To the unfaithful spouse: Where do you begin?

If you recently revealed that you have engaged in an extramarital affair, whether voluntarily or, like Josh, by being “caught,” here are some important guidelines on how to proceed:

End the affair completely and permanently.

Cease all private meetings, phone calls, texts, or social media contacts with the other person. Cut all ties—period. Be transparent with your spouse about any chance meetings or any attempts on the part of the other person to contact you—before your spouse finds out about it on his or her own.

Take good care of your heart and practice good self-care.

Separate your hurtful actions from who you are as a person. Your feelings matter, so articulate them. Your spouse may or may not be available to care about your pain due to the overwhelming nature of his or her own pain. Often the unfaithful spouse reports experiencing shame, guilt, embarrassment, depression, anxiety, or grief. Spend time caring for your heart and checking in with trusted advisors. Enlist wise, confidential people (specifically, safe relationships of the same sex) to walk with you as you recover from an affair. Make a plan to care well for yourself in every arena—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Own your choices and accept responsibility for your unfaithfulness.

No excuses—you chose to be unfaithful. Regardless of the state of your marriage when you cheated, there is no room for excusing the behavior. Do not blame the influence of others, a negative environment at home, or other factors that drove your temptations. Just own your choices.

Demonstrate compassion and empathy toward your spouse.

Your spouse was likely devastated upon hearing this news. Show up in a compassionate and empathic manner. Make every effort to deeply understand how your actions have impacted your spouse. Imagine what it would be like for you to be on the receiving end of this news and allow your heart to be touched. In her research, Dr. Shirley Glass reported that the single best indicator of whether a relationship can survive infidelity is how much empathy the unfaithful partner shows when the betrayed spouse gets emotional about the pain caused by the affair. (Dr. Shirley Glass, Not Just Friends.)

Make choices to rebuild trust with your spouse, recognizing that you must allow your spouse as much time as he or she needs to process the pain of trust being broken.

Listen, listen, listen and keep talking with your spouse—no matter how long your spouse needs to process. Everyone is different in how they need to travel through the healing process when recovering from an affair—so even months and years later, be willing to listen and share about the affair without anger and blame. Willingly pursue couples counseling to aid in this unfolding journey.

Commit to being faithful and trustworthy and line your behavior up with this commitment.

Trust has clearly been broken within your marriage due to the affair; therefore, do all you can to rebuild it. Being consistent in both what you say and what you do is essential. Your spouse will be watching for inconsistency. Choose to show them in a way that’s not defensive that you are working at becoming trustworthy—moment-to-moment and choice-by-choice. Trust is never earned once and for all. This is an opportunity to show your spouse that you are serious in this commitment through continued choices every day. You are not trying to convince your spouse to trust you; you are trying to be trustworthy. When you try too hard to convince, sometimes you become untrustworthy. For example, you might be tempted to hide certain information because you want your spouse to trust you. But the very act of concealing information is untrustworthy.

Understand what led to the affair.

Were you searching to meet a need through the affair? Was there infidelity in your family of origin? Do you have an addiction (sex, drugs, or alcohol) that resulted in making other poor choices? Was there something your marriage was lacking that you desired to see improved upon? (Of course, none of these situations excuse the affair or allow you to escape accepting responsibility.) If you need help with this, you might invite a pastor, counselor, mentor, or good friend to help you explore.

Seek wholehearted forgiveness.

One important key to seeking forgiveness is to understand how the affair affected your spouse. Through empathizing with your spouse, allow the Lord to move your heart to seek forgiveness wholeheartedly. Also remember that asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean your spouse needs to be ready or willing to forgive you. Humbly ask, and then let your spouse decide when, if, and how they will forgive. Be willing to fully accept his or her decision and position. Remember, forgiveness is never deserved and should not be demanded. It is not a simple, one-time event. And forgiveness doesn’t always mean reconciliation. The multifaceted relational categories of forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration unfold over time and through counseling.

Answer your spouse’s questions as openly and honestly as possible.

Although this may seem counterintuitive, being open and honest about what happened is essential for recovering from an affair. This will influence the rebuilding of trust. If unspoken details emerge later, it can lead to further damage. Although fear and shame might cause you to hold back, answer your spouse as directly as you can. In one study of 1,083 betrayed husbands and wives, those offending spouses who were the most honest and forthright felt better emotionally and reconciled more completely. (The late Peggy Vaughan, a pioneer in the research surrounding affairs, documented some staggering numbers in “Help for Therapists [and their clients] in Dealing with Affairs”). Don’t miss your chance to be completely honest from the beginning. Important pieces of information to include are:

  • When the affair started
  • How long it went on
  • How it was kept a secret
  • When it ended

One word of caution is due, however. The “whole truth” doesn’t mean giving out unnecessarily graphic and detailed descriptions. It’s possible to shield your spouse from unnecessary detail while remaining completely honest. Giving too much specificity will only sear images into your spouse’s mind. Instead, you might say something like, “I’m willing to give details, but I don’t want to hurt you more. How much do you want to know?” This question is better than trying to manage what is best for your spouse to know—which could lead to inappropriate withholding. In general, give categorical truths about emotional and physical boundaries that were crossed, no matter how painful the truth.

Commit to being fully transparent and open with your spouse.

Offer your spouse full access to your call history, texts, emails, and social media accounts. Some previous texts or emails may be graphic and worth guarding against. But from this point forward, commit to no more hiding and no more deceit. Your life must be an open book for your spouse. You have broken your partner’s trust; therefore, go to great lengths to let them know where you are, who you are with, when your plans change, and if you will be late.

Express gratitude toward your spouse.

Recognize what your spouse is grappling with. He or she must choose whether to work with you through this devastating betrayal and break in trust. Hopefully, he or she will recognize your true repentance and choose to seek reconciliation. This is certainly what we encourage in order to recover from an affair—we believe this reflects God’s heart toward the truly repentant. If this path is chosen, you are being shown one of the greatest acts of love—and it does not come easily. Show your husband or wife great gratitude both in word and deed. Thank him or her for choosing to engage in the hard work of trusting you again and restoring your marriage.



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