A Story of Biblical Hope
When I counsel couples who are experiencing the effects of infidelity, one of the most common things I hear them ask for is an example of a couple who has been where they are and restored their marriage. Usually the only time we hear of infidelity is when a couple gets divorced. Hence when a couple is facing this challenge, the only examples they know of are failed marriages. This compounds pain and betrayal with hopelessness.
Gary and Mona Shriver show great courage by allowing their testimony to speak into that void. Telling the story of Gary’s unfaithfulness and their marital recovery, they write a book about what restoration looks like. However, the book is more than their story. It is a book about the process of recovery which is effectively illustrated with Gary and Mona’s experience of that process.
Strengths of the Book
There is great deal to like about Unfaithful, so for space considerations I will highlight those in a bulleted format which blends my thoughts with excerpts from the book.
Honest and Real: The greatest strength of this book is how it allows a couple to see and hear their experience from an outside perspective. It gives them something to which they can say, “Yes! That sounds like us. That’s what we’re going through,” when it is hard for them to believe anyone could comprehend the magnitude of their experience. The vividness and honesty with which the Shrivers tell their story (without unnecessary details) is what I have seen God use repeatedly to give couples a first taste of hope after adultery comes to light.
“I heard Gary come in, and I heard the boys greet their father. Normal sounds. But this wasn’t a normal household. Nothing was normal anymore. I wasn’t normal. All I could do was cry and ask questions. I was obsessed. Everyone would be fine if I could just move on. They could all just live their normal little lives with all the other normal people” (p. 41). “Nothing surprised me anymore. Except me—I surprised me all the time (p. 177).”
Sequential: While acknowledging that recovering from adultery is not neat and does not follow systematic “steps,” the Shrivers do organize the book around principles or themes that have a general order. They buffer from making this a “uniform process” by telling snippets of their story at the beginning of each chapter, and the vignettes vary in the time period of their recovery addressed. Within this principled layout, I appreciated that they put forgiveness after disclosure, learning about the marriage, and mourning. Too often I find couples focus on forgiveness too early in the restoration process and it harms their ability to maintain hope that they “have what it takes.”
“Gary was not the man I had thought he was, but I was no longer sure who I was either. For that matter, who were we as a couple? Were we a couple?” (p. 24). “That night my life took on a new timetable: before the affair, during the affair, and after the affair. Everything during was now marred and distorted: our family trip to Disneyland, Gary and I going to Hawaii. I recalled snippets of conversation with both Gary and my friend and suddenly heard and saw completely different things” (p. 26). “You each will process at your own pace. Remember, the infidel began this process before the affair even began. The spouse typically begins at revelation” (p. 54).
Sensitively Biblical: While Gary and Mona make it clear that overcoming the effects of adultery is a God-sized task and they frequently teach from Scripture, they do not lead with the Bible. They walk towards their reader in compassion, identifying with their pain and confusion, and then walk the reader towards the hope of Scripture. In that sense, Unfaithful reads a bit theologically light, but I found their approach to be very effective and theologically powerful for their audience.
“We found that not recognizing the loss, not mourning, only made it worse” (p. 131). “It took us a while to identify the things we had lost, and even when we did, accepting that they were really gone was more difficult that we expected it would be. However, once we were able to name them, it seemed we had taken another step on the path of healing. We didn’t feel so stuck” (p. 132). “We had to mourn the time of Gary’s unfaithfulness, but that did not mean his faithfulness to Mona or to God could not be resumed” (p. 135).
Lay Written But Well Informed: Gary and Mona are not trained counselors; nor do they have any formal theological education. They are “regular lay people” who experienced a tragedy, saw a void in the church’s care, and studied hard in their area of need to be equipped to serve the church by serving others in the area of adultery recovery. I found them to be well read and well thought out in their subject matter. Their lack of training gave them an extra dose of humility that made them more readable than some “experts.”
“How many people knew about the affair? I didn’t know and would never know… I felt as if I were wearing a sign that read, ‘NOT GOOD ENOUGH!’” (p. 61). “God, I need a miracle here. You’re the great Healer. Heal us! Let me wake up from this nightmare. We’re sitting here breathing, and yet as surely as there is air moving in and out of my lungs, I know we’re dying. But I want to know why I have to die when the sin is not mine! I didn’t do this” (p. 75). “In my weary brain there were only three alternatives: lying to myself, being lied to, or pain. If there was no pain, then someone must be lying” (p. 98).
Experienced as Helpee and Helper: After their marriage was restored, Gary and Mona started Hope & Healing Ministries and have walked with many couples through the aftermath of adultery in a support group setting. As you read their book, you hear the voices of other couples and other experiences. This adds to the richness of a book that otherwise could become too anecdotal and based upon what worked for one couple, with one set of personalities, in one set of circumstances. With this experience the book reads like a musical with two soloists singing a song of redemption backed by a large choir of voices agreeing and filling out the redemptive song.
“She suddenly realized she had lost not only her marriage and her husband but also part of herself. There was absolutely nothing left to hang on to. She found herself completely insufficient for the first time in her life, and terror gripped her… She came to understand that she had put Gary above God. It was not that she thought Gary was God—especially now—but she looked to Gary to be her source of strength, comfort, and love” (p. 66). “Our faith grew because we found we were not enough and God was” (p. 67).”
Weaknesses of the Book
I was least comfortable with chapter four, where Gary and Mona describe the role each person plays in an affair and the influence of the pre-adultery marriage upon the choice to be unfaithful. While they avoid the common mistake (in my opinion) of blaming an affair upon strains in the pre-adultery marriage, they do give more “influence” to that variable than I prefer. My preference in counseling is to draw a stronger distinction between marital restoration (work to end and overcome the effects of the infidelity) and marital enrichment (efforts to improve upon the weaknesses in the pre-adultery marriage).
Another concern for some readers will be that Gary and Mona do not reference any authors from the biblical counseling movement, while they do quote several secular and integrated counselors. Other than in chapter four, I did not find any other aspects of their approach to be concerning. But the reader would have to decide what level of concern it raises for counselees that might utilize the secondary sources referenced in the book.
I have not been able to find a better resource for helping couples after adultery. The benefit of a redemptive testimony, well given, that draws a couple into hopeful, mutually understanding conversation (they both can find places to say, “Yes, that’s what I’m experiencing” and are willing to hear each other), is more than worth the concerns I have over chapter four and the secondary sources. I find that couples are grateful enough for a resource they can relate to and that gives them hope which increases their trust for the counseling relationship enough to navigate around those differences in counseling approaches.