Healing Is Possible

June 08 2018 | by

DEAR DR. POPCAK: After ten years of marriage and the birth of a daughter with a congenital heart defect, my husband fell in love with another woman. When our daughter died, my husband left me for the “other woman.”

I can assure you that it was very hard for me to overcome this emotional ordeal because I was still very much in love with him, and in that delicate moment of my life I needed his love and support more than ever. Fortunately, thanks to the help of my family, I was able to get back on my feet and start life again.

Lately my husband has popped up again in my life: he was left by his lover. He doesn’t dare to suggest getting together again, but it is clear that that’s what he wants. I simply do not know how I should relate to him.


I am so sorry for all the pain you have been through. The illness and death of a child is a particularly devastating tragedy. I am glad your family could be there for you through such a horrible time.

You do not mention if you have an annulment, and you refer to your ‘husband,’ so I must assume you are still married. Even if he divorced you, it’s important to understand that, in the eyes of the Church, a civil divorce is just a tax document. It does not have the power to undo the promises that a man and woman made in the sight of God. Only a declaration of nullity (i.e., an annulment) can determine that, for some reason, a couple was unable to enter into marriage as the Church defines it on the day of the wedding, and therefore, any apparent promises made that day are, in fact, invalid.

The fact that you are still married to this man does not, of course, oblige you to take him back without conditions. It simply requires you to do the same thing any Christian is obliged to do; to ask God for the grace to forgive and be open to the possibility of reconciliation. But what does that really mean?

St. Augustine said that forgiveness is the willingness to “surrender our natural desire for revenge.” At the point when you stop wanting bad things to happen to your husband – or stop wanting to hurt him for having hurt you, you have forgiven him. That’s all forgiveness requires. It might sound simple, but I think you would agree that surrendering your desire to lash out, attack, or wish ill on the man who essentially stabbed you in the heart and burned your marriage to the ground would be a pretty heroically virtuous accomplishment.

Nevertheless, forgiveness does not require you to pretend that you were not hurt or that you are not still hurting. In fact, Augustine tells us that reconciliation is the “tranquility that results from right order.” In order for your husband to be reconciled to you, he would have to be willing to do everything necessary to demonstrate that he (1) understood and empathized with the pain he caused you, (2) was capable of acknowledging the gravity of the offenses he committed against you, (3) and was willing to get the professional help necessary (and do whatever else was required of him) to prove to you that he is now a different man – one who can be trusted to take care of you and stand by you in good times and bad, sickness and health, in wealth and poverty, until death do you part. I do not have enough space in this column to describe all that might be necessary to accomplish this, but a book such as Donald Baucom’s Getting Past the Affair or, even more importantly, committing to a process of intensive personal and marital counseling would help both of you have a better understanding of the necessary steps.

That said, it is possible to forgive someone but not be reconciled to them. Jesus describes this in Matthew 18. We can forgive on our own, but reconciliation requires the offender to do whatever is honestly necessary to heal the wound. For now, you are only obliged to do two things. First, ask God for the grace to surrender any remaining desire to hurt him for having hurt you. This is simply to stop hatred from poisoning your own heart. Second, you need to be clear with him about what it might take to heal the wound (or, if you don’t know, seek pastoral and professional counsel to figure that out) and be willing to cooperate with him assuming he is willing to do the work that reconciliation requires. You are not obliged to make the relationship work on your own or “let him off the hook.”

Believe it or not, healing is possible even in these extreme circumstances, and it would be beneficial to the both of you to do the work that healing would require. But you can’t do it on your own. Seek the pastoral and professional support you need to heal – alone or together.

Updated on June 08 2018