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Q: Can you share a situation that conveys the fact that healing and transformation can happen in a damaged relationship?

Dr. Holeman:  One clergy couple experienced the devastation of his three-year affair with her best friend. To add insult to injury, she had confronted him about her suspicions long before he was ready to confess to his sin. She even went to the church elders for support and they talked with this pastor, but did not really confront him in a helpful manner. He had a spotless ecclesial reputation and so, therefore, was above suspicion.  

This wife thought that she might be going crazy as she doubted her ability to read the facts as she saw them. This changed the night that she overheard an intimate phone conversation between her husband and her best friend. She confronted him that night, and he was ready to come clean. He resigned from the church, and within three weeks they had relocated to be closer to family who could support them.

They literally moved in with her sister. She was devastated. But because he was repentant, in the fullest sense of the word, she was willing to give him an opportunity to rebuild his trustworthiness. He worked diligently to demonstrate his change of heart, mind, and behavior. Their marriage is now his number one priority—and has continued to be so for the years since his offense. They have a vibrant relationship and a ministry to other couples whose marriages teeter on the brink of disaster.

Q: You suggest that not all marriages can be saved. With that in mind, can you explain the difference between a closed road and a roadblock in a relationship?

Dr. Holeman: A closed road means that you cannot reclaim the marriage. For example, if one partner remarries after a divorce, that presents a closed road.

Partners who are unrepentant—that is, refuse to commit to changed behavior over time and make that commitment a reality—have effectively hit a closed road. This is especially true when abuse of any kind is present in the marriage.

A roadblock on the other hand, is an external circumstance that impinges upon your relationship. Couples do not create them but they must deal with them nevertheless. For example, you may live in the path of a hurricane; your child may become seriously ill; one spouse may lose his or her job because of downsizing, etc.  These things stress marriages. However, because marriages that are moving toward reconciliation tend to have narrower “margins of error,” rebuilding couples need to stay alert to managing the roadblock as a team, and not turn against one another because of the extra stress.

Q: Which marriages can be saved?

Dr. Holeman:  It seems as if some of the key factors include a “wrongdoer who fully acknowledges what has occurred and is committed to a plan of consistent changed behavior over time [repentance]; an injured party who is willing to forgive and who is wiling to risk giving the other an opportunity to rebuild trustworthiness; and an unswerving determination to do whatever it takes to reclaim their marriage. This often includes seeking the help of a counselor. As I view this, it has more to do with the stamina and determination that couples bring to their efforts to reconcile than it does with the nature of the “offense” that threatens to undo their relationship.