When South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford recently confessed to a longtime liaison with a woman in Argentina, he cited his violation of God's law, acknowledged the spiritual adviser who helped him see the light and expressed his intention to reconcile with his wife.
First lady Jenny Sanford said she would forgive her husband's infidelity, but it would be up to him to save their 20-year marriage and regain the trust of his family.
But not all Christian counselors, clergy and spiritual advisers push couples to patch up their marriage after adultery. Some adhere to Scriptures that automatically free the couple to divorce after such a breach of trust. Others turn to verses that stress seeking and granting forgiveness. And many ministers don't reach for the Bible unless the couple specifically seeks that guidance.
"Divorce is a competing moral concern over and against the infidelity, according to some readings of the text," said James Furrow, a professor of marital and family therapy at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. "How that reconciliation goes is influenced by how that theology is understood."
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Many clergy are ill-equipped to navigate the emotional impact that infidelity can have on both spouses, experts say. But even within the burgeoning field of Christian counselors who blend theology, psychology and therapy, there are diverse approaches to finding a resolution and rebuilding a commitment.
Roman Catholic priests discourage divorce, saying couples who sever their marriage covenant commit adultery. Many evangelical Christians tend to focus on healing the rift and mending the marriage as they believe the Bible sanctions. Meanwhile, many mainline Protestants rely on Bible verses that serve to strengthen the individuals involved.
"I do not go there (counsel couples hurt by infidelity) unless I feel the client has invited me to enter into their spiritual journey," said the Rev. Carol Findon, a pastoral counselor for the United Methodist Church in Naperville, Ill. "I don't throw the verses over their head and pound them down with the Bible. They take the lead. If they give me the impression that they are searching for an understanding, then I will go there."
Though many theologians say the Bible champions marriage as an institution worth defending, Matthew 19:9 is the so-called exception clause. In that verse, Jesus tells his disciples "that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."
Furrow said many believe that verse justifies divorce in cases of infidelity, but he prefers a more nuanced view.
"Rather than just sort of saying 'I have biblical grounds. You're out of here,' a more thoughtful reflection would place that in a larger context of grace and community of redemption and restoration whenever possible," Furrow said.
But that's not easy in the aftermath of such a devastating betrayal when a roller coaster of emotions influences every decision large and small. Pastors are often at a loss when a person for whom they have great concern has made a moral lapse against another person whose worldview has been shattered by that lapse. "The pastor is caught in between," Furrow said. "They're often times first responders in times of moral crisis. ... The kind of training that a pastor has for dealing with the impact and the revelation of an extramarital affair is wanting. ... For someone not trained to deal with the intensity of that emotion, that's one of the challenges."
James Quandt, a licensed clinical social worker and evangelical Christian with a practice in Oak Park, Ill., said that intense pain often gets in the way of reconciliation. He lets his clients set the agenda. When both the husband and wife want to make up, Quandt said he tries to help them tap their capacity to forgive.
"When clients want to work toward reconciliation, then I as a Christian counselor can try to help them with that," he said.
"It's a huge betrayal when there is infidelity. The pain must be indescribable. ... There's no formula. There's no timetable."
But the Rev. Bob Rohrich, a Vincentian priest and marriage counselor at Sacred Heart parish in Palos Hills, Ill., said he does set a timetable and insists that couples never bring up the infidelity again.
"I usually demand there's a given time when you have to put it behind you," said Rohrich, who has six or seven clients currently coping with infidelity. Within six to nine months, all is usually forgiven, he said, and in a majority of the cases the marriage is stronger in the end.