Discovering infidelity in marriage can be devastating. How can you come alongside and encourage a friend who has been cheated on?
The night Jill Savage found out her husband was having an affair her reaction was visceral. “I wanted to throw up,” she shares on a Focus on the Family broadcast. “I became physically ill. My mind was swirling. What do I do with this?” It was 1:30 in the morning when Jill found out, but she had a friend, Beck, who knew there was trouble in her marriage. Beck had assured Jill that she could call her at any time. Even though it was late, Jill called Beck. “I was so grateful,” Jill says. “We cried on the phone, we prayed on the phone. She stayed on the phone with me most of the night.”
When Audrey Meisner confessed her affair to her husband, Bob, he was enraged. “It was the darkest night of my life,” he says on a Focus on the Family broadcast. At the time, the only prayer he could express was, “Holy Spirit, what do I do?” The Holy Spirit impressed his heart to call a friend. “I was crazy. … I needed somebody to just help me and just bring some truth.” He says he couldn’t trust his wife because of her betrayal and he couldn’t trust his emotional state to make a good decision. But he could trust his godly friend’s counsel.
According to Caitlin Edwards, a licensed clinical professional counselor, Bob’s and Jill’s reactions were normal. “Learning about infidelity can result in a response like a physical attack: our entire nervous system gets brought online and we can experience a very strong visceral response,” she explains. “Often the nervous system stays online until we can begin to feel safe again.”
How can you love your friend well in the face of such trauma? How can you be the kind of friend Jill and Bob had?
People often resort to platitudes and generic statements when they don’t know what to say. But in times of crisis, “It’s all going to be OK.” or “Everything will work out in the end.” may ring hollow. Drawing from the L.U.V.E response (listen, understand, validate, equip) and other expert advice, here are some things you can do to help your friend.
Listen to understand
Providing the kind of support that Jill and Bob received starts with listening well. Dr. Greg Smalley, vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family, says that one of the greatest gifts we can give someone who is in crisis is to listen. “True listening requires you to be fully present,” he adds.
He suggests doing the following to show your friend that you’re truly listening:
- Turn toward him or her and give eye contact.
- Offer your undivided attention, putting what you have been doing out of sight and out of mind.
- Concentrate on what he or she is saying, paying extra attention to your friend’s emotions.
- Watch nonverbal cues and body language.
- Use encouraging reassuring gestures and body language.
- Resist thinking about your reply or rebuttal.
- Don’t become sidetracked by whether you agree with what he or she is saying.
- Let him or her finish talking before you respond.
As you listen, ask your friend questions to better understand his or her feelings.
After listening to your friend express some undoubtedly difficult emotions, Greg says that it’s important to validate those feelings and let him or her know they’re normal, since the emotions following the discovery of an affair can be traumatic and deep.
For example, Bob says that Audrey’s disclosure made him feel as if every hope and dream of the future and every happy memory from the previous 17 years had been erased. “The Enemy just began to scream to me, ‘Unlovable. Undesirable. She’s never cared for you. She never will.’ ”
Many people whose spouse has cheated on them experience these feelings and more — fear for the future, despondency, grief over their relationship and anger. They may wonder what they did to push their spouse away or what they didn’t do that led their spouse to seek fulfillment elsewhere. They may feel that they cannot trust themselves or anyone else.
As a friend, it may feel overwhelming to address such “negative” emotions. Erin Smalley, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that it’s important not to judge, minimize or ignore feelings. Use validating statements such as “I can see how you feel that way.” or “This is such a hard situation.” or “That sounds so frustrating/discouraging.” to help your friend feel heard and understood.
You can also gently point your friend toward the truth of God’s Word — that a child of God is valuable (1 Corinthians 7:23) and loved (Isaiah 54:10). Your friend is worthy in God’s sight, even when he or she doesn’t feel that way.
How can you equip your friend to move toward healing? First, tell him or her that you’ll be there for the long haul.
Anne Bercht, an affair recovery specialist, says that suffering in isolation makes it much more difficult to heal from an affair. She recommends that someone who’s been cheated on have at least three to five support people, which could include good friends, a Christian counselor and spiritual advisors. Her research shows that people need about three to six months to move through the initial trauma stage after discovering an affair.
Encourage your friend to seek additional godly counsel from a Christian counselor and other trusted people. But Bercht recommends that you check your motives for any other advice you give, even if you have strong opinions about what your friend should do next. Should he or she confront the spouse and the third party, stay in the marriage, separate or tell the children?
These situations may seem to need an immediate response, but experts agree that in a time of heightened emotion, it’s unwise to make life-altering decisions. Instead, it’s the time for your friend to begin the process of healing. A betrayed spouse needs to identify his or her emotions and grieve the impact of the affair, say the Smalleys. So fight the urge to push your friend to make an immediate decision. Encourage your friend to pause and process the situation before making any permanent choices.
Other couples have experienced infidelity in their marriages and found healing through prayer, counseling and commitment to recovery. Their stories could be a good resource to share with your friend as they begin their own healing journey.
You can encourage someone who has been cheated on
Bob says that on the night his wife confessed her affair, he needed a man of God to challenge him to react in a Christian way. “Everything inside of me wanted to expose her, everything inside of me wanted to shame her.” But his friend shared Proverbs 25:2 and said that shaming his wife was not the heart of God. “I needed somebody to come alongside me,” Bob adds, “Because I knew, left to my own devices, I would blow this thing up.”
Because of the godly counsel and care of a friend in time of crisis, both Bob and Jill were able to walk through the trauma of infidelity and find hope and healing for their marriage. God can use you to be a source of hope, too.
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