagree. However, it is clear that adultery causes excruciating pain. Some people never completely get over the betrayal.
In view of such anguish, one might ask, ‘Must adultery end a marriage?’ Not necessarily. Jesus’ statement regarding adultery shows that the faithful mate has the Scriptural option to divorce but is not obligated to do so. Some couples decide to rebuild and strengthen what was crushed, by making needed changes—although nothing excuses adultery.
Of course, it is better to make necessary changes in a marital relationship when both partners are faithful to each other. However, even when infidelity has occurred, some innocent mates choose to preserve the marriage. Rather than base such a decision on wishful thinking, the innocent mate should weigh the consequences. She will likely give thought to the needs of her children as well as to her own spiritual, emotional, physical, and financial needs.b She will be wise also to consider whether her marriage is salvageable.
Is the Marriage Salvageable?
Before attempting to rebuild a house wrecked by a hurricane, a builder must determine whether it can be restored. Likewise, before endeavoring to rebuild a relationship that has been shattered by infidelity, a couple—especially the faithful mate—will want to make a realistic assessment of the potential for restored intimacy and trust in the marriage.
One factor to be considered is whether the guilty mate shows sincere repentance or is, instead, still committing adultery “in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27, 28) Although he promises to change, is he hesitant to abruptly end his immoral relationship? (Exodus 20:14; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:18) Does he still have a roving eye? Does he blame his wife for his adultery? If so, efforts to restore trust to the marriage are unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, if he ends the illicit affair, accepts responsibility for his wrongdoing, and shows that he is wholly committed to rebuilding the marriage, his wife might see a basis for hoping that genuine trust can one day be restored.—Matthew 5:29.
Also, can the faithful mate bring herself to forgive? This does not mean that she is not to voice her feelings of deep hurt regarding what happened or that she is to pretend that nothing has changed. It does mean that she will endeavor, in due time, not to continue holding deep resentment. Such forgiveness takes time but can help to establish a solid basis on which to rebuild the marriage.
Clearing Away the “Debris”
After the faithful mate has decided to save their marriage, what steps might a couple next take? Just as the debris around a home badly damaged by a hurricane must be removed, the “debris” surrounding the marriage must be cleared away. This can be accomplished to an extent if the couple express their feelings to each other. Proverbs 15:22 says: “There is a frustrating of plans where there is no confidential talk.” The Hebrew word translated “confidential talk” implies intimacy and is rendered “intimate group” at Psalm 89:7. It would therefore involve, not mere surface dialogue, but honest and fervent communication in which both parties reveal their deepest feelings.—Proverbs 13:10.
For example, in some cases the faithful mate might have further questions to ask her husband. How did the affair get started? How long did it go on? Who else knows about it? Granted, it will be painful for the couple to discuss these particulars. However, the faithful mate might find such knowledge necessary to the restoration of trust. If so, it is best that the unfaithful mate answer honestly and considerately. He should explain matters in a loving and kindly manner, bearing in mind that the purpose of the interchange is to heal, not to hurt. (Proverbs 12:18; Ephesians 4:25, 26) Both will need to employ discretion, self-control, and empathetic listening as they express their feelings about what happened.c—Proverbs 18:13; 1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Peter 1:6.
Those who are Jehovah’s Witnesses may want to request assistance from the congregation elders. Of course, for Christians, serious sins such as adultery must immediately be confessed to the elders, who are concerned with the spiritual welfare of the couple and the congregation. It may be that when he met with the elders, the adulterer showed genuine repentance and was thus allowed to remain in the congregation. In such a case, the elders can give continued assistance to both mates.—James 5:14, 15.
After the couple have stabilized their feelings to the extent possible, they are in a good position to rebuild vital aspects of their marriage. Earnest communication continues to be needed. Where weaknesses are discovered, appropriate changes must be made.
The need to make changes will fall primarily on the guilty mate. However, the faithful mate must do her part in strengthening weak areas in the marriage. This does not mean that the adultery was her fault or that it can be excused—there is no valid excuse for committing such a sin. (Compare Genesis 3:12; 1 John 5:3.) It simply means that there may have been problems in the marriage that needed resolving. Rebuilding is a joint project. Is there a need to strengthen mutual values and goals? Have spiritual activities been neglected? This process of discovering significant weaknesses and making needed changes is at the very heart of rebuilding a badly damaged marriage.
Even a well-built house requires regular maintenance. How important it is, then, to maintain a rebuilt relationship. The couple must not allow the passing of time to erode their determination to hold to their new resolves. Rather than become disheartened if they experience minor setbacks, such as relapsing into poor communication habits, they should take immediate steps to get back on track and continue moving forward.—Proverbs 24:16; Galatians 6:9.
Above all, husband and wife should give their spiritual routine the greatest priority, never allowing it, or their marriage, to take a backseat to some other activity. Psalm 127:1 says: “Unless Jehovah himself builds the house, it is to no avail that its builders have worked hard on it.” Also, Jesus warned: “Everyone hearing these sayings of mine and not doing them will be likened to a foolish man, who built his house upon the sand. And the rain poured down and the floods came and the winds blew and struck against that house and it caved in, and its collapse was great.”—Matthew 7:24-27.
Yes, if Bible principles are ignored because they are difficult to apply, the marriage will remain vulnerable to the next stormy test of fidelity. However, if husband and wife hold to Bible standards in all matters, their marriage will have divine blessing. They will also have the most powerful incentive to marital faithfulness—the desire to please the Originator of marriage, Jehovah God.—Matthew 22:36-40; Ecclesiastes 4:12.
a There are valid reasons why a person might choose to divorce an adulterous mate. For a detailed discussion of this matter, see “The Bible’s Viewpoint: Adultery—To Forgive or Not to Forgive?” in the August 8, 1995, issue of Awake!
b We refer to the unfaithful mate as a male. One poll estimates that men have twice the infidelity rate of women. However, the principles discussed apply equally when the innocent spouse is the Christian man.
c For information on good listening, see Awake! of January 22, 1994, pages 6-9, and December 8, 1994, pages 10-13.