Explosive love relationships develop rather readily in our society with its warped concept of love. Some extramarital relationships stay hidden for a long time, but sooner or later the marriage partner begins to sense that something is going on. Eventually the problem is exposed and major decisions have to be made. At that point a couple wanting to save their marriage may turn to an understanding pastor.

The offended partner will, naturally, be deeply hurt. He or she may at first think divorce is the only solution. Though Christ permitted divorce in cases of adultery, he did so only because of the hardness of men’s hearts. A better solution is to forgive the offender and rebuild the marriage.

To begin the restoration, the hurt partner needs time to express his pain, bitterness, anger, hostility, or sorrow. Eventually, however, he must face the hard but necessary question, “What have I done that contributed to this situation?” Because the extramarital relationship often supplies what the marriage lacks, the answer is frequently one or more sins of omission, such as taking the other for granted, neglect, failing to provide reassurance, negligence in expressing appreciation, or failure to be attractive, accessible, approachable. Sometimes a spouse with a busy scheduled life appears disinterested or cold. Children, clubs, business, and church activities, important as they are, need to be kept in perspective.

When the offended partner realizes his own shortcomings and their contribution to the breakdown, he can, with God’s help, begin to forgive the offender and rebuild trust. Although man’s forgiveness is—like all else that he does—imperfect, both partners must be willing to forgive as totally as they can. As divine forgiveness depends not on man’s feeling forgiven but on God’s declaration of forgiveness, to be accepted on the basis of his Word, so each of the partners must declare forgiveness of the other and then accept the other’s forgiveness on the basis of his word. He must also learn to forgive himself, something that is often harder than forgiving the other person. The wise counselor will spend further time with the offended one exploring what he has learned from the past.

The offending partner must break a deep emotional attachment in order to rebuild his marriage. He has learned to depend—wrongly so, to be sure—upon someone else to fulfill various important needs, and the required break will probably bring extreme pain and turmoil. The offended partner can help by trying—despite his own anguish—to understand the painful “withdrawal” that accompanies his spouse’s redirection of loyalty and dependence. More than anything else, both partners need someone with whom to share their burdens, and there is no better way to rebuild a marriage relationship than to begin again to lean on each other. Sharing the heavy burden helps redirect attachment to its proper object. To remove the illegitimate relationship without replacing it could lead to the fate of the man who was cleansed but not refilled: seven worse demons came in and took over. The offended one may need help to resume his place as the needed one.

Both partners will need to renew their spiritual commitment. They must cultivate their love for Christ. For the offended one, that love will salve the wounds and help cleanse away the anger. The offender needs it to cleanse away the sin and guilt. Both must appropriate the Holy Spirit’s power: one will need it to stay mind and tongue in forgetfulness; the other will need it to maintain faithfulness. Both need the fruit of His presence: love.

The partners will need to renew their commitment to each other, not only in an emotional way but with a declaration—and deeds to fit the words. They will have to say to each other what, if they are Christians, they have already said to God: “I belong to you heart, soul, mind, and strength. I will do all I can to be faithful to you.” Then they must pactice loving each other. They must give as much of themselves as they are able to give—and want and work to give much more.

If a strong desire to give can be established, the marriage can be rebuilt, even from a very painful past. And the new relationship can be stronger than husband and wife have ever experienced before. Such a happy ending requires of both the strong desire to save the marriage and the maturity and flexibility to face their individual contributions to the breakdown. A minister’s wise counsel, pointing them to God’s example of love and forgiveness, may be the cornerstone of their new life together.—HENRY WILDEBOER, pastor, First Christian Reformed Church, Calgary, Alberta.

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