Can a marriage survive an affair?

It’s easy to think that an affair is something that will happen to some other couple and certainly outside the setting of a church. But the truth is, no marriage is exempt from the danger of an affair. Two women share their stories with Lisa Phillips

‘I suddenly realised that I loved my husband’

Hannah has been married to James for 12 years, and they have two children, Sam, who is eight, and Emily, two. Seven years ago, Hannah  became close to the worship leader at their church, and began an affair that  lasted for four years before it came out into the open. Emily was born out of this relationship. Today, Hannah and James are rebuilding their marriage and family life.

“When I joined the worship group, I became very friendly with the person leading the group,” says Hannah. “Over time I saw him as a bit of a father figure. We got closer, and it went on from there. Steve’s wife, Linda, had often expressed concern about the amount of time we spent together and kept a diary of things. James often asked me about Steve, but I told him there was nothing going on, and he tried to trust and accept what I said.”

Then, someone who knew them spotted Steve and Hannah in public together. When challenged by James and the church leader, Hannah felt unable to confess and the next day James took the decision to pack his bags, opting to move away until the truth was out.

In the end, Steve confessed to the affair. Hannah by this time felt ready to tell James, but as he had left the situation in the hands of the church, she met with the church leader, his wife and a deacon where she eventually made her confession. “I suddenly came into reality. I realised that actually I had feelings for James, and that I loved him. It was like a friend dying.”

There followed a time of loneliness and turmoil that is still painful for the couple to revisit. “There were two friends from Sam’s school that were very good,” says Hannah.  “My sister was very supportive, and so was my mum, but on a spiritual level, I felt basically disowned. I can understand it, because I’d hurt a lot of people. I couldn’t go to the church because Linda and James were still there, but I was more or less told not to come . . .

“All I can say is that God was with me at that time. Although I’d turned my back on him, he was there when no one else was. It was quite amazing when I had done something so wrong, not only in the eyes of people, but in the eyes of God. He was so forgiving.”
Hannah started going to a new church, and there found a couple who took her and Sam under their wing. “It was really hard on Sam,” says Hannah, “and so difficult telling him about living apart. I’ll never forget the look of hurt on his face. We’ve just told him about Emily as well, so the whole thing is fresh in his mind, and he’s really struggling with it.”

In the ten months that followed, Hannah and James lived apart, and began seeking help separately . . . James from friends and leaders in the church, and Hannah from a counselor at Relate. Gradually, in the presence of others, they began to talk, and seek counsel together.

During that time, God began a work of deep healing in the lives of the couple, which enabled James to be present at Emily’s birth, and eventually to move back into the family home. “I was a bit nervous,” says Hannah, of the day James came home. “But it was lovely. It was just lovely. I was praising God that he’d been able to work in both of us to get to that point. Sam was obviously over the moon.”

But, she says, the process of healing and rebuilding is still a work in progress. “I think James first forgave me before Emily’s birth, but forgiveness is an ongoing thing, and we’re still working through that. Just the other day we were discussing whether James thought Emily was like me, or whether he could see Steve in her, which we wouldn’t have been able to talk about three months ago. We still have our bad times when suddenly it will all come out. It’s been hard for James, because if there’s a tiny thing wrong, he will go back to that time, and think that I don’t love him, when it’s not that, but just the normal working things out together in a marriage. I think James has moved on from there, but there are still times when he’ll have a flashback, or something I do will send him back into the past. That’s going to take more time.”

Hannah and James know that there are still tough times ahead – not least telling Emily about her father when she’s older – but through God’s grace, they have regained a closeness and friendship that they’ve never before experienced in their marriage.

“God’s forgiveness and mercy was amazing,” says Hannah. “I was like the prodigal daughter coming home, which made me feel like a whole person. When everything was happening around me, it gave me an inner peace. We have felt God saying, ‘I want your marriage to be as beautiful as I intended’. Not like the old marriage, but a new marriage with God at the centre.”

* All the names in this story  have been changed

God has renewed my life

Nicky met Paul when they were both just 19 years old. Married a few years later, the couple seemed to have a strong, loving relationship, and followed all the usual dreams . . careers, holidays, house and kids. But things were not all that they seemed . . .

Even before we were married, we used to go to parties, and I would watch him because he was always searching the room for beautiful women,” she says. “I suppose I used to hide from it from the word go. I didn’t want to face the facts.”

Fifteen years into their marriage, Nicky discovered that he was having an affair. “I was physically sick,” she says. “I couldn’t cry because it was so shocking. My whole life flashed before me. The first thing I did was to question him. I wanted to know everything.

“I kept insisting to myself that it would be helpful, that once I had the full story, we’d move on and deal with it. But actually all it did was hurt me even more. He was 37 and she was 21. So straightaway, I thought she was beautiful, and I was not. She was slim, and I was not. I mentally tortured myself.”

Paul moved out of the family home, and continued to see the other woman while Nicky desperately fought to save her marriage and put her family back together. Such was her determination, that she endured setback after setback until Paul finally came home and admitted that he had made a mistake. Nicky was ready to trust him again.

“We did get back together, and it was a fantastic 18 months. He didn’t flirt, we held each other’s full attention, we put right all the things in our relationship that weren’t working. The kids were happy, and I convinced my mum and dad that Paul was a new man.”

But the change was not to last. Old habits began to creep back into the marriage, and Paul became more and more distant. One evening, Nicky confronted him again, and he admitted that he was involved with another woman.

“I knew the signs,” she recalls. “I was thinking, ‘please don’t let me face this all over again’. Whereas the first time, my past life was flashing before me, this time it was the way forward that confronted me. I couldn’t see a way forward, and I felt blind panic. How was I going to face everyone, and how were the kids going to do it this time?

“I said, ‘You’ve ended it. It’s over. I cannot have you back now.’” At Nicky’s insistence, Paul explained what he had done to his sons, left that night, and never came back.

For Nicky, the next few weeks were a blur. “The mornings were easier because I told myself that I could not cry for an hour. I had to get up. I had to get the kids to school. After that I allowed myself to crack up for five hours, but I composed myself for three o’clock. I was now a single mother. And I had to get on with life.”

Close friends and family helped to carry her through those difficult first months, and it was at this time that Nicky started attending her local church regularly. “I cried my eyes out through loads of services,” she said. “But the second time I went, they were talking about the Potter moulding the clay, and I went away thinking that I was going to mould whatever I had left into something. That was what stuck in my mind, and that made me hang on to church. I knew there must be something in the word ‘faith’, and there must be something in the word ‘trust’. There must be something in this God stuff. I had nothing else to hold on to, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Not only did Nicky find God in those early months, but she also began dating again. A year later, she met Keith. “It was like two people put together who have been apart a lot of their lives,” says Nicky. “Even though Keith is not a great believer, he does spookily think that God had something to do with it.”

In Keith, Nicky has at last found her soul mate, and in God, new purpose and vision in life. But the going can still sometimes be tough, and the healing process is ongoing. She continues to grieve over her divided family, and she and Keith are facing the new challenges of raising step-children.

Looking back over her decision to end her marriage, she says, “I wouldn’t have done anything differently the first time. If I’d have walked away then, I would be sitting here today saying ‘why didn’t I try?’. If someone came to me with the first affair scenario, I’d say, ‘Work at it. Find a way round it. Ask God for help.’” She is grateful, though, that having walked away the second time, she has found another chance for happiness with Keith. “He says even more than me, that when we married, we said our vows, and those vows are for life.”

Coping after an affair

Katharine Hill, marriage project manager for Care for the Family, says an affair needn’t mean the end of a marriage

Very often, an affair isn’t just about physical attraction. It’s about someone other than a spouse meeting your emotional needs. Couples can begin living parallel lives and start taking one another and the marriage for granted. A gap can open up in a marriage which is easy for someone else to fill.

The result is devastating, leading to deep hurt, anger, guilt, remorse and a desire to retaliate. But, hope for reconciliation is very real. Forgiveness can be difficult. But forgiveness is a choice you make, and often people find when you make that choice, you can learn to love again.

Be open and honest with each other. Both of you need to work at reconciliation. Avoid focusing on the affair, but work at discovering the underlying difficulties that led to an affair.

An affair is not something you get over quickly. Give yourselves plenty of recovery time, and recognise that it will take time for trust to be rebuilt. With God’s help and healing, there is always hope. An affair could be seen as a fatal wound to a marriage, but it can become the point where you realise how important your marriage is, and resolve to live and love differently.

How to affair-proof your marriage

* Discover an activity you enjoy together.

* Talk honestly about how you feel.

* Keep your sexual relationship alive.

* Show appreciation and approval – be your spouse’s number 1 fan.

* Set aside a regular time to be together.

* Go on a marriage course

* Set appropriate boundaries, eg don’t go for one-to-one lunches with work colleagues of the opposite sex.

* Seek to understand and meet each other’s needs.