Discovering the sexual betrayal of a spouse is one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can suffer. There are so few people with whom the wounded spouse can confide. Imagine this devastated individual mustering the courage to share the story with a close friend or family member only to receive comments or advice that inflict further damage. How tragic!
Knowing what to say to someone who has experienced a loss is difficult for most people. I believe there are many well-meaning, loving individuals who truly want to be helpful to a wounded spouse but are simply ill-equipped in that situation. What should be said at such a time?
The Bible tells the story of a man of God named Job. His life was filled with prestige and possessions, but God allowed him to be tested and he lost his ten children, all of his livestock, and even his health. In the midst of his misery and devastation, he had three friends who came to comfort him. The Bible says,
“When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. They sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:12-13).
Wow! What great friends. Unfortunately, whatever comfort Job felt by their presence quickly ended when they opened their mouths and began to speak.
If you have an acquaintance, friend, or loved one who has experienced sexual betrayal, one of the greatest things you can do for him or her is just show up. Most people going through such trauma feel alone and isolated. Your presence, at that time, can be a gift. Silence is okay.
If you do speak, here are ten things best left unsaid.
1. “Things will get better.”
This person’s life has been shattered. How can you possibly know things will get better? Unfortunately, things may get a lot worse. Certainly, the wounded spouse can pursue and achieve healing, but that does not mean the circumstances will get better.
2. “You just need to forgive.”
Such a comment is callous to the pain this person is feeling. There are many things someone who has been betrayed may need, such as testing for STDs, counseling, self-care, safety, a support group, and healthy boundaries.
While forgiveness will eventually be in this individual’s best interest, to suggest this initially may imply that there should be no consequences for the offending party, regardless of current behavior. This, in turn, may pressure the wounded spouse into granting a false forgiveness before adequately processing the devastating emotions that naturally accompany betrayal. This can lead to confusion and delayed healing.
3. “It could be worse. At least he didn’t .”
Any comment that minimizes the behavior or the pain is hurtful. Betrayal is betrayal, regardless of the method. Period. To say such a thing is as insensitive as saying to someone who lost a child, “At least you didn’t lose both of your children,” or saying to an amputee, “At least you still have your hands.” The fact that someone else may have it worse does not lessen this person’s pain.
4. “If I were you, I would leave and get a divorce.”
You’re not. Job’s friend made the same mistake. Eliphaz said, “But if it were I, I would…” (Job 5:8). The reality is that you cannot know what you would do if you were that person. You only have a perspective based on your own experiences.
See Accountability Lessons From Job’s Friends.
5. “Have you been meeting his physical needs?”
Any comment or question that implies fault on the part of the wounded spouse is not helpful. Most are already feeling some sense of guilt and shame. Job’s friends also made that mistake. They assumed that he must somehow be responsible for the suffering he was experiencing. There are no perfect spouses because there are no perfect people. Nothing justifies a partner sexually acting outside of the marriage covenant. There is always a choice.
6. “You deserve better than this.”
This kind of statement usually comes as a result of strong feelings for the individual, which may cloud the judgment of what is actually best. In the Book of Acts, the apostle Paul was told by a prophet that he would suffer and be imprisoned if he went to Jerusalem. “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem” (Acts 21:12). Paul went anyway because he knew God had a greater plan that would result in furthering the gospel.
It is unsettling to see someone you love suffering. But, it is important to remember that you may not be able to see the big picture and all that God can accomplish through the difficulties.
7. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Is this really true? Does God have a grand design that only allows for what he wills? If my husband repeatedly cheats on me, is that God’s will? No. It is not God’s will for us to sin. He knows how destructive that is for us. But he has created us with free will. We are not created as robots with no power to choose. When a person is overwhelmed with grief due to the sexual betrayal of a spouse, God grieves, too. We live in an imperfect, fallen world.
The good news is that what God allows, he redeems.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
8. “I know how you feel.”
Though you might have lived through a similar experience, you can never know exactly how someone else feels. No two situations are exactly alike. We all have our own unique experiences and perspectives.
9. “Just let it go.”
This is akin to “get over it,” or “just move on.” This is easily said by someone who is neither married to the individual nor emotionally attached to the situation. The reality is that the choice to stay or leave is incredibly difficult and not one that can be made quickly or lightly. There will be pain and complications either way. Seldom does anyone “get over” such trauma, though he or she will eventually get through it. Such flippant statements fail to acknowledge the depth of grief the wounded party is feeling.
Related: The Side of Porn Use No One Talks About
10. “God wants you to .”
Be very, very careful about speaking for God. Job’s friends spent considerable time representing to him what they were convinced were God’s ways. In the end, the Lord spoke to Eliphaz and said, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). Even if what you plan to say is biblically accurate, are you sure this is the right time to say it? Saying the right thing at the wrong time is still wrong.
What should we say?
With so many things we shouldn’t say, how can we know what we should say? “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). When someone you care about is suffering due to betrayal trauma, show up and focus more on listening than speaking. Will Rogers went straight to the point: “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
Before you do speak, ask God for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
Offer practical assistance. When Jesus was dying, he asked his closest friend, John, to take care of his mother. The Bible says, “From that time on, the disciple took her into his home” (John 19:27). You can help by bringing a meal, taking the kids for the afternoon, giving a gift card for a massage, or anything else that might relieve some of the pressure your friend may be experiencing.
Jesus’ example of love was in deed, not word. We can’t go wrong when we follow his example.
In the recorded history of modern psychology, has a husband ever been diagnosed with “betrayal trauma”? I’ve known men whose wives have been unfaithful and absolutely they have been asked if they did anything to cause their wives to cheat. One of the wives came out as lesbian and nobody in the church ever inquired about whether the husband was suffering from “betrayal trauma”. Both of them left the church soon after. But whenever the husband cheats, the proverbial wagons are circled around the wife and our church makes sure the blame is correctly assigned as 100% on him.
Wrong behavior is wrong whether a woman or a man does it. I believe men do react differently than women to certain betrayals so perhaps don’t exhibit the characteristics of betrayal trauma in the same way. My experience hasn’t been that the church has rallied behind me and blamed my spouse 100%. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen but it wasn’t my experience. Infidelity from either spouse is a horrific attack on the sanctity of marriage regardless of who commits the act.
Ricky, I am so sad to hear this! In both my personal and professional experience, men absolutely DO suffer betrayal trauma after circumstances like those you describe—and it’s NOT okay that the wounds of these men are left unaddressed. A few of my colleagues are passionate advocates for men traumatized by sexual betrayal. I know that doesn’t undo the marginalization of these men from your community; I just want you to know that we as a field of peers and professionals DO care and ARE working to change that!
RickyB, I’m glad your church has perfected blame assignment 101 and knows who to blame 100%. Without a good blame policy how are you going to prevent evil sinners from coming forward to ask the church for help.
It’s wrong for people to place blame on the betrayed person, whether that person is male or female. God even showed that is was wrong in Numbers 5 when He held the unfaithful wife accountable for her own sin and declared her husband innocent on the matter. It was her sin, after all. The Lord Jesus Christ also declared in Mark 7:21-23 that various sins including adultery come from within.
Unfortunately, I was still blamed as a female and I’ve heard from plenty of other faithful wives who were blamed as well. When I found out I had hpv several years after the divorce, I realized that I never should have accepted that blame. I should have been setting boundaries to protect my own health, safety and life instead. It’s why I now try to convince betrayed spouses of either gender that they shouldn’t accept blame for their spouse’s sin.
Thank you, Janna. Such a good reminder and so necessary.
As a betrayed spouse I agree with everything on this list.
One phrase that I would add (or attach to your first point) is “this too shall pass”.
I have had multiple people utter that phrase to me over the past few years. It is a gross overgeneralization and underestimates the devastation left by betrayal trauma.
I realize that most people don’t know what to say so they utter phrases that don’t help with the best of intentions, but I do hope that people read your list and internalize the points you made. The best thing someone can do for a friend or family member experiencing betrayal trauma is to just listen.
To say “everything happens for a reason” is about as asinine as saying, “in the morning the sun will come up!”
I think one of the best things to say is, ‘I’m so, so sorry. I’m here for you. How can I support you as you walk through this?’
I have also felt betrayal trauma. One thing that made me sick that people would say to me is “men will be men” or “that’s typical” or “almost all men have had a porn issue at some point in their lives”. It made it seem like it wasn’t a big deal, but my whole world had truly just been shattered. It magnified my pain to hear things that this.
Thank you, this is helpful for yes usually a wife, but even a husband if it applied. People need support. I found this and so much on covenant eyes sooo helpful for BOTH my husband and I. Thank God for this ministry. I pray and thank God for you all frequently.
Dr. Jennifer Freyd first used the term “betrayal trauma” in 1994 while a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. It is one in a category of co-dependent conditions in that its genesis or causality depends on external actors rather than on internal psychological factors, personal behaviors, environment or genetics. For one to have this trauma, there has to be a “betrayer” which necessarily cannot be the person suffering.
The fact that there is no corollary “betrayer trauma” associated with the person or institution that did the betraying indicates that the condition pre-supposes a moral reality that modern psychology often times has dismissed in the past. This indicates that modern psychology is moving in the direction of embracing moral absolutes.
Normally, I would applaud this direction. But unfortunately, this move into moral absolutes is not going towards Judeo-Christian morality but is going into secular left-wing forms of morality where intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, wokeness, and social justice are becoming the new absolutes where no God is required and for which Judeo-Christian philosophy is being replaced.
Understandably, Christians find it easier to embrace these psychological theories that line up with their biblical sense of justice. The danger, however, is that secular theories lack the concept of grace and forgiveness for the “perpetrator.” They also discount the miraculous transformative power of the Holy Spirit that can obviate many of the recommended treatments made by the secular psychological community.
The Christian psychologists have a difficult balancing act in that are operating in two different worlds, often in conflict with one another. In one world humans are basically good and their flaws are amenable to any solution provided psychologists can figure out the right diagnosis and the right treatment. On the other side, humans were originally created good but came under the curse of Adam’s sin. This sin corrupted our very nature and makes us incapable of being made morally, spiritually or emotionally whole apart from the Holy Spirit. Even non-Christians depend on the gift of common grace to even have a chance of healing.
In the academic world, the former has dominance. Sadly, in the Christian world we have adopted so many of the intellectual trends of the secular world that we often don’t know whether something is true because the bible says so or whether it is true because modern psychology says so.