Sexual Betrayal Is Not Your Fault (But What’s Your Part?)

When my wife of eighteen years closed the door on our marriage and drove away to meet her lover, I crumpled to the floor and sobbed uncontrollably. The news of her nine-month affair and her decision to leave me and our two children came just minutes apart, and out of nowhere.

We never fought. We had just purchased a new home and had just planned the next five years of our family’s future. We had left our marital difficulties behind and had built a strong intimacy before moving to Dallas to attend seminary. Our children openly boasted about the health of their parents’ marriage and the stability of our home. Everything was good.

Or so I thought.

The road to recovery was long and dark. I crawled at first. Then, I managed to hobble. In time, I grew strong enough to take long strides and recover from inevitable tumbles quickly. Eventually, I grew strong enough to stand up straight and ask myself a painfully difficult question: “What was my part?” I instinctively knew that my response to that question would determine what kind of future waited for me.

The Nagging Question: Did I Have a Part to Play?

I could have remained comfortably self-righteous in my role as the victim of my former wife’s cruel cowardice. In normal relationships, healthy partners confront one another with their unhappiness and they work together as a couple to own their mistakes or bad habits, they commit to hear grievances and pledge to improve their relationship. I didn’t receive that dignity. She never gave me the opportunity to hear her unhappiness. Instead, she poured out her anger in secret through an affair, an adulterous relationship that ultimately destroyed our marriage and left our children with deep scars.

I had every right to sit in the ashes of my own righteousness and blame her for everything, but in the silence of my solitude, the question kept buzzing in my ear like a pesky mosquito at night. “What was my part?”

A Word for Wives of Porn Addicts

What does this have to do with porn and sex addiction? Everything.

The same forces that drove my former wife to withdraw from our marriage—to pour her anger and disappointment into an illicit affair, to direct her intimacy away from our union—are the same forces that drive porn addicts to seek solace in self-gratification. They exchange the opportunity for real intimacy for affairs with digital lovers, fantasies that behave perfectly and never cause pain. They seek virtual affairs that gratify with no risk of rejection, false relationships that meet emotional and sexual needs without requiring anything in return. Virtual relationships, unlike real-world intimacy, thrive on selfishness.

Now, let me answer an objection before continuing. I have no tolerance for men who blame their wives for their own sinful choices. I advocate a strong, no-nonsense, no-excuses, no-tolerance approach to unrepentant porn use. I opened by sharing my own story of betrayal and abandonment to assure you that I approach this issue from the perspective of a victim of sexual sin. No one deserves to have his or her spouse turn to porn—or any other form of marital betrayal. The fault for sexual sin lies with the sinner and no other.

Nevertheless, in marriage, there is no such thing as an “innocent” victim. No one is perfect. We all sin. We all fail. We all do things—small and great—that do harm to our relationships. Sooner or later, if we are to recover from the devastation of marital betrayal, we must turn our eyes away from the sins of our partner and take a painful look at our own. The porn addict is responsible for his or her own repentance and recovery; our job is to address our own failings as a part of our own growing relationship with Christ. Hopefully, as He heals our brokenness and we grow in our intimacy with the Almighty, we make obedience easier for the struggling spouse.

The broader question, “What is my part?,” involves two additional, more specific questions. I found it helpful to get the help of trusted friends who helped me think through the answers.

1. “Why did I choose this kind of person for a mate?”

Yes, you were blindsided. No, you didn’t know it would end up this way. Nevertheless, your spouse possessed certain traits that attracted you, and those traits had a dark side. Chances are good you also ignored warning signs—small, seemingly insignificant, yet disturbing yellow flags you brushed aside or explained away. What were they? What broken part of you chose this kind of person?

My own answers to that question were difficult to face (and too involved to explain in detail here). Essentially, I had to admit that, from the beginning, I chose a woman incapable of normal intimacy because I didn’t want genuine intimacy myself. That way I could tell myself I wanted intimacy without actually having to endure the risks that necessarily come with it. I also found deep insecurities and a desperately low regard for myself at work in my decisions. (This could be its own article, so I’ll stop there.)

2. “How did I contribute to the unhappiness in our relationship?”

No, you were not responsible for his or her sin. Your partner turned to porn (or other illicit sexual behavior) and prevented any hope of genuine intimacy by becoming a coward. Nevertheless, you did—as all of us do—contribute to the marital unhappiness, perhaps in many small ways, or maybe in a few significant ways. Chances are also good that you behave this way with close friends or with other family. Encourage them to be honest and find the courage to receive unpleasant feedback without comment. Instead of defending or denying, or trying to explain yourself, thank them.

Among my many faults and flaws, I discovered a man unwilling to be wrong. Consequently, I didn’t make it easy for anyone—including my spouse—to be honest about their grievances and disappointments in me. I made it easier for her to bury her pain rather than express it openly and honestly with me. Resentments, like poison, cannot remain inside or they’ll kill the soul. While her sinful choices were her responsibility, I didn’t provide a healthy outlet for her frustrations. My reluctance to hear and accept responsibility for my faults made obedience more difficult for my non-confrontational partner. I didn’t make her sin, but I did make sin an easier choice.

This was, in part, my part.

Take it from one whose head was spun by infidelity and abandonment: self-examination is one of the most difficult things to do when harmed by the sin of another. But asking and answering the tough questions is a crucial and ultimately rewarding exercise in truth. If you do the difficult work of self-examination, grieve what you find, and allow God to heal those deep wounds, you will emerge a more whole person of rich character and beautiful humility. Your additional reward will be knowledge that you have done all you can to encourage your spouse’s obedience and fidelity, regardless of his or her future choices.

While nothing will erase the scars of unfaithfulness, and only God can heal the wounds of betrayal (yes, porn counts), you need not remain a helpless victim. Once you have recovered from the initial devastation of infidelity, if you courageously answer these difficult questions, you will gain power from the truth you discover. Power to confront your spouse’s sin with unflinching dedication to the righteousness of God, yet with the humility of redemptive grace—the same gift you received from Christ in response to your own sins.