Unfortunately, the Church—and most Christian counselors—have little to no training or knowledge in how to address pornography addiction or chronic infidelity. But this is likely the biggest issue couples in your congregation or counseling office are facing. When couples come to you, you undoubtedly want to help and mean well in your guidance. But time after time I hear of more damage being done by those that should be the safest people to go to. It’s time to get educated! The following is not even close to an exhaustive list of what NOT to say to betrayed wives, but it’s a start:
1. “Have more sex with your husband”
Sex is an important part of marriage. But two facts are present when a wife discovers her husband’s sexual betrayal. First, the amount of sex they were having didn’t play a role in why he committed adultery, with others on a screen or in the flesh. This progressive addiction existed long before he even met his wife. Second, for many wives, their husband has become an unsafe person for her to have sex with. You can quote scripture that doesn’t apply to this situation. Or you can tell a wife that it is okay to protect her mind and body by not giving herself to her husband until she feels ready and he has chosen to give his mind and body only to her. By telling the wife of a sex addict to have more sex with her husband, wear sexy lingerie, or be more creative in bed, she will feel blamed or that these behaviors will prevent future betrayal. Addiction just doesn’t work that way.
2. “Don’t express anger toward him because it will only push him away”
When the Israelites betrayed God by worshiping another, He said, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them”. God created marriage to be between one man and one woman “until death do us part”. Wives are not jealous or envious of their husband’s attention toward other women because they are insecure or controlling. Their wrath does not come from dysfunction or possessiveness. They are fiercely protective of their marriage because God created us to be like Him! He is a jealous God!
To encourage a wife to stifle her emotions will only cause those emotions to grow stronger. She needs to be heard and validated just as much as her husband needs to hear how his actions have affected her.
3. “Don’t demand that your husband get help. Be patient and wait until your husband is ready to get help.”
This is one of the most abusive and outlandish things to tell a wife and yet it happens all the time. Is it not acceptable for a woman to demand that her husband honor his marriage vows? Is it inappropriate for a woman to refuse to wait patiently while her husband continues to betray her? A wise woman will require faithfulness from her husband, as he should from her, in order to stay in her marriage. Anything less is not loving, but is enabling destructive behavior. A marriage involving more than two people isn’t a marriage at all.
4. “Don’t ask your husband to leave the home”
This is again encouraging enabling behavior and discouraging healthy boundary setting. In Luke Gilkerson’s article, “Is pornography Grounds for Divorce: How my Opinion Changed,” he references Vicki Tiede, stating:
She “recommends a time of mediated separation for the couple (if conversation and confrontation do not work) in order to “create the crisis necessary for him to seek help and finally work toward restoration,” with the goal still being the restoration of the marriage. She writes:
“Think of it this way: the greatest gift you can give your husband is to love God more than you love your husband. God can redeem your husband; you cannot. Thus you love him more by loving in light of his need to repent” (p.244). The goal is not only the promise to stop the pornographic behavior, but the rebuilding of trust and intimacy in the marriage through changed behavior.
5. “Use this an an opportunity to look at yourself and the role you play in your marriage problems”
Many are eager to point out that although the husband has cheated, his spouse isn’t perfect either. She too is flawed. In fact, they say, she chose a sex addict as her husband because of her own dysfunction. Although I’ve heard of wives being told this for years, it never fails to shock me. Everyone is flawed and everyone has dysfunction in their past to some degree. But, I can’t think of one possible reason that pointing this out to a wife could be helpful at a time like this. What I am positive of is that nothing is more damaging to a marriage than sexual betrayal. Encouraging focus elsewhere only comes across as trying to place blame where it doesn’t belong and trying to distract from the real issue.
6. “A Godly wife will immediately forgive her husband”
Forgiveness is a process, not a one time event. While critical, forgiveness takes time. Pray with and for a wife as she grieves her husband’s betrayal and she will come to a place of forgiveness in her own time. Again, please don’t beat a woman over the head with the Bible by throwing scriptures out that will only serve to shame her. You will simply hinder her healing and become an unsafe person for her. Pushing forgiveness on someone who isn’t ready to forgive is one of the most invalidating things a person can do.
Barbara Roberts, in her article, "Three Kinds of Forgiveness," states:
Jesus forgave the repentant man who was being crucified on the hill with Him; but He did not forgive the unrepentant scoffing man on that other cross. If Jesus’ intent in “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” was to indicate a mass forgiveness to all who had put Him to death, then there would be no need for repentance in order to be forgiven, and both men on those crosses would have been ushered into the presence of God upon their deaths. We simply know that not to be true.
Instead of pressuring a wife to “forgive and forget,” you might explain to her that forgiveness is not about trust or reconciliation, which are earned, and that in her own time she can choose what Roberts describes as, “Renouncing retaliation and vengeance.” She explains:
Renunciation of vengeance generally also entails letting God take your hurt, and letting Him heal you to mitigate the adverse effects of the abuse. Many of us have found that this is an ongoing process, because the adverse effects are not all apparent at the beginning, and some memories of the abuse had been buried but later get triggered. …the pain rises up in waves to the surface … there are lulls and there are surges… but it generally settles down over time, if there is no further abuse. You could call this process ‘psychological forgiveness.’
To help a betrayed wife begin her healing journey you don’t have to have any magic words or even any formal training in sexual addiction (although becoming thoroughly educated on this topic is becoming increasingly necessary for those in helping roles). By simply listening to a betrayed wife, allowing her to express her grief, and telling her it’s okay to feel whatever she is feeling, you’ve already helped her beyond measure.