How do I know if my spouse has really changed?

Monday July 26

I’m sitting in a hotel room in the Wisconsin Dells. My husband is here for a national volleyball tournament and he is off with his responsibilities. I’ve been reading a lot this summer and I want to recommend two great books for you. The first is Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay.

It’s a moving novel about a young girls experience during the Holocaust in France. Sarah, age 10,along with her parents, is forced out of her apartment and taken to a large indoor stadium used for biking races for temporary confinment (little did they know that they would all be sent to Auschwitz). Her little brother remains behind, hidden locked in a secret cupboard in their apartment. Sarah’s anguish about her brother’s confinement drives her to escape and risk her own life to return to her apartment to rescue him. The tale continues to unfold through the eyes of an American journalist, Julia, living today in France. She is assigned to write a piece on the Sixtieth commemoration of the Vel’d’Hiv’, to remind people of this horrible stain on French history. Sarah’s story begins to intersect Julia's own life in a riviting and compelling tale. I’m still caught by surprise when I read of the immense cruelty human beings can inflict on other people as well as how vulnerable we all are to being ruled by fear, guilt, and family secrets.

The other book I’d highly recommend, especially if you have trouble setting boundaries with others or have a teenage daughter who needs to learn is called This Gorgeous Game by Donna Freitas. It’s a novel for young adults but I found it fascinating and well written. The story revolves around a bright, Catholic high school student, Olivia, who wins a writing contest. The prize entitles her to be personally mentored by Father Mark Brandan, a famous writer and Catholic priest.

At first Olivia is honored, flattered by her mentor’s attention. But soon his phone calls, text messages, and demands for her time become obsessive and oppressive. Olivia feels torn. She should be grateful and respectful for Father Mark’s devotion to her but instead she feels imprisoned by it. She does not know how to say, “no” to his demands for more and more of her time and energy. This Gorgeous Game potently portrays a woman’s agonizing dilemma when someone’s benovolance and unconscious neediness becomes smothering and suffocating to our own personhood as well as the ambivalent feelings we experience while trying to figure out how we can preserve the relationship without forsaking ourselves.

This week’s question reflects some of these dilemmas:

Question: My husband has had several affairs. One sexual and the other emotional. After each one I have tried to work on me and felt they occurred because I needed to fix things in my own life. I needed to be more loveable, appealing and easy to be with. In so many ways I have been completely humbled and broken, but despite the changes in my own life I recently discovered he had resumed calling the woman he had been having an emotional affair with 4 years ago. In addition, he has confessed to having a sexual addiction or integrity issues involving pornography and pleasing himself sexually. Yet, even while he has been doing this, I have felt loved and cared for by him most of the time.

My biggest concern has been however, when we have discussions, I feel very intimidated by him and end up backing away or apologizing profusely because I’m afraid of his anger and intimidation. I’m not perfect and see so many of my own faults and insecurities but I desire to have intimacy with God. I’m fit, I have a great profession, close relationships and work at being a good parent to my son (16) and daughter (18).

So here is my dilemma. My husband and I are separated. After the last affair, it was agreed if he ever did this again it would mean automatic divorce, no more counseling, etc. When we first separated I felt scared, but now after 5 months I’m fine and our children are fine. They say they prefer him gone and we have needed time to heal. Before, I tried so hard to re-build my marriage that our children took a back seat. Now I’m enjoying the peace of our home instead of always being anxious that I would make a mistake that would drive him into the arms of another woman.

I’m thriving, going to a great Christian counselor and reading and trying to understand sexual addiction. However, my husband wants another chance and feels he now understands why he made so many hurtful choices. He periodically meets with a pastor from our church but has not sought counseling or a recovery group. He seems softer, has realized much and constantly says he misses me and loves me, but I have lost my desire for him. I almost would be embarrassed to put myself through this again but feel guilty or unsure if I’m disobeying God. Isn’t God a God of second or fifth chances?

I have never been good at discerning when my husband was betraying me how can I ever trust him? How do I know if he is fully recovered? Am I being disobedient at not giving him another chance?

Answer: Oh how we wish life’s decisions could be black and white and that God would just tell us what to do. I struggle with the same dilemma of “not knowing” the future, or the reliability of a person’s words. Talk is cheap and insight, even good and truthful self-awareness, is still a long way off from faithful and consistent change in a person’s heart and habits.

The good news is you don’t have to decide just yet about whether or not to follow through with divorce. You indicate you are getting good counsel so I’m going to just give you some things to talk about with your counselor to make sure you are moving in the right direction.

Pay attention to your feelings but don’t allow yourself to be ruled by them. You feel anxious by his anger and intimidation. Is this true in other relationships as well or mainly with him? You indicate your own insecurity issues and sometimes people who fear rejection are easily intimidated into compliance because they fear disapproval or loss of relationship even when the other person isn’t intentionally trying to be controlling.

This season of separation can be a good test for you to observe the fruit of your change as well as his. Are you able to speak up and say no, even if you still feel anxious or intimidated? And, can he hear and respect your “no” the first time, without arguing, trying to change your mind or threatening you with loss of potential reconciliation? If you’re still not able to be clear and direct with what you want or don’t want because of fear, you need to figure out why. Is it him or it is your need to please, to not disappoint, and to always be the accommodating one?

Your husband has done great damage to your family and marriage yet he seems to not want to work very hard at making sure he never does it again. That does not sit well with me. Why has he not gone to personal counseling, joined a recovery group or taken other steps to deal with his problems? You say you’re reading about sexual addiction, but is he? You seem to have done lots of work to mature, grow, and become a more godly woman but what exactly has your husband done to identify his problems and change them?

From what you describe, one of the things that is pretty glaring to me is that your husband has been ruled by a selfish and a lazy heart. (These are defined more fully in my book, The Emotionally Destructive Relationship.) Pornography and masturbation are selfish and lazy ways to have sexual pleasure and release without the responsibilities of relationship or mutual giving. It’s all about him! From what you describe, most of the marriage has been all about him and what you’ve lacked or not done to make him happy or keep him faithful to you.

Affairs are also selfish and indulgent. He wasn’t thinking of you or your children, only about what he felt and what he wanted. From my vantage point what you describe as your husband’s change might be really just more of the same but now instead of the other woman, you’ve become the desired object he wants.

Yes, God is a God of second chances, of fifth chances, of hundredth chances, but you are not God. You do not know his heart, only God can discern his true motives. However you can use the growth you’ve achieved to speak the truth in love, ask him to do the work required in order for you to be willing to consider reconciliation and build trust again and see what happens. If his heart is truly changed, he will. If not, he will get angry, blame you and want you to do the work to trust him. You’ve already been around that bend several times and you’re wise to not repeat it.

Lately I’ve been pondering the whole paradox of thinking in categories of both/and versus either/or. I’ve written about it in my latest book, Lord, I Just Want to be Happy. But we humans like things to be either black or white, good or bad, right or wrong, ugly or beautiful, hard or easy, etc. But I’m afraid things are much more messy than that. There is good in bad, bad in good, suffering in blessing, blessing in suffering. There is both/and in all of life as well as our spiritual walk.

For example, God calls us to be loving and truthful. Forgiving and prudent about dangerous or destructive people, tough and tender. How we navigate through those biblical paradoxes isn’t always clear and that’s why we need a community of believers – our church family, good friends, pastoral help as well as wise Christian counsel to understand not only the big picture of our situation, but also the big picture of scripture. It’s so easy to take one verse out of context and try to make it a rule or principle that we must follow in order to be right with God.

God knows your heart and scripture says we walk by faith not by sight. We don’t always know the right way, but if we are seeking God’s best, he promises to direct our steps. I believe that when we do that by faith, we do not need to be anxious. God understands our humanness and is gracious even with our failures and mistakes.

This week's question: What novels have you read that have touched you deeply or that powerfully spoke to you about sin, hope, relationships, forgiveness, boundaries, reconciliation, genuine repentance and change?


  1. a sister in Christ on July 30, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Regarding Leslie's question for the week, without hesitation, I highly recommend the nonfiction selection, "Left to Tell (Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust)" by Immaculee Ilibagiza. The incredible faith that allowed Immaculee to not only endure, but to also forgive is inspirational beyond words. I was appalled to read that a million people had been slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and although I remember hearing reports of people being butchered by machetes, I was astounded that only now do I know the sheer magnitude of the devastation and that a world sat by while it happened. And as Leslie said, "I’m still caught by surprise when I read of the immense cruelty human beings can inflict on other people…" Before you read this book, I suggesst that you measure the smallest bathroom in your home and imagine how Immaculee and 7 other women survived in a bathroom that was just 4ft. long by 3ft. wide, including a shower stall and a toilet in that space for 90 days while they listened to the murderers outside again and again! The follow-up book "Led by Faith (Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide)" which recounts Immaculee's story of picking up the pieces and moving forward is equally noteworthy. It is only by faith and the faithfulness of God that Immaculee was "left to tell". As Denise Linn, author of "If I Can Forgive, So Can You", states: "Immaculee Ilibagiza's gift of forgiveness to the perpetrators of the unthinkable acts revealed in this book is just one of the extraordinary examples of her unwavering courage. This book moved me in unimaginable ways, and reminded me once again about the immense grace that is born out of faith and forgiveness."


  2. Anonymous on August 6, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    I soooooo feel for the woman who asked this question! Sadly, I am a man in a very similar situation. For years, I have believed that I'm somehow just not good enough of a husband for my wife. The message from her has been that I lack something she wants, and I've bought it over and over. While she indulges herself on whatever she feels like, I read books, pray my guts out, seek the Lord's face, and meet with counselors to deal with my issues, such as insecurity and the pain from the history of our marriage. I'm the one doing the work, she is the one "waiting to see how she feels." Ridiculous. It is not easy. It is easy to simply say, "Well, you take it because you are insecure." Well, fine. Who among us can cast the first stone because we are perfect? It doesn't justify his behavior or his heart. You have my utmost respect and sympathy.

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