Heath Lambert: I’m joined this week on the podcast with Dr. Deepak Reju, who is the pastor of biblical counseling and family ministry at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, in Washington DC, and who is also the author with Jeremy Pierre of The Pastor and Counseling, a book that equips church leaders to know how to do biblical counseling ministry. I asked Dr. Reju on the podcast this week because we want to talk about the complications that flow into a marriage after a partner has committed adultery. In particular, I want to examine the issue of how a couple is restored in their sexual relationship after one party has been unfaithful.
So, Dr. Reju, I want to just begin by asking you, what are some of the reasons that a couple might legitimately suspend their sexual relationship in the aftermath of adultery?
Dr. Deepak Reju: Well, Heath, one reason why a couple might suspend the sexual relationship in the aftermath of adultery is, the spouse that was betrayed is taking time to evaluate if he or she wants to remain in the marriage. So, Matthew 5 and 19, the traditional evangelical approach to adultery. For most evangelicals to say it’s grounds for divorce, and yet God models faithfulness even when we’re sinful against Him. So we want to encourage couples in such a difficult situation to reconcile before they rush to think about divorce. And think through what it means to recover the marriage and work hard at the process of reconciliation. 1 Corinthians 7 tells us that in marriage there are conjugal rights. And conjugal is a word that says that in marriage, a husband and wife have the privilege of physical intimacy with their spouse. In adultery, those rights are temporarily suspended as the husband or the wife considers whether they’re going to stay in the marriage anymore. In the aftermath of adultery, I’ve actually encouraged couples not to consummate their marriage again, to not have intercourse until they’ve made that decision of whether they’re going to stay committed and stay in the marriage, rather than rushing to be intimate quickly in the midst of all the confusion that they’re experiencing. That’s the first reason.
A second reason would be that trust is shattered because of the betrayal of adultery. It is expected to be hard for the spouse who’s been betrayed to make him or herself vulnerable again in the marriage right away. So the principle I’d put out is, in marriage, the sexual relationship is a sign or picture of the emotional and spiritual state of the marriage. So when the relationship is in shambles, sex is one of the first things that go. So, a simple way to say it is when there’s no trust in a marriage, there’s usually no sex. Sex is the ultimate act of making yourself vulnerable or exposed to someone else and you don’t naturally make yourself vulnerable to anyone, but only those who you trust in those and those who are committed to your good. God’s intention for sex is to happen in the most safest of all places which is marriage, and you find the security and the safety of a permanent commitment in marriage, and that’s the place where Scripture traces out in the midst of that covenant between a man and a woman in which you see that long-term commitment, that’s where sex is intended to be.
So sometimes out of fear of the future, self-righteous indignation, or just simply a lustful craving, the adulterer pressures the spouse who they’ve betrayed to have sex again. Or sometimes a spouse who was betrayed, despite the pain or confusion or anger will have sex with the adulterer out of a deep-seated fear of losing their spouse or just some other reason. But the most natural and loving thing I think to do is to wait to have sex and not rush into it right after the adultery. That’s two reasons why they might temporarily suspend, I’m sure there are more, but that gives us some sense of why some couples would choose to wait.
Heath Lambert: What about concerns about sexually transmitted diseases? Does that figure into this equation at all?
Dr. Deepak Reju: Yeah, that’s a natural and important concern. This is where we’re going to ask the adulterer to go get tested and for them to start having a real conversation based on what they find. You know, if there is something that the adulterous has picked up, it’s a natural consequence of their foolish choices. And this is then going to affect the betrayed spouse and make hard decisions that they’re going to have. Now, I’m not going to tell them not to have sex, but there are implications that most couples are looking at and never imagined actually having to face in their marriage. So at that point, we’re deep in the realm of wisdom and prudence in starting to advise a couple to think through what they do from that point on. Especially if the test comes back positive and they’ve picked up some kind of STD or something else that’s now going to affect the marriage.
Heath Lambert: How would a couple during a season of suspending their sexual relationship, how would they know when it’s time to reconnect sexually?
Dr. Deepak Reju: So, if we want to take the two reasons I mentioned in the first question, you want to build off of that. So reason number one is that the betrayed spouse is evaluating whether they want to remain in the marriage. Well, if the spouse who was betrayed decides to stay in the marriage and commits themself to the process of reconciliation, then I want them to be intimate at whatever point they feel they’re ready to consummate the marriage. Sex builds unity between a husband and wife. It’s a means in which God uses to help foster the oneness of marriage. So, in that sense, while we’re helping the couple to recover their relationship, any way in which they decide to be intimate with each other turns out to be an ally to the counselor in the process of recovery. But sex or really any intimacy is a means the Lord uses to foster unity and oneness with the spouse. In adultery, the betrayal creates a deep division between the husband and wife and sex can help rebuild that oneness. But sex alone can’t rebuild a marriage.
So, I had a friend who would say, “you can’t fix a marriage by taking off your clothes but by opening up your mouth and communicating with your spouse.” That quote has stuck with me for years because I think he’s right. Some people rush to sex feeling like somehow it’ll cover over the mistakes they’ve made, and yet, unless they take the time to do the really hard work of getting at the weaknesses and the problems in the marriage that have now been unleashed because of the adultery—that has probably been hidden there and they haven’t been seriously dealing with—unless they start taking the time to deal with that stuff seriously, sex is going to feel meaningless.
The second reason I had given was that trust is shattered because of the betrayal, you’d expect it would be hard for the spouse who’s been betrayed to make themself vulnerable again. So, my tweetable phrase was, “no trust, no sex.” So we just flip that over and we say you’d expect the opposite to be true, “as trust returns, so also the desire for intimacy will naturally follow after that.” As a pastor, my focus is often helping the couple rebuild the relationship and I put most of my energy there, and usually, as you see the relationship repaired and rebuilt over time, then you often see sex follow after that. So as trust is rebuilt, then you see intimacy becomes part of the conversation naturally without having to force it. So let’s say the couple has not consummated the marriage again and they stay committed to reconciling and rebuilding the marriage and over time, they’re doing the hard work of recovery. Usually, there’s been an occasion or two where I suddenly realized after we’ve done weeks or months of rebuilding their marriage, “oh, this seems like a good time for them to start—if they haven’t already—making sure that they’re being intimate again. So I’ll go in and ask them, “have you guys had sex?” And every once in a while they’ll say, “oh, we’re waiting for you to tell us when we can.” And I’m like, really? I know I have pastoral authority, but I don’t want authority over any of those kinds of things! If you’re ready, then go for it. Stop listening or waiting for me to tell you when to do that!
There was this one occasion where there was this couple that was separated and we were doing the hard work of rebuilding their marriage and things got a lot better. And I had that moment, I thought, “oh, I hope they’re being intimate again. I’m going to ask them next session.” And I did ask them, “so how are you doing? Are you guys being intimate with each other? Have you had sex?” And they were like high school kids on the couch giggling suddenly. And it turned out that the prior session had gone so well, they went and got a hotel room because they couldn’t resist each other anymore. I love that. They don’t need my permission. Once they’ve rebuilt the trust then you see the intimacy, the desire for it, naturally come back. So in terms of my energy, if I can focus on helping them rebuild a relationship, rather than forcing that conversation of when to have sex, if they need to have sex, or if it’s okay to have sex right after they face the crisis of adultery. Building off those two reasons, it gives us some sense of when they can start reconnecting.
Heath Lambert: Well, that’s helpful. And you just told a story about a couple that was very enthusiastic about being restored to one another sexually. But for some couples, it will not be that way. For some couples, it’s going to be awkward and difficult. What are some of the difficulties that a couple might anticipate as they come together again for the first time? And what are some ways that they can respond to those?
Dr. Deepak Reju: Yeah, so some of the questions we want to consider as counselors are how their sexual relationship was previously if they were struggling in it. We want to have honest conversations to help them think about where they’ve struggled with intimacy and what it could look like. Especially because the culture pours so many bad influences into even Christian’s minds in terms of what sex should be, we want to help them figure out what a godly, redemptive, healthy, biblical picture of what sex is according to Scripture, and how God has the most beautiful picture of what intimacy in marriage could look like. So, I want to first check to make sure that they have the right understanding of what God intends for them and realign that. I also want to be really sensitive to the one who was betrayed to be vulnerable again. They’ll be self-protective, it’ll be hard to take down the walls, and they’ll be scared to be vulnerable again because they’re going to be scared they can be hurt all over again. And that’s hard to walk through, especially if sex is the most vulnerable thing you could ever do. So patiently and gently encouraging them to take the steps. And that may mean then that you get a hotel room like that couple. It might mean helping them get on the on-ramp and go slowly up that on-ramp in taking steps towards building intimacy as trust is rebuilt. But much as the adulterer works hard over the course of time to show that they can earn the trust of their spouse again, that’s going to play hugely into whether a spouse is willing to be vulnerable again. That’s the hard work of the adulterer; showing that the Gospel can transform them in the midst of the mess that was created, that paves the way for rebuilding the trust and then rebuilding the opportunity for being intimate. But, for some couples that could be months, for some couples that can be much longer because of the pain that was evoked by the adultery and the process can just be slower in which case, as a counselor and the adulterer, there has to be a lot of patience in that process.
I’m a big fan of making sure that the Titus 2 approach is involved, and that we have both men and women counselors involved in the process. So I’ve got several biblical counselors who are on staff with me at the church who work with me, both men and women. If one of the female counselors on our staff says, “she’s not ready yet,” and gives me good reasons, well we’re going to work in marital counseling, the four of us to work towards that and take as much time as we need.