Repentance isn’t an event, it’s a change of heart. But it is demonstrated in concrete ways, with a level of consistency, over an extended period of time. Repenting of an adulterous relationship is more than just admitting what you’ve done and saying you’re sorry. Repentance will be demonstrated in humility, accountability, and responsibility.
Repentance after adultery will start with confession. You absolutely must confess to your spouse if you have cheated on them. In most cases the betrayed spouse knows something is wrong. They have been sensing the distance or the erratic behavior for some time. They know there is a secret, sometimes they even suspect adultery, but they are reluctant to believe it. And because you have often lied, manipulated, or twisted facts they begin to feel as though they are crazy, that they are wrong to suspect you of something. You have made your partner live in a false reality by keeping your secrets. You must confess in order to have any real hope of restoring your marriage. Furthermore, your spouse deserves the right to know how their trust has been violated and needs to know what has happened in order to process the marriage rightly and work towards forgiveness. Lastly, you must confess because without it you cannot personally grow past your sin (James 5:16). You must confess, but how you confess is exceedingly important.
Confessions are not simply disclosures. Yes, you must tell your spouse what you have done, who you have done it with, when, how long it has been going on, and how frequently. But confession is not just detail. Confession is about communicating the attitudes of your heart, some level of awareness of how you have betrayed them, and taking full responsibility for your sin and the consequences that may come from it. Confessions that justify, minimize, or defend are not legitimate confessions. It is important that you think carefully about how you confess your sins because the wrong type of confession can do more damage than good. I recommend getting guidance before you confess to your spouse.
Repentance doesn’t stop after confession though. It is only the firs step. There will be many lengthy and upsetting conversations moving forward. It will require of you continued humility. You must be willing to hear the same questions, same frustrations, and same disappoints again and again as your spouse tries to process all that has happened. You will need to give the same answers again and again, clarifying detail, owning your sin, and acknowledging the hurt you have caused. You will not want to have these same conversations, but your spouse will likely need to have them. You must consider the needs of your spouse as more significant than your own (Phil. 2:3). While confession is part of your healing process, and you are moving towards change, it is likely that you have been thinking about this issue for a long time. It is fresh news, however, to your spouse. They will need at least the same amount of time as you to process the information and adjust to the shattering of his/her world. Humble people recognize this and do not demand a more rapid processing than is natural to the individual and the nature of the offense.
Repentance will also require accountability. Your life after adultery must become an open book. You must be willing to give others complete access to your phone, email, internet activity, and schedule. Your secret life needs to be dismantled and revealed, and you need to give others permission to invade that world and track your movements. An unwillingness to be accountable to others will look like more secrecy. Your spouse will be the most obvious “accountability partner,” and you will need to give them permission to check on you, and ask you questions. But they should not be your only accountability partner. You should be willing to involve another person and your spouse should have permission to speak with them, asking for updates at random. This is important because you have already demonstrated a willingness to deceive your partner, they need to learn to trust you via a third-party mediator. Demonstrate your awareness of your sinful track record and your sinful potential by submitting to supervision from others. As you grow the supervision will become less necessary, but at the start it will be a crucial means of demonstrating that you are repentant.
Finally, you will need to demonstrate your repentance through responsibility. You must own all that you can of the restoration process. This means your spouse should not have to ask you to be more engaged, to share what is going on, or to give updates. It means you should take the initiative in your growth, in your marriage, and in communicating love. If they have to wait on you, prompt you, or coerce you into doing things to improve the marriage, demonstrate your repentance, or go to counseling then it will not convince them that you are truly interested in change. You must take the lead in seeking help and working hard. You must do this especially when they are angry, resentful, or disengaged. If they appear to be giving up, which is not uncommon, you must be all the more diligent and consistent, this will communicate more than you realize. You must be the hardest worker in your marriage if you hope to rebuild trust and communicate repentance.
Repentance is a lifelong process that is demonstrated in concrete ways, with a level of consistency. Recovery of your marriage will not happen as an event, it will not happen quickly and simply. You must be diligent, persistent, and patient. Your spouse will need time to process, adjust, and heal. Repentance will evidence itself in fruit (Matt. 3:8). 2 Corinthians 7 delineates the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow. The latter reveals itself in “eagerness to clear yourself” (v. 11). Be eager, then, to demonstrate godly repentance.
Excellent article. Gives confirmation.
Great advice with one important detail left out. I do not believe in perpetual punishment. Let’s say a husband cheats on his wife. He confesses. Is genuinely sorry and does all the above to repair his marriage. Let’s say an appropriate amount of time (even a year or two) goes by and he honors everything he said he would do. It is not acceptable for a wife to continually to throw that back in his face with every disagreement. She’s not required to forgive, but if she truly can’t forgive she needs to release him so they can both move on with their lives separately.