Marriages can die for many reasons. Usually it is not one thing, but a combination that brings a marriage to the point of death. The bottom line is this: marriages die when promise keepers become promise breakers.
The Power of Promises
Someone has observed that life becomes much more restful if we keep our covenant promises. Marriage is a covenant based on mutual promises of lifelong faithfulness. Our covenant promises are like a fence we build around our marriage. The fence defines our boundaries, keeps us safe, simplifies our lives, and focuses our affection.
But what if we don’t keep our promises? Then, of course, the relationship becomes shaky. Husband and wife feel like two house painters standing on a plank, supported by wobbly ladders. They experience constant tension and unsteadiness. Even worse, broken promises often lead to the total collapse of a marriage.
Broken marriages always create broken people. Always. Spouses suffer. Children suffer. Even the extended family suffers.
Betrayed trust resembles a bad wound. It hurts, it is deep, and it takes some time to heal. Even with complete healing, some sensitivity may remain. For that reason, it’s better not to betray a trust at all. For the more intimate the relationship, the more potential for broken trust to cause deep, lasting hurt.
Broken trust leads to some very unpleasant consequences:
- We may lose our openness. Unfaithfulness hurts us so we withdraw and close up. Over the years we develop layer upon layer of defensiveness, like an oyster producing a pearl. The result? Two people, hard as marbles toward one another.
- We may plot retaliation. Wounded by unfaithfulness, we plot revenge. Revenge can take many forms. We stop cooperating, communicating, or caring, just to get back at our husband or wife. In some marriages both husband and wife have been disappointed so often that the marriage has become a war. Such wars have no winners.
- We may look for a substitute. Susan, married ten years, had been deeply hurt by her husband’s sexual unfaithfulness. She couldn’t trust him, but she wanted someone she could trust. Susan became vulnerable to another man’s empty promises. As you might imagine, she was hurt even more deeply.
- We may develop insecurity. Trust is the foundation of every healthy marriage. When that foundation crumbles, so does our confidence. Without trust, with insecurity, intimacy becomes impossible.
- We may experience depression. Why do so many people sit in darkened pubs drinking the hours away, listen to sad songs about broken love? Many are the depressed victims of unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness hurts everyone: both spouses, the children, and the third party.
You may remember spondere, the Latin word that gave us the English word spouse A spouse is a responsible promise keeper. One other word comes from that same root:despondent. It describes a person without promise or hope. We all know friends who married with great hopes for a happy, stable, secure future. Then their hopes turned to despondency when their spouses broke their promises.
Perhaps those consequences of broken trust describe your marriage. If so, can you restore trust and renew intimacy? You can, but it takes work and patience. Deeper betrayals require longer recovery time. Restoring trust is never easy, but thank God, it is possible. For those who believe in Jesus there is hope for every broken marriage . . . if both parties will do their part to heal the break.
As you think about how to heal a broken marriage, keep these qualities in mind. Each of them is important to successful restoration.
All Restoration Begins With Honesty
We must honestly accept our responsibility for breaking our promises and betraying our partner’s trust.
Serena and Jason had a good enough marriage, or so it seemed to everyone who knew them. It was a shock, therefore, when they came to talk to us about a serious breach of trust. Serena was having an affair.
As we talked with them, Serena kept rationalizing that, although her involvement with the other man was wrong, her husband was actually the reason. He didn’t take time to make her feel special. The other man did.
Gently, but firmly, we explained that she could not use her husband’s deficiency as an excuse for her unfaithfulness. After about two hours of discussion she finally reached the honesty that is always the first step to restoration.
Remember that if you have been unfaithful you must acknowledge the pain you have caused your spouse. You need to let him or her express that pain in whatever words they need, even if the words make you feel terrible. Your spouse needs to know that you understand how much pain you have caused.
Maria was married for 30 years when her marriage hit bottom. She and her husband saw a counselor, but it was unsuccessful. She told us that her husband just wanted to move on, get their marriage back to the way it was. That sounded noble, but it was not. He was far too proud to see the pain in her eyes, and far too self-centered to really change in helpful ways.
Do not let that happen to you. If you have caused pain, be ready to hear your spouse and respond in true and honest remorse.
All Restoration Requires Forgiveness
Do not confuse forgiveness with trust. You can forgive someone even if you don’t trust him or her. But forgiving shows that you want to see trust and faithfulness restored. I will write on forgiveness in another article, but if you would like to read about it now, from a Christian perspective, please go to this article on my website: Forgiveness
All Restoration Requires a Consistent Demonstration of Faithfulness
The one who betrayed trust must accept, even welcome, more careful scrutiny for a time. Doing so displays a serious desire to restore the relationship. In essence the guilty party is saying, “I want your trust so much that I am willing to be watched. Whatever it takes, I want to regain your trust.”
All Restoration Must Be Free from the Desire to Punish
It’s one thing to insist on accountability, but another to use that to punish the person. Remember the goal: rebuilding the relationship. Punishing our partner doesn’t help us reach that goal. It might make us feel good to get back at the one who hurt us so badly, but it doesn’t rebuild the marriage.
All Restoration Should Lead To Better Understanding
Done in the right way restoration will bring you to a better understanding of your marriage, your spouse, and yourself. In other words, we learn from it. Things will never be the same after a major betrayal of trust, but they can, in significant ways, become better.
All Restoration Takes Time
Don’t rush it, and don’t let impatience rob you of a good outcome. Many couples give up way too soon. Watch for small improvements. As Winter gives way to Spring, the ground thaws gradually, not instantly. Soon new plants start to appear where the ground was hard and barren. It’s been winter for a long time, but spring is coming.
One quality of restoration draws all of the others together and keeps them in the proper balance. Let’s call it mutual mercy. Mercy isn’t a popular word these days, but, as Dallas Willard says, it is truly essential for continued health and healing in relationships.
Mercy means that we do not treat one another as we deserve, but better than we deserve. All humans need it, and need to extend it. Think about how often we hear people, including ourselves, say “I’m only human.” As if anyone could think, even for a minute, that we were anything else! Because humans make mistakes and live imperfect lives, we need to be merciful to each other, especially so when we’re rebuilding a broken relationship. Mercy does not remove responsibility. Mercy simply treats another the way we would want to be treated. Christians call it the Golden Rule, but is actually worth much more than gold.
The Power of the Potter
In the Bible, Jeremiah the prophet went to a potter learn an object lesson about restoration. As the potter fashioned the clay something went wrong, and the half-formed clay collapsed on the wheel. Did he throw away the ruined, shapeless lump? Not at all. There was still great potential for that ruined clay, and the potter knew how to bring it about. He shaped another vessel, different, but still beautiful. (See Jeremiah 18)
God is like that potter. He can take the ruins of your marriage and make something beautiful. Place your lives and your marriage in His hands. Cooperate with Him by believing and following His Word. As you work with God a miracle will happen in your marriage.
Think, Act, Pray:
The doorbell rang. Opening the door I saw our friend, Madeline, eyes red from crying. “I’ve been to an attorney,” she said. “I’m divorcing my husband. He’s having an affair. Everyone in our community knows about it. I just can’t take it any more!”
1. Does Madeline have a right to divorce her husband?
2. Is there any other course she could take?
3. If Madeline and her husband decide to rebuild their marriage, what steps will they each need to take?