The Path Back From an Affair
About the Guest
Nancy Houston, a licensed counselor, encourages those involved in marital infidelity due to porn or a sexual affair, that healing is possible if you're willing to do the hard work. The journey begins by humbling yourself and admitting to your spouse that you've done the wrong thing, and then hearing your spouse's anger and disgust. While you may feel relief, your spouse feels betrayed, but now the grief work can begin.
Nancy HoustonNancy Houston is a sex therapist, leadership coach, and licensed professional counselor. She is a director for the John Townsend Leadership Program in New York City and the Dallas Fort Worth Area and an adjunct professor and fellow at the Townsend Institute at Concordia University. Before returning to private practice, Nancy was on staff at Gateway Church as an associate pastor in the Marriage and Family Department and founded the Intimate Life Department. She is an author, speaker, and teacher....more
Nancy Houston encourages those involved in marital infidelity due to porn or a sexual affair, that healing is possible if you’re willing to do the hard work.
The Path Back From an Affair
Bob: The news of an extramarital affair can send shockwaves through a marriage. Nancy Houston says, for the spouse who learns of the affair, their world is rocked.
Nancy: We have to realize that the other spouse is going to have trauma brain. They are going to be traumatized by this news. They are going to feel like: “I thought we had a pretty good marriage,” and “Do I even know this person I’m married to? Will I ever trust this person again? Was our marriage a total sham?” You know, we have to remember to not throw the baby out with the bath water—but to know that hope and healing is possible—but it’s going to be a journey.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, May 9th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How does a couple rebuild a marriage after there’s been an affair? We’ll talk with Nancy Houston about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are some couples, who are listening to us today, who have—they’ve experienced an explosion going off in their marriage, where at one moment they thought everything was fine, and a minute later, it’s like ruins have come—and that’s when a husband or wife confesses to infidelity in a marriage relationship. Those moments are pivotal moments in terms of what that relationship is going to be, going forward.
Dennis: Yes; and this book—the bestselling Book in history—and our listener’s thought I was going to introduce our guest right now. [Laughter]
Bob: —and her book? [Laughter]
Dennis: I’m introducing God to the audience—it’s the Bible. This book has, from cover to cover, a story of broken people finding redemption.
Dennis: We’re going to talk about that today with Nancy Houston, the author of a new book called Love and Sex. Nancy, welcome back.
Nancy: Thank you.
Dennis: It’s been a privilege to have you with us talking about how pornography / how affairs are impacting—not just our culture—but the Christian community / the local church. You, for a number of years, led groups in the local church to help couples recover from pornography addictions / extramarital affairs.
Let’s go to what was Bob talking about: “Where should a couple go and how should they find healing in the area of their spouse having an extramarital affair?”
Nancy: Thankfully, there are some good resources for help. I think, first, we have to realize that, when there’s been disclosure that somebody in the marriage has had an affair or somebody in the marriage has been receiving their sexual gratification from pornography—
—we have to realize that the other spouse is going to have trauma brain. They are going to be traumatized by this news. They are going to feel like: “I thought we had a pretty good marriage,” and “Do I even know this person I’m married to? Will I ever trust this person again? Was our marriage just a total sham?” You know, we have to remember not to throw the baby out with the bath water—but to know that hope and healing is possible—but it’s going to be a journey.
Whoever had the affair or has been doing pornography, they are going to have to be ready to, really humbly—you know, have a humble heart, first of all—you know, like: “I’ve done the wrong thing. I’ve really hurt you by this.” Then, be willing to hear the other person’s anger, their disappointment, maybe their disgust. They are going to want to ask questions; they are going to want to know information.
I always say to that spouse, who has been cheated on: “Make sure you think, at least, for 24 hours before you start asking your spouse questions. I think you do need answers; but remember—those answers will stay in your head; you may replay them in your head for a very, very long time. So be discreet about what you’re asking the spouse—what kind of information,”—you know, sometimes, they want details.
Nancy: Oftentimes, you’re going to need details; but really specific details aren’t going to be very helpful—they’re just going to be more hurtful.
Bob: Why do people need details? What are they looking for when they start asking these questions: “How many times has it been?” and “Where did it happen?”—what are they trying to get to there?
Nancy: I think—one thing—their brain is in trauma. The left logical brain helps the right emotional brain. The left logical brain is looking for facts, reasons, and logic—like: “What happened?” “Where did you do that?” “How many times did that happen?” “Why did you do that?” “How long have you been looking at porn?” “When did this start?” “How many times have you cheated on me?”
That’s the left brain trying to make sense of all these emotions, because there’s going to be every emotion. It’s like—if we put your brain on a rug and pulled the rug out—and so your brain is going to be spinning and spiraling. Both of you are going to need help to heal and recover.
I’ve worked with couples, where, “You know, we’re just not doing great.” “Tell me your history together.” “Well, she had an affair 20 years ago and like we got over it.” I’m like, “No; you didn’t,” or you know, “He had an affair 10 years ago, but that’s not our problem.” I’m like, “It might be. Did you really grieve deeply and profoundly?”—because grief work recalibrates us.
Sometimes, in the world we live in, we just want to get over things—
—you know, it’s like: “I forgive you. You know, it is fine. We’ll just move on,” or “I’m done with you, and I’m going to move on. I’ll just cruise separately from you.” We forget that there’s a lot of grief work to do when there has been something traumatic happen in the marriage.
Dennis: Nancy, the person who is confessing, they can experience an emotion called relief—
Dennis: —that their sin they’ve been hiding is now out in the open. They don’t realize they have just dumped a dump truck. Like Bob described—it’s an atomic bomb that’s gone off in the other person’s life. They’re [confessor’s] feeling relief; the other person is feeling the betrayal.
Nancy: Oh! They are devastated!—absolutely; you are so right. I’m so glad you said that, Dennis; because you’ve been keeping these secrets for years and, suddenly, it’s like: “Whew! I’ve got that off my chest. I feel so much better! What’s wrong with you, honey? Why can’t you get over it?” She’s like, “You have altered my entire world.”
Bob: Part of that altering of your world is: “Where I thought I was safe, I no longer feel safe; where I thought I was valued, I no longer feel valued; where I thought I was protected, I don’t feel protected.” You need to get in and understand what the impact of unfaithfulness has been. It’s not just “I had sex with somebody else,” but “I took what I had promised, and I violated every part of that promise so that now what you thought you could depend on, the ground has shifted.” You’re weightless; right?
Nancy: Yes; it’s like in 1Corinthians 6—the Apostle Paul says sex is way more than skin on skin; it’s a spiritual mystery. It is, because it is something that goes deep into our souls. If we really understood that—you know, we live in a world that treats sex so casually—but there is nothing, nothing casual about sex at all. It is profound; it is deep; it is life-altering. I think we need to think way more deeply about this topic.
Getting back to the road to recovery for any of these couples—whether it’s something like, “I hate sex, and I don’t want to have sex,” or “My spouse has had an affair,” or “My spouse is looking at porn,” or “My spouse is flirting with somebody else,”—you know, it’s good to know that there is a healing pathway, but it is going to be a healing journey. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to require a lot of being humble with each other—of talking things through—of: “What’s gone wrong, here, in our marriage?” “What’s gone wrong in our sexual lives together?” “What baggage did you bring in?” “What baggage did I bring in?”
A lot of times, I hear wives say, “I hate sex!” I’m like: “Okay; well, there is a reason you hate sex. Let’s call a time out on sex, and let’s kind of figure out why is it broken—what happened.” Sometimes, she’ll have some sexual baggage from her growing up years. Sometimes, he is looking at a lot of porn and acting it out on her.
I had a woman, the other day, tell me, “My husband and I have sex frequently; but if I won’t have sex with him, then he’ll just go look at porn and take care of himself,” and “He goes to strip clubs.” She said: “I still have sex with him, but I never look him in the face. I have to turn my face away from him.”
You know, sex was made to be, eye to eye / person to person; you know? It wasn’t meant to be this removed experience. I’m like: “You know, that really hurts my heart for you—that that’s how sex is for you. I would encourage you guys, ‘Call a time out and really get some serious help for his sexual addiction before you are going to really enjoy sex the way God meant it to be, where it’s very personable.’”
Dennis: Nancy, I’ve had this thought a couple of times in our conversation and just feel the need to ask it. There have to be thousands of men, listening to this broadcast, who‘ve had no idea how their dabbling with pornography impacts their wives. I’ve heard you, in just the last few minutes, you’ve equated that with affairs. I don’t think most men view that as a lack of faithfulness. Comment, if you would, on that.
Nancy: Now, we treat porn so casually—like: “It’s totally normal,” and “What man doesn’t look at it?” And I just think: “Aw, that’s not good for you; it’s not good for your marriage; it’s not good for your kids; it’s not good for anybody.” You know, I think porn hurts the men who look at it—and the women.
I think that, ideally, in marriage, we made a covenant to have one sexual partner. Porn is receiving sexual gratification—even if they are images—there are still people on the other side of the screen. Whoever is looking at porn is still receiving social gratification from someone or something that isn’t his or her spouse.
Bob: I think—whenever I think about this, I think about Jesus talking to the Pharisees. He said: “You’ve always said, ‘Don’t be unfaithful; don’t have affairs,’ but I say to you, anybody that looks on a woman to lust—he has been unfaithful.”
Bob: Here’s Jesus, saying, “Looking at pornography,”—and this was long before there were magazines and screens—but He’s saying to look with lust on someone else is a level of unfaithfulness that can be equated to adultery. Now, we hear that and go, “It’s not the same”; but the root is the same; isn’t it?
Nancy: You know, it is. Here’s the thing—we’re all sexual creatures by God’s design. It’s normal to see a beautiful human—to go: “Oh! God, there’s a beautiful human being that You made. They are probably somebody’s daughter,” or “…son,” or “…husband,” or “…wife. God, You did good,” and you just kind of let it go.
You know, we have these automatic sexual arousal systems that are just automatic. I think, sometimes, Christians get under a false barrel about that, so to speak—like: “Oh! I’m so bad!” “Oh, I’m feeling this sexual response to something that’s—I’m so wrong,” “I’m so bad,” “I’m so dirty,” “I’m so shameful.”
I think it is way healthier when we can just go: “You know, God, You made me a sexual creature. I’m going to have an automatic response to some—to just sexual things, even if it’s a beautiful person. I’m just going—‘I’m just going to let that go.’” Then we can be healthier.
It’s when we start going down that pathway that: “Oh! What would it be like to…” That’s just such a slippery slope for men and for women, and it’s just a dangerous path to go down.
Bob: So, if you got a phone call today from somebody who said, “Okay; my husband confessed last night he’s been looking at pornography for 10 years,” or “My wife told me, last night, that she’s been unfaithful,”—
—what do we do? Step one, in that process for that couple, is what?
Nancy: I’d say to really be compassionate towards each other, especially the one who has done the cheating—to be humble / to be: ‘I am so sorry. I have hurt you so deeply. I’m going to get help for this.”
You know, there’s a lot of great programs nowadays. I was a part of the Conquer Series, which is a film series with workbooks, where men can get into groups and start processing some of their sexual infidelities/pornography issues. I had one man I worked with who—I’m telling you—this man came in and said he had been addicted to porn for 20 years: “I have tried everything. I go to church all the time, I read my Bible all the time. I fast; I pray.” I’m like, “I know you’ve tried really hard; haven’t you?” He’s like, “Yes; I have.” I’m like: “Okay; we need to dig in. Tell me about your childhood.”
He grew up with so much trauma, and abuse, and neglect. What brought him into therapy was—he solicited a prostitute. She was an undercover cop, and he got busted. His wife had to come and bail him out of jail, so he started telling her. Of course, she was traumatized; because he then started pouring out his sexual history that she had no idea of. You know, we just—they got into therapy; they got into a support groups; he got into a men’s group; she got into a women’s group. He got into another group, where he worked through his childhood trauma and abuse.
I tell you what—this couple now, every year on Valentine’s, they do a big marriage party, where they have a dinner and dancing; because they want to celebrate marriage—because they never thought they would make it. He was probably one of the most traumatized people I have ever worked with. I look at their marriage now—and they tell their story, and now they help hundreds of other couples—because they walked through, but it was like a five-year process.
Nancy: They did a lot of work. I know there were a lot times they were discouraged and they wanted to quit. I’d say: “Just don’t quit. Just don’t quit.”
Bob: And the person, who thinks they hear about that pathway and they go, “Five years of hard work, and emotional pain, and bringing up the past and stuff I’m going to have to confront—I would rather just take the exit and go find something safer.”
Dennis: [Laughter] I’m laughing because isn’t that how we, as human beings, want to do it? We want to find the fantasy: “Don’t give me reality. Don’t give me a real relationship with a real person.”
Bob: As if this exit is going to somehow to be safer than—
Bob: —than pressing into the pain.
Dennis: You’ve got to figure it out: “Where you’re going to end up?”—right?
Nancy: You know, in the leadership work I do—we talk about the character structure, which is all about: “How are we doing attachment? How are we really open to attaching to others?” “How are we doing that piece of self-differentiation—owning my own life?” And the third one is: “How am I integrating negative realities?”
For this couple—if they decide: “We’re not going to integrate these negative realities. We will either stuff it all down, pretend it never happened, and ignore it; or we’re going to walk away from each other,”—you know, it’s going to pop up / it’s going to rear its ugly head. You can find a new spouse, but the same issues are there.
I know, for me, I was born and raised in Oregon. When I moved to Texas, I think I kind of hoped: “Oh, that’s all there; and it’s not coming with me.” Well, guess what?
Bob: It comes with you.
Nancy: Wherever I go, there I am! [Laughter]
Nancy: You know what I mean?
Nancy: New spouse, new environment, new state, new home, new car—you know, it doesn’t fix any of it!
Nancy: We’ve got to deal with ourselves and integrate those negative realities.
Dennis: New paint on the barn doesn’t change the barn; does it?
Bob: Let me turn the corner and just ask this question; because I think a lot of couples, who if we just asked them: “How’s your marriage?” “How’s your sexual relationship?” “How are you doing?”—they would say: “It’s okay. I think we’re doing okay.” What is okay? What’s normal? What’s healthy? What should a couple be thinking: “This is what God intended for our intimate life to be like”?
Nancy: I’ve learned over the years—because I get asked that question all the time—when somebody asks, “What’s normal?” I always ask them back, “Tell me what that means to you,” because for some couples it means—like porn, and strip clubs, and swinging is normal; you know? I would say that those things are outside of what, I think, is what God desires the best for us.
Bob: I think that’s pretty clear.
Dennis: I think so.
Nancy: So I think we have to do a far better job of educating. You know, a lot of sexual problems can be resolved through good sexual education; right?
But if a couple says to me: “Oh! Our sex life is good; it’s okay,”—
—I’m like: “Let’s—I think God has way more for you than that. I would love for us to do the work, where you come in and go: ‘Our sex life is great! We are so connected, and we have so much fun together. We have learned how to just explore, have fun, laugh, and be deeply connected,’ and to make sex really an expression of making love—of saying, ‘I love you with my body.’”
Bob: So are you saying—if a couple says, “Our relationship / our sexual relationship is okay,”—don’t try to fix the sexual relationship; try to fix the love relationship?
Nancy: I’d say, “Always work on connecting.” You know, it’s so true! I’ll say to men sometimes: “You know, make love to her heart before you make love to her body, and she’ll be way more open to making love to your body. You know, if you will emotionally connect with her—that goes a long way with women.”
I remember, when I was super young, I went to this Bible study. The Bible teacher, Carol Wahl, was talking about how her husband had said something to her that really ticked her off. He had gone to bed; and she was just downstairs, fuming and talking to the Lord about what a jerk he was. [Laughter] The Lord said to her, “Why don’t you go upstairs and make love to him?” She’s like, “Really?!” He is like: “Yes! Why don’t you do that?” And so she did.
I’ve never forgot that story. I love that story because, sometimes, we women—we think, “Well, all the ducks have to be lined up—everything has to be just so.” I’m like: “You know? It doesn’t have to be.”
Dennis: I want to talk about when it isn’t just so, because a lot of life has storms—there’s illnesses. Some couples just need to exhale and go: “Take a look at where you are at right now.
Nancy: That’s right.
Dennis: “Maybe you two need to go out on a date—
Nancy: Yes; yes!
Dennis: —and have some fun together and get out from under the cloud.
Nancy: You know, Ron and I took your advice. We went to some of your marriage conferences, and they were so great! We had four little boys / busy lives, but Friday night was date night.
I remember—sometimes, at the end of that night, I’m like, “Oh, I remember why I married you,” [Laughter] because, you know, sometimes you lose—you know, it gets busy—you lose track of each other. I think, to have a great sex life, you have to be very purposeful.
I’d just like all of our listeners to think about: “You know, at the end of your life, if something on your tombstone was written about what kind of sexual person you were, what would you want it to say? ‘Were you generous?’ ‘Were you kind?’ ‘Were you loving?’ ‘Were you tender?’ ‘Did you connect?’ ‘Were you giving?’—or you know—‘Were you selfish and thoughtless?’ So: ‘What kind of person do you want to be?’”
Dennis: You don’t know this, no doubt, Nancy; but I like to ask questions that people have never been asked before. You just asked us one! [Laughter]
Bob, have you ever been asked that question before?
Bob: No, I—I—
Dennis: I’m not asking you to answer it either, by the way. [Laughter]
I would encourage our listeners, though, to get a copy of Nancy’s book, Love and Sex and then sign up for a Weekend to Remember®. Nancy just said “…four children,”—it has its own set of challenges—it means you need to recalibrate, and revisit romance, and just have a little fun together.
Bob: It may not be easy, but it’s important. That’s why we’d encourage you to get some time and get away for a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway.
Get a copy of Nancy’s book and read through it together, as a couple. Take a chapter—maybe if it’s just a few pages at night before you go to bed—talk about this area of your marriage. Again, the book is called Love and Sex: A Christian Guide to Healthy Intimacy. You can order it from us, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
There’s information about upcoming Weekend to Remember marriage getaways available online, as well, at FamilyLifeToday.com.
If you have any questions call us: 1-800-FL-TODAY. You can order the book over the phone, or find out more about a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway and get registered when you call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F”’ as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
A special thanks today to all of you who helped make our conversation with Nancy Houston possible this week. Those of you who support this ministry—you make it possible for hundreds of thousands of people, every week, to receive practical biblical help and hope for their marriages and for their families—not just here in the U.S.—but around the world. We have people listening to FamilyLife Today,online, in every corner of the world. You make that possible as a supporter of the ministry of FamilyLife Today, especially those of you who are Legacy Partners, who give monthly. Your monthly support is critical. It’s the backbone of all that we do, here, at FamilyLife®.
During the month of May, our team is hoping and praying that we might see 300 new Legacy Partners added this month. You break that down—that’s just six families in each of the 50 states where FamilyLife Today is heard. Would you be one of those six in your state to call or go online and become a Legacy Partner? When you do, your Legacy Partner donation is going to be matched, dollar for dollar, every month for the next 12 months. We’ve had some friends of the ministry, who have come along and said they will match those donations, up to a total of $500,000!
And if you become a Legacy Partner this month, we will send you, as a thank-you gift, a certificate for a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. You can use that for yourself, give it to your adult children, give it to someone you know is getting married as a wedding gift, or share it with somebody you know who could use a getaway—maybe even watch their kids as they get away for the weekend. Again, that’s our gift to you when you sign on as one of our new Legacy Partners, here, in the month of May. Find out more when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY—
—the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-358-6329—1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Now, tomorrow, we’re going to hear about two Old Testament characters, Hosea and Gomer. They have—I think it’s safe to say—they have a rocky marriage; right? Bryan Loritts tells us what we can learn for our marriage from what happened with Hosea and Gomer. We’ll hear that tomorrow. I hope you can tune in.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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