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005 Counseling in Cases of Adultery {Transcript}

About This Transcript

Executive Director Jim Newheiser talks about key issues related to dealing with the aftermath of unfaithfulness including important data gathering questions, how to approach emotional affairs, what each spouse needs to hear most when adultery has taken place, and common pitfalls in helping these situations.

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Craig Marshall:
Hello, and welcome to the IBCD Care and Disciple Podcast. I’m Craig Marshall and with me today is IBCD Executive Director, Jim Newheiser. Today, we’re going to be talking about counseling in cases of adultery. Jim, I imagine that there a several reactions probably in our audience to this topic. Some people may not think it’s very prevalent or that it’s kind of an extreme situation. Others may think it’s common place. How prevalent have you found adultery in your counseling?

Jim Newheiser:
I’ve been really sadden by how often in the context in even solid evangelical churches these cases have come out. It’s very grievous. I guess if you would have taken thirty years ago, I would have never imagined that I would be having this experience. I don’t think that it’s because it’s gotten that much worse in thirty years as much as it as an ordinary church member I didn’t see as much as there was. In terms of the various ways counseling comes to me, adultery cases are a large percentage of what we have to deal with, and it’s heartbreaking.

Craig Marshall:
Do you think that is increasing among the church, or do you think it’s just more that you get hard cases?

Jim Newheiser:
Yeah. I’m sure there are people accumulating statistics, and you see as the culture becomes more corrupt that we’re in Corinth, and so it’s not surprising that there’s more Corinth-like behavior or even people coming in with a past. They go back to those old sins sometimes, just temporarily. I would think it’s increasing just as the cultures become more corrupt sexually. What I have seen increase is more people talking about homosexual sin, but in terms of adultery, it’s always gone on. You go back to King David. You go back to the page of scripture, sexual sin has always been an issue. Both in terms of actual adultery, lust, and wandering hearts.

Craig Marshall:
People also talk about emotional affairs. Just as we’re kind of laying the ground of thinking about adultery, how do you classify those or think about those, either as situations are brought to you or as someone throws out that label?

Jim Newheiser:
That is a really important question. I actually remember a case several years ago, where a man confessed that he had a woman at church who was his soul mate. A woman other than his wife. That he had this emotional closeness with her, and he would pray with her. He said there was no sexual content of that relationship. He was trying to justify it saying as long as he didn’t commit a physical act of adultery, he was not an adulterer. The way we tried to address this guy from scripture from the very nature of marriage is being a covenant of commitment. Genesis 2:24, the two become one flesh. You leave other family relationships to join into this marriage relationship. In the physical bond, in the violation of what would be physical adultery, but it is symbolic of a coveted relationship in the most intimate of all human relationships on a personal, emotional, spiritual level. Which means that his close relationship with this other woman was a violation of the very design of marriage to have that kind of intimacy exclusively with his wife.

I, also, believe such people are self-deceived in other ways, and that I’ve seen cases where someone claims, “Oh, this is only platonic. We’re just like a brother and sister.” Then, later those emotional and ultimately sexual feelings develop and are expressed. That is the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews tells us, we need to warn each other against that. Another fact would by simply, how does the wife or the other spouse feel about this? Does she feel that it’s a violation of the marriage covenant? I can tell you without exception, they do. They recognize the threat that is to their marriage. When you get married, you want all of that other person. You don’t want to just say, “Okay. I’ll give him my body. He’ll give me his body, but he’s going to give his heart to somebody else.” You want his heart, and it’s impossible to be in that kind of close, emotional relationship with someone of the opposite sex, in my opinion, without being in sin and without violating your own marriage vows.

Craig Marshall:
It sounds like when physical adultery has taken place, that’s very clear and there’s evidence. We’ll get to that in a minute of how you proceed from there, but it sounds like you’re trying to gauge a lot from the spouse how other relationships are working out with the spouse. If there’s dissatisfaction there. You’re wanting to bring that guilty spouse along and to see how their sin has hurt the other person.

Jim Newheiser:
Right. I mean, those are other ways to show from scripture, if a husband is supposed to love his wife as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. He’s supposed to make sacrifices to do that, which takes care of her, pleases her, shows her that she’s loved. Christ’s love for the church is an exclusive love. We see in Ephesians 5:25. It is a very unloving thing to his wife or a wife to her husband to be emotionally involved with someone else. It’s also feeling, 1 Peter 3:7, to treat her with honor. Granting her honor as a follower of the grace of life, in Ephesians 5. Even for the wife to be in an emotional relationship, just not showing respect to her husband, that’s not submitting to him when he does not want her doing that. It’s not, Philippians 2, putting the other person ahead of yourself. There are multitude of reasons why this is a good idea.

I would just really take it back, why it’s a good idea to stay away from those relationships. I would really go back to the warning against the deceitfulness of sin is that a person who is caught up in a relationship like that is trying to justify their sin. The fact that they’re have to work so hard at it is one reason, deep down, it think they know what they’re doing is wrong. You have to appeal to them. I think you can show them from the authority of the word of God, bring in the other spouse to plead with them, then sadly where it leads is not good, just from observing and experience.

Craig Marshall:
Those are helpful guidelines just thinking about appropriate relationships with the opposite sex. I know that’s something that’s really helpful in marital counseling. One the one hand, it’s encouraging when you do encounter situations like that where there hasn’t been actual physical adultery. How do we handle, then, when a couple comes in, and you find out that there has been unfaithfulness? What questions, especially, are on your mind? Data gathering. Understanding the situation. What are you thinking when you hear unfaithfulness has happened?

Jim Newheiser:
I’m going to take one step back to the previous question first, which is it’s not enough just to put off the wrong relationship emotionally. We also need to help the couple achieve the kind of personal intimacy communication that a husband and wife should have, where the spouse who’s found the soul mate outside of the marriage, they need to repent of that. They need to repent of their lack of effort toward their spouse, but both spouses need to work at resolving past sin that hasn’t been dealt with. Seeking forgiveness, being reconciled, peacemaking, and then positives as you’ve talked before. Pull the weeds, and then teach them how to grow the flowers, so that they can enjoy the personal intimacy and oneness that they’re tempted to look for outside.

Sometimes, they’ll make an excuse, “Well, our personalities don’t mesh right. We’re different from each other.” I can sympathize with that, but what Jesus said, “What God has joined, let no man separate.” He wants you to learn to love and to learn how to be loved by someone different from you, and to build that up as much as you can. To give up and just say, “Well, I’ll just go find this somewhere else,” is a sinful and dangerous response.

Now, to your other question, when people come in where there’s been a case of actual physical adultery, this is crisis counseling. You’re typically dealing with two people who are hopeless. Sometimes they’re only going to give you one shot to give you one shot to try to convince them that anything can be done and that they should come back. Just starting with data gathering, you want to know first, what actually has happened. What is actually known? How was it discovered? There is a wide range of situations with which you can be dealing, and the nature of the situation has a lot to do with how you’re going to address it in counsel as you go. It could be …

I had a case of a guy who went to a family event out of town, didn’t take his wife, and he had a one night hook-up with an old girlfriend. Then, five years later he confesses as opposed to someone who has been in an affair for over a year. They’ve been making promises to divorce their present spouses and marry each other. There’s a wide range. Seeing a prostitute. There’s a wide range of possible situations. None of them is hopeless. We’ve seen the Lord help people in all of these. To understand the nature of it, it also can be very significant how it was discovered. I’ve seen a couple of cases, and both cases it was women who slipped into one act of adultery and went straight home and told their husbands. Then, came and were seeking help. That is unusual. I have yet to see that with a man. Maybe someday I will. Usually people get busted. They get caught. The Lord can work through that. David was busted. He did just confess. He had to be confronted by Nathan and was resistant. That’s the more common situation with which you’re dealing.

When you find the person has been busted, he’s been caught, often times as you’re doing the data gathering the sin is minimized. It’s almost like peeling an onion. Sometimes it is over multiple sessions, multiple weeks where you find out that what was initially admitted or discovered was only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve had cases where, even a year later, the scope of the sin was proven to be multiples what we originally thought it was. You need to, I guess in terms of data gathering also, is what is the attitude of the two parties involved? Is the guilty party repentant? Sometimes, there’s such a strong emotional tie to that relationship is they are best double minded.

Also, the guilty party probably has been for a long time having to justify what they’ve been doing by judging the other individual and rationalizing their behavior. They have hardened their hearts again God, like David in Psalms 32, when I kept silent about my sin. He refused to repent for so long , he was miserable, and he was distant from God. Especially when one has been caught but even if one confesses, it’s not like suddenly a heart that’s been hardened for months is supple and soft and repentant. That’s often a process, but where is that person? Are they serious about turning away from the sin and repenting and trying to restore their marriage? Likewise with the innocent spouse. (Also, innocent in the sense that every spouse has sin.) Her sin does not justify his sin, but the one who didn’t commit adultery.

Does that person hold out hope? Sometimes you have almost this initial reaction to the crisis where, “Of course I forgive you. I just want everything to be better.” That may not last, but that can be it. Sometimes there’s just, “I’ve had it. I’m done.” Usually, as you’re doing the data gathering what I try to do is, most importantly, is offer some hope. I’ve had people who have gone through this and things have gotten better. I asked, “What helped?” They said, “One thing that really helped us in the first session is you gave us hope that can be, especially from the word of God, but also how God has worked in the past.” Then, to buy time. Buying time, I simply mean, don’t make a decision about what you’re going to do with this marriage or the rest of your life tonight. Just agree to enter the process and see what God may do. Take it bit by bit.

Craig Marshall:
It sounds like, just to boil down what you said, so part of it would be find out what happened, just get the facts. Part of it is assess the hearts of each involved. Is one of them particularly hard, are they repentant or soft? Then, also give hope, for sure, and buy time. Those could be four things just popping through our head as someone comes to you.

Jim Newheiser:
That’s a good summary.

Craig Marshall:
That kind of gets you through the immediate crisis if you just found that out. Then, what categories are you thinking in terms of for both the “innocent” party and for the adulterer of what you’re going to want to seek to help them with in their hearts?

Jim Newheiser:
First, for the adulterer, I want to help that person to see, like David, it says in Psalms 51 “against you and your only, I have sinned.” He tends to look horizontally in terms of what he did to his spouse or she did to her spouse. That is an issue, but the much bigger issue is their sin against God. They need to be reconciled to God. In Psalms 51 and Psalms 32, David’s Psalms of confession and repentance and the restoration in the Lord, and the hope that they also give is that, “when I kept silent about my sin Your hand was heavy upon me, but then I confessed my sin and you forgave the guilt of my sin,” the Psalms says, David says. Giving them hope of forgiveness, but they’re not ready to reconcile with their spouse until they’re reconciled with God. They did this not because of whatever their spouse did, but it’s much more reflection on their relationship with God.

There needs to be repentance before God. Going to 2 Corinthians 7, we actually have a worksheet, which is distinguishing between true and false repentance. There’s a worldly sorrow. Most people are sad when they get busted, when they get caught. A Godly sorrow in the works we talk about it, something where you’re concerned about your sin, not the consequences. You’re concerned about the other person and not yourself. You’re patient about being restored, instead of impatient. Helping that person work towards repentance. My experience has been repentance is a process. Initially, you’re just trying to get them to agree to embark on that road of repentance, a road of restoration to God. They may have such cold hearts gone so far down this road, it’s going to take time. You just want to walk with them step-by-step through that process.

Initially, it’s going to be seeking forgiveness from God. When you’re making progress, then obviously going to the spouse and seeking forgiveness from the other part. The peacemaker. Seven A’s of Confession are outstanding, just to make sure the confession is really thorough not to allow any if, but, or maybe. To admit, specifically, there are so many things in common, in terms of, the big sin is not the sex. Typically. Every time when the innocent spouse hears me say this, they nod, if not shout, “Yes.” The big sin is typically the lies, the deceit, the living of a lie. Ephesians 4, Paul talks about don’t lie to each other, because we are members of each other.

For any adulterous relationships, there are hundreds of lies. Along with other sins as well, but I’ll often hear the innocent spouse, “I can forgive the sex, but can I ever trust this person again?” That’s a sin that needs to be dealt with very seriously. Then in terms of the innocent party, I’ve already said one of the main things I’m trying to do is just to get this person not to make up their minds. They may have friends already who are saying, “Get rid of the bum.” Family members who care about her ad want to protect her from being hurt further. We have a Savior who is willing to be hurt in order to be reconciled to us, so I think that should encourage the innocent spouse that this may be the greatest opportunity she will ever have to show Christ like love, grace, and forgiveness to another person. That Christ is not expecting of him, the innocent spouse, any more than he’s already done for him.

This doesn’t mean immediately you forgive, and you give up all rights, and everything goes on as normal, but to be at least willing to see what God may do. How God may change the heart of the person. God may change your heart. The other thing that immediately comes to mind as being extremely important would be to see like Galatians 6 is if someone is caught in a trespass, you who are spiritual restore him gently that your role here, what your spouse has done was not primarily a reflection of his relationship with you, it’s a reflection of his relationship with Christ that got him to a terrible place in order for this to happen. Your role in this is to be used as an instrument of God to restore this person to Christ. That is what God has called you to do and to preferably consider that, to be a reconciler on that level.

the other thing that I would bring up and it may not be immediate, but I think it’s also important that the so-called innocent spouse may still have issues they may need to confess and seek forgiveness from the very guilty spouse. None of that excuses the sexual sin. One spouse who is unavailable sexually doesn’t excuse the other spouse committing adultery or finding a prostitute, but they can still confess those sins. It would be appropriate for them to do so.

Craig Marshall:
When you say that the innocent spouse has an opportunity to forgive and should forgive, and that’s a picture of what Christ has done for us, should that innocent spouse always forgive? How are they to think through that situation?

Jim Newheiser:
That’s a great question. Just as we can’t force the innocent spouse at a certain time to forgive or to not forgive, the Bible gives them rights. Jesus says that, in Matthew 19, that whoever divorce his wife except for immorality and marries another woman and commits adultery. My understanding of that text is the innocent spouse has the right to end the marriage because of that breach of the marriage covenant. I will stress, we always strive to counsel through the situation, so that forgiveness can be granted and restoration and reconciliation can take place. There are cases in which the guilty spouse is not repentant, and I’m thankful to God that she has the right biblically to end the marriage, the freedom to go, and she’s not obligated to treat him as forgiven if he doesn’t repent.

The scripture says, “When we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We’re to forgive as God has forgiven us. Jesus says in Luke, if someone sins against you and they repent, you forgive them. If the other person is not repentant, it’s not a license to be embittered, but you’re not required to treat them as if they hadn’t done it, to forgive them, to keep the marriage going. If they’re not sorry, you have the right to have a forgiving heart and willingness to forgive, but you have a right to be free of that immoral person that won’t repent.

It gets more complicated when the guilty party says they’re repentant. The innocent party may say, “I don’t think he’s repentant. I think he’s just saying it.” You could go through testing what is real repentance, but as I understand it that person has the freedom to make that call. I don’t infallibly know the guilty parties heart. I will play for delay. I will try to work with the guilty party to work towards repentance, but there have been cases where this is the third or fourth time this has happened in five years. The innocent party is not required to say, “Sure. I’ll take you back.” They may choose to say, “Well, there’s a sense in which in my heart I have a forgiving attitude. I’m not going to transactionally remove the consequence of what you’ve done and continue in this bad marriage relationship.”

There may be cases, as well, where we think … There have been cases we’ve seen where we really believe the guilty party is repentant, and the innocent party is struggling with forgiveness. They can feel a lot of pressure like, “Well, you’re saying I’m un-Christ-like and you’re saying I have to forgive him.” I can’t demand that you accept the other person’s profession of repentance. Give up your right to divorce. I can’t forth them to do that, and I think they can feel unduly pressured. I also have to admit, I don’t know what the future will hold. It may be, this person will commit adultery over and over again, so all I can do is try to persuade them to preferably consider it, to wait and see if there’s real change taking place, but I cannot judge them for using a right that I see the Bible gives them.

Craig Marshall:
Those are some helpful categories to think through, and obviously, these situations are really complicated. Then, bring in a ton of other marriage counseling basics to be incorporated throughout. One of the things I was wondering as we talk through these issues, what are some common pitfalls in these scenarios that, counselors who are listening to this, pastors who are listening to this, should be aware of? Maybe mistakes you’ve made or that you’ve heard about being made as people get involved in these crisis adultery situations.

Jim Newheiser:
I’ve already mentioned one, which can be the innocent spouse forgiving and taking this other spouse back before that person is really repentant. It doesn’t really fix things. I think that, obviously like Jesus talk about if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, in Matthew 5. Radical amputation. There needs to be a complete and total break off of any relationship, commitment, interaction with the person with whom you committed adultery. You just have to trust that person to God. Your sympathy should be first with God, and then with your spouse. This person, like Proverbs says, “is a stranger to your family. To your bed. They don’t belong there.”

Craig Marshall:
How do you slow that down in a counseling session, you know, so you have the guilty party, and he or she is seeming very sorry. The other person is seeming ready to forgive and wants this to be over. It seems kind of strange to jump in and say, “Wait. Wait. Wait. Don’t forgive.” How do you find that to work?

Jim Newheiser:
Well, this is where we can’t be legalistic in counselling. I’ve, in cases, thought it would be wise for the innocent spouse give the guilty spouse some time to process things. To really go through the process of seeking forgiveness more thoroughly before totally forgiving, and putting this as something they would not ever consider using against them in terms of their right to divorce. We always try to avoid divorce, but I think there’s wisdom in making sure this person shows signs of real repentance. I think sometimes it’s a fear of being along. A fear of the embarrassment of being a divorced person. A fear for how I’m going to take care of my children or other issues like that. If they choose to do this, if they choose to say, “No, I’m going to forgive it. I’m never going to bring it up again. I’m going to invite him back into the bedroom, and we’re just going to carry on.” That is their freedom to make that choice.

I have actually been amazed. I had a case I was overseeing recently, where a husband was caught in adultery. The counselor was asking, “Well, when did you continue the intimacy?” She said, “No. I didn’t want to make it worse for him.” She just carried on, and tried to show him grace. I admired that grace so much, and it seems like now over a year later she’s still doing well at showing such grace.

The other thing you’ve already mentioned is the person who’s been caught, you mentioned a scenario where they say they’re really sorry. The question is there is, 2 Corinthians 7, warns about a worldly sorrow. I got caught. But Godly sorrow actually backed up by a change of behavior, and a radical amputation, and addressing the issues that led to this to begin with. A burst of emotional sorrow is not adequate to solve this problem. One of the pitfall, I would mention also, would be to just carry on without addressing the issues in the marriage that led to this to begin with. My goal in restoring a couple when there’s been adultery is not that they can resume the mediocre marriage that they had, which contributed to this great sin, but to rebuild a marriage that would be much closer to the ideals of the word of God, the relationship with Christ and the church, so that they could have a better than ever marriage. Perhaps, even one day they can look back and say, “Even though it was terrible what happened, we can see how God used it for good to really make our marriage more of what God would have it to be.”

Craig Marshall:
That comes in a lot early on. One of the first four things you mentioned to be looking for is to give hope. So much of that hope is painting that picture that their marriage could be better than ever as they follow God’s way and the Gospel works in their marriage, right?

Jim Newheiser:
Amen. That is something I would always want to say in the first session. My goal is not to just get you back to the way you were the day before you committed adultery. My goal would be to make your marriage more of what the Lord wants our marriages to be than it has ever been before with the hope that God would use even this awful thing for your good.

Craig Marshall:
It’s an amazing thing. We’ve had the privilege at IBCD, many times, and people in their churches have seen God work in these horrible situations, and make beautiful marriages out of them that are a testimony to his grace. There’s a lot more that could be said about this topic, and I’m sure we’ll be revisiting it another times, but we should probably wrap this up for now. One of the ways you can learn more about this, we have audios on our website that deal with counseling cases of abuse, and then also at our summer institute which is coming up in June 23rd through 25th in San Marcos, California. We’ll be covering the topic of disordered desires, bringing grace to modern sexuality, and I know dealing with adultery will be one of the topics we’re exploring there as well. We want to thank you for listening. Jim, thanks for your time. We’ll see you next time.

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