The matter of trust: How do you know he is really sorry?

This article will address the dilemma a wife faces when she has been sexually betrayed by her husband.  Voices from all sides urge her to do the decent thing; she should forgive him and she should not judge lest she be judged.

She suffers in silence while she listens sweetly to her well-meaning friends.  But something stands in the way of her reconciling with her  husband.  She simply cannot trust him.  Not yet.  Can’t they see that?  Doesn’t anyone understand her grief?

“Discovering emotional or physical infidelity is a form of death. . . . [She] can no longer turn to him with the certainty that he will value and protect the intimacy [they] . . . shared. . . . [Her] loss is real and it slices [her] . . . soul” (Means, 1999, p. 125).”

Where can she find guidance in her time of need?  This is a serious issue many women face as they navigate these unchartered waters.  She will be comforted when she knows she has the right to ask the hard questions such as, “How can I really trust him?” and,  “How do I know he is truly sorry and has changed his ways?”  What she wants to know is if true repentance has taken hold in the heart of her husband.

Wever (2003) helps men understand how to rebuild trust in their wives.  He likens it to “rebuilding credit.  It can be done, but only through a combination of time and consistency” (n.p.).  He strongly recommends men get a plan in place where they establish a consistent structure.  This plan is to be made known to the wife.  Secondly, the husband needs to give his wife time to talk; he is to “simply listen carefully to her concerns, and make sure she knows you share them”  (Wever, 2003, n.p.).  This act of listening will slowly help build her confidence that her husband is truly tuned into her needs instead of his own previous selfish pattern.  Another indication of godly sorrow is when the husband is walking closer to God.  “Is he trying to connect emotionally, spiritually, and not just physically?  Is he becoming the spiritual leader that God has called him to be” (Wilson, 2007, p. 150)?
A man who is truly in recovery makes it a priority.  Steffens & Means (2009) speak of the need for consistency in the wayward spouse.  “This change does not and cannot happen overnight.  It takes hard work and time.  . . . Consistent change over time provides the best indication that a sex addict embraces the work and life of recovery” (p. 218).  A man who informs his wife that he is sorry and questions why she just will not trust him, is failing to recognize how her trust cannot be rushed.  “Trust is shattered when sexual betrayal and relational trauma occurs. . . . The hard truth about trust is that it must be earned before it can be given, especially after a sexual violation” (Steffens & Means, 2009, p. 219).  Steffens & Means (2009) liken trust to a “drawbridge over a river.  It’s your bridge and you control how much or how little you lower it to let someone cross over into your world.  You control how vulnerable you choose to be and with whom you are vulnerable” (p. 219).  The betrayed spouse is now empowered by the knowledge that she can decide when she feels comfortable lowering that drawbridge and when she needs to keep it up.
A woman who has been betrayed often wants to know the full extent of her husband’s sins.  Gaither (2008) quotes Dr. Bryce Klabunde where he describes one of the six signs of true repentance.  The first sign is when people are “willing to confess all their sins, not just the sins that got them into trouble.  A house isn’t clean until you open every closet and sweep every corner.  People who truly desire to be clean are completely honest about their lives.  No more secrets” (p. 115).

There is an expression in Twelve Step Recovery that says, “We are as sick as our secrets.”  Secrets can no longer be tolerated in a marriage relationship if trust is to be restored.

How can a woman know the true heart of her husband?  Schaumburg (1997), a psychiatrist who works with Christian leaders who have morally fallen, states, “God alone is capable of searching the motives, the intent, and the passions of the heart.  Real change on the inside is reflected by external change” (p. 232).  A genuine “indicator of positive change is the quality of relationship that a person in restoration is able to offer others, especially those closest to him or her.  Look for a new sense of humility, a new willingness to serve from highly different motives.  The fruit of the Holy Spirit must be exhibited” (p. 233).  Augsburger (2008) cautions the upright spouse against believing empty words that might “sound” sorry.  He explains, “It is very common for gifted people to use their education to find clever ways to slip an account into an apology.  . . . [Y]ou can almost always see what’s real by looking at the recipient.  They consciously or unconsciously will know when the self-justification begins” (n.p.).

How critical is it for the betrayed spouse to witness anguish in the offending spouse?  Carder & Jaenicke (1995) argue it is “important for the spouse to see the infidel grieve. . . When the infidel weeps in remorse and shows his sorrow in other ways, both mates can relax without worrying that the experience might suddenly repeat itself without warning” (p. 174).  Hall (1996) asserts that repentance “is not groveling.  It is expressing deep regret over what we’ve done and making firm resolves to live more wisely in the future” (p. 220).  She warns the wife to not prematurely reconcile with her husband before he has had the opportunity to really grieve and walk “a mile in the shoes of the one we’ve wounded.  Repentance demands we lie for a time in the bed we have made.

In real repentance, we feel the pain we have caused others and ourselves.  If we haven’t felt the wounding we’ve caused, we can’t possibly appreciate the forgiveness we’re offered” (p. 220).

A sign of genuine repentance is when the husband is willing to do all he can to get healthy.  He doesn’t rely on his wife to keep him in line; he is motivated to implement whatever healthy habits are needed to ensure recovery.  He “will be the one buying the porn filters for the Internet, rather than you.  He will be the one placing his computer in an open area like the family room or breakfast nook.  And he will be the one limiting his time on the Web” (Arterburn, Stoeker & Stoeker, 2004, p. 172).

How can the wife move past the betrayal even when her husband is exhibiting genuine signs of sorrow and repentance?  “Some women feel so violated that they don’t know if they even love their husbands anymore, let alone trust them.  This is a normal response”  (Roberts, 1999, p. 269).
An empathic therapist will encourage the offended spouse to decide for herself when and if she can trust him again.  Hall (1996) explains the necessity for this:

She’s “lived with him a long time and she’s seen this act over and over.  In her spirit, the wife senses that it’s all theatrics.  She feels fairly certain that if she reconciles, he will continue with his behavior, just as he has in the past, once the crisis was over . . . Because the husband has been relieved of dealing with the root causes of his addiction, he will return to his old habits.  This adds to the wife’s sense of outrage and betrayal.  The best way others can encourage forgiveness and reconciliation is to allow the offender to fully feel his offense, and allow the offended to fully grieve her loss.  The offended wife knows when her husband’s repentance has ripened—she can feel it in her spirit (p. 221).

Arterburn et al., (2004) emphasize the importance of patience in evidencing godly sorrow.  “His patience is a sign of deep repentance.  If that sign isn’t there, it’s a troubling red flag.  When your husband demands immediate forgiveness and doesn’t show patience, then that’s an indication that he’s not where he needs to be” (p 172).

Unfortunately there are times when the betrayed spouse can no longer hold out hope that he has truly changed.  She has witnessed this ruse time and time again.  Carnes (2011) concedes some “situations are simply intolerable.  Leading the list is when the addict continues to act out sexually.  If there is clearly no effort toward recovery, there should be zero tolerance.  In the original AA Big Book, they refer to the person who constitutionally could not commit to the process” (p. 73).  In these situations, the wife may need to make the painful decision to let him go.

References

Arterburn, S., Stoeker, B., & Stoeker, F. (2004). Every heart restored: A wife’s guide to healing in the wake of a husband’s sexual sin. Colorado Springs, Colo.: WaterBrook Press.

Augsburger, D. (2008, June 20). The F word: Forgiveness and it’s imitations [Interview transcript]. Retrieved November 16, 2012, from The National Association for Christian Recovery website: http://www.nacronline.com/wordpress/160/the-f-word-forgiveness-and-its-imitations

Carder, D., & Jaenicke, D. (1995). Torn asunder: Recovering from extramarital affairs. Chicago: Moody Press.

Carnes, S. (2011). Mending a shattered heart: A guide for partners of sex addicts (2nd ed.). Carefree, Ariz.: Gentle Path Press.

Gaither, M. W. (2008). Redemptive divorce: A biblical process that offers guidance for the suffering partner, healing for the offending spouse, and the best catalyst for restoration. Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson.

Hall, L. (1996). An affair of the mind: One woman’s courageous battle to salvage her family from the devastation of pornography. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Focus on the Family.

Means, M. (1999). Living with your husband’s secret wars. Grand Rapids, Mich.: F.H. Revell.

Roberts, T. (1999). Pure desire: Helping people break free from sexual struggles. Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books.

Schaumburg, H. W. (1997). False intimacy: Understanding the struggle of sexual addiction (Rev. and expanded. ed.). Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.

Steffens, B. A., & Means, M. (2009). Your sexually addicted spouse: How partners can cope and heal. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press.

Wever, D. (2003, March 20). Will she ever trust me again? Retrieved November 19, 2012, from New Life Live website: http://newlife.com/will-she-ever-trust-me-again

Wilson, M. (2007). Hope after betrayal: Healing when sexual addiction invades your marriage. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

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Louise works as a professional counsellor in her native Canada. Through her private practice, in online forums, and through public speaking and writing, her work is about helping others find hope and healing in their lives. When her first three-decades’-long marriage ended in divorce because of ongoing sexual betrayal, Louise knew in her heart that she was to use this painful experience for the good of others. Many of her clients are women who have experienced the trauma of sexual betrayal. They know Louise “gets” their pain; this helps them not feel so alone in their journey of healing. Louise is finally happily married to a man who loves and respects her for being herself.