Dora* sat before me with tears in her eyes as she told me she had been married for 5 years when she began the first of her 3 adulterous relationships. Each of these affairs lasted only a few months and ended without incident. She repented of her sin more than 6 years ago and said she put it all behind her. Dora has been a faithful wife since then, and has been living in submission to the gospel. She wants to know if she should divulge her past adultery to her husband. Things have improved in her marriage over the last few years, and she does not want the troubles of her past infidelity to ruin their future.
What would you tell her? Dora’s desire to continue her secret is understandable, but is it biblical? She does not want to hurt her husband, and telling him the truth of her infidelity will certainly hurt him! It is also important to note that she has repented and is no longer involved in adultery. When she confessed her sin to God, He forgave her and He has thrown her sin as far as the east is from the west (Psalm, 103:12; 1 John 1:9). Does this mean Dora does not have to confess her adultery to her husband?
A situation like this demands much wisdom from a counselor, because there is a great deal at stake for this couple. When Dora married, she made a covenant before God with her husband to be faithful to him for the rest of her life. She no longer belonged to herself, but she became one with her husband (1 Cor. 7:4; Gen. 2:24). Adultery broke that covenant. I believe that it is vital that Dora confess her sin to her husband, even though it took place years ago. She broke the marriage covenant she made before God. Sexual immorality does not only affect her; it affects him too. She has been living a lie and has sinned against her own body and that of her husband because they are one flesh (Col. 3:9-10; 1 Cor. 6:18). She has defiled their marriage bed (cf. Heb. 13:4).
The Bible says there is freedom to divorce the unfaithful spouse (Matt. 19:9). I suspect fear of divorce may be the primary reason Dora wants to keep it secret. It is normal for her to want to continue to hide her sin, since sin hates exposure! While Dora is very afraid to tell her husband the truth, she must set her fear aside for the sake of righteousness (Ps. 66:18; Prov. 28:13).
Even though in Christ her sin debt has been paid, she still has to deal with the consequences of her sin from the smallest “white lie” to the great abomination of her adultery. There is a great risk her husband might be very angry not only about the adultery but also at her ability to keep this a secret from him for several years! He will realize the trust he has placed in her has been violated, and years ago at that! He may wonder what else she has kept secret from him, and this may cause a cascade of problems for the couple. Once the question of trust comes into play, especially considering the number of years that have elapsed, this could be disastrous for Dora. Her husband may demand an accounting of numerous areas of her past life, question many things about her behavior and actions, and worst of all, he might be so wounded by this revelation that he will not move forward. What reason does he have to believe her to be faithful and honest now? He may doubt every word she says! Dora became so accomplished at deception that she was able to commit adultery several times! Even more troubling, she has been able to live with the results within her heart and mind.
Part of the counseling process would be determining if the sinful heart issues that led Dora to be unfaithful have been addressed biblically in order to prevent any further infidelity and aid in reconciliation. Any time there is unfaithfulness, a wise counselor will realize that the act of adultery is at the end of the line of sinful thoughts, beliefs, and desires. Dora’s adultery was the result of her self-worshiping heart that was focused on how she could feel better, be wanted, be sensual, and so on. It was all about her. The adulterous heart is supremely selfish because there is no consideration of the spouse at all.
When Dora’s husband learns the truth, he may be very angry and not know what to do. I would urge him to see his pastor immediately and get some objective counsel. I would plead with him to forgive Dora and move forward (Luke 17:3). His trust in her will be shattered for a while, and it is possible he may not recover emotionally. A man who has been cheated on (more than once), and then lied to for a number of years would have little reason to trust his wife. I would expect him to question everything she says for a long time.
There surely will be a long road of counseling for a couple when one person has been unfaithful, but it does not have to mean the end of the marriage.
*Dora is a compilation character and does not represent one person living or dead. Any resemblance to an actual person or situation is purely coincidental.