Marie and Jason have had a tumultuous last 2 years in their marriage. It started when Marie discovered that Jason had been hiding a 9 month affair with a co-worker. Before discovering the affair, things had been “off.” After discovering the affair, everything became a roller coaster ride. Now things are “decently stable,” and they both say they want to work on restoring their marriage. But one of their major sticking points is what to do with the memories of the last 2 years. That’s why they reach out to you.

Initially, you’re thrown off. You think the counseling is about the affair. But Marie is satisfied that the affair is over, and that Jason is committed to being faithful. You realize that counseling is about the memory of the affair and the memory of all the chaos afterwards. When they tell you the history of what happened, they aren’t asking what they should have done during that horrific season, they are telling you what still haunts their marriage.

They fit the stereotypical roles regarding their expectations for forgiveness. Jason, as the unfaithful spouse, wants forgiveness to somehow erase the significance of his sin. Marie, as the betrayed spouse, feels rushed and misunderstood by what Jason wants. They can talk about these differences without getting heated (at least, they can when they’re with you). Jason acknowledges the bias in his views, but still feels like a Christian view of forgiveness would be pretty close to his position. Marie doesn’t want to be right. She’s tired of hurting but isn’t sure how she’ll ever forget.

As you learn their story, Marie’s position makes more sense. Jason’s affair was with Crystal, someone Marie had become close friends with. Crystal came over for dinner frequently and even babysat their children. Crystal was 10 years younger than Marie, so their relationship took on a mentoring quality.  This meant Crystal wasn’t a “secret” in their marriage. She was a friend that Jason and Marie both valued.

When Marie began to get concerned, she felt guilty. She was suspicious of two people she cared about. When she initially brought her concerns to Jason, he responded tenderly and told her she had nothing to worry about. Eventually, Marie checked Jason’s emails and found the truth. Marie brought Jason evidence. That’s when things got crazy.

Jason acted offended that Marie would “spy” on him, accused her of being a controlling wife, criticized their sex life, and said the thing that drew Crystal and he together was Crystal’s compassion for how bad of a wife she was. Marie told Jason to leave, so he went to stay at Crystal’s apartment. Communication between Crystal and Marie got heated as they exchanged nasty text messages and voicemails.

During the separation, it came out that Crystal frequently came to Jason and Marie’s home to have sex. During the separation, Crystal got pregnant. This freaked Jason out because he wasn’t looking to start a second family. Crystal felt betrayed that he wasn’t excited and threatened to leave him. Crystal taunted Marie with the news to try to get her to divorce Jason. When that didn’t work, she threatened to get an abortion if Jason didn’t divorce Marie.

This level of drama between Jason and Crystal became toxic at work, so both were placed on administrative leave. Eventually, both were fired. Now Marie was unsure how to provide for their two children, but Jason still blamed Marie for being the one that escalated everything by confronting him. Crystal claimed to have a miscarriage and quit returning Jason’s phone calls. Both Jason and Marie question whether she was ever actually pregnant.

Jason spent 6 months living with his parents. He was humiliated to be living with his parents as an unemployed father of two separated from his wife because he had an affair with a co-worker 10 years younger than him. He barely talked to Marie or the kids for 3 months. Eventually Jason’s dad had a “come to Jesus” talk with him. Jason started to look for a job and, after he found one, began talking with Marie about helping with the family finances again.

This resulted in Jason hearing how hard things had been for Marie and sobered him up about her role (or lack thereof) in his affair with Crystal. Jason began to re-engage as a father. During this time, they had many hard conversations. Jason listened to Marie’s anger and didn’t try to refute it (most of the time). He answered her questions. He admitted his portrayal of her as a controlling wife was untrue. Marie decided to give their marriage another chance.

For the first week they were back together, they both walked on eggshells to keep the peace “for the kids.” To Marie, this felt like pretending and she couldn’t take it anymore. That’s when arguments began. Initially, they were one-sided vent sessions for Marie. Eventually, Jason started to fire back. They realized this wasn’t going to work and that’s when they reached out to you for help.

By the time counseling began, Marie was confidant she knew the truth about the affair and was confidant Jason didn’t want to be with Crystal anymore. Neither Marie nor Jason were sure how much they were working on their marriage because they loved one another or merely “for the kids’ sake.” But they were confidant, whatever the motivation, they wanted to try.

When you asked about the current arguments, it was clear that memories of the affair and affair-aftermath were the prompt. Marie wanted to forgive, if for no other reason than she wanted to be free from the memories. Jason didn’t blame Marie for being angry but didn’t think it was good for the kids to hear them argue so intensely and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could take it. They discussed selling their home, so there would be fewer memory prompts; even moving to a new city.

But they ask you, “How do we keep these old memories from becoming ghosts that haunt a new house in a new city? Aren’t we supposed to be able to forgive and forget, so we can move on with our lives in peace? I know we may not have lived like it, but we’re Christians and that’s supposed to make a difference, right?”

With this prompt and in this context, you begin a conversation about how Christians respond to sticky memories of highly hurtful offenses after they forgive…

Case Study Discussion

This case study was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar A Case Study Sticky Memories After Forgiveness The webinar will be Thursday September 30th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times