Broken by Infidelity: The Pain of the Offended and the Pain of the Offender

The Aftermath of Infidelity Disclosures

“Affairs can happen anytime, anywhere, and to anyone.” No one is 100% safe from infidelity.

You might have heard that common belief before. At some point in their careers, most marriage and family therapists will help clients with issues brought on by infidelity of one or both spouses.

Couples will come to marriage therapy in a couple of ways:

  1. Right on the heels of finding out about the affair.
  2. After they have tried to work on mending their relationship by themselves, but the same problems kept reoccurring.

Some spouses have come to a place where they have been through too much to have the strength to start working on restoring their marriage. Some were simply abandoned, discarded, thrown away without being offered the opportunity to try again.

In my years of providing marriage and family therapy, I have encountered infidelity on a regular basis in my practice. There are a few main areas that counseling after an affair should focus on. The first is how to handle disclosures.

The Ashley Madison Data Dump

Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you have heard about the data dump from the infamous Ashley Madison website. The site attracted users—single or married—looking for partners to engage in an affair with. The circumstances under which this information dump occurred is still unclear. However, the fact is that names of paying users of this site, along with the amount they had paid for services, were made public on the Internet.

The Community Reaction

Millions of people have now read through the list of “offenders,” looking for the name of a loved one or chewing on juicy gossip about well-known figures in their community.

This type of public disclosure has brought a variety of reactions to the table:

  • Some say that being publicly humiliated was a well-deserved punishment for these cheaters (or intended cheaters)—something they were rightly subjected to, given the terrible pain they afflicted on their loved ones.
  • Others have been lamenting morals in America, giving up on our country and quoting the despicable state of marriage.
  • Most people, even if they don’t have a horse in the race, feel justified in their anger against these moral offenders who have so gone so far as to seek out the thrill of an affair.

Our Take: Empathy for Both Parties

I know that the following statement my sound controversial. However, my heart goes out to both those spouses who have been betrayed and those who have betrayed them.

Okay, here comes the explanation: I believe that the way these names were disclosed has inflicted a double measure of pain on both parties.

First, being publicly humiliated is one of the top reasons why people fall apart. Some people never recover from it. Public humiliation, like bullying (which is a variety of humiliation), can lead to the person being humiliated giving up on life and committing suicide.

Second, at the bottom of the issue is the (ultimately false) belief that the opinion of the bully is true. Or, in this case, the opinion of the public (through the media, blogs, and social media) is the opinion of the whole world and is ultimately true and irrevocable.

The Biblical Context For Forgiveness

When I first heard the way Ashley Madison names were disclosed, my mind went back to my RTS years many years ago, to Dr. Rankin’s Systematic Theology 3 class. I still remember him passionately talking about Matthew 18:15-17: (in the Message Bible—15-17)

If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

What he said made so much sense to me.  He carefully put the text in context of other biblical passages on forgiveness. He also emphasizes that the reason why confronting a “sinning” brother or sister has to happen in carefully calculated steps is to prevent the information from spreading like wildfire. Why did Jesus want it that way? Did he intend to minimize how grave the offense was? To overlook the pitiful moral and emotional state of the offender?  To brush it under the rug? Did he just want the church to be happy and live in a perpetual state of group hugs? No, not at all.

Restoration for Both Parties

But his heart went out to both the offended party and the offender. He took both of them into consideration. Notice how Jesus proceeds in verses 21-35 to share a story of forgiveness. Notice also, that he doesn’t say that there is an instant jump from disclosure to forgiveness. That would be truly dismissing and would not lead to justice for the offended party. He sets up this system to give them the best chances at restoration into their local community. The less people know about the infraction, the better chances this offender has to turn away from his behavior and find healing for himself or herself.

Many families are still in crisis over this—terrible crisis and pain that will last for many months and years to come.

This is part 1 of a 3 part series on infidelity. As we continue in this series, I will be focusing on 2) Dealing with traumatic reactions and 3) Fostering forgiveness.

Make an Appointment with Watershed Counseling

Are you experiencing an affair or have another relationship issue? Our experienced counselors in Marriage and Family Therapy can help. Contact us to make your first appointment or call our office at (601) 362-7020.