Affair healing Blog
As pointed out in an earlier post, a self-focused apology (one in which "I'm sorry" is just a way to get out of an uncomfortable situation, not bring any true relief to the offended person) is seldom satisfying to the recipient. But forgiveness-seekers aren't the only ones who can sap the power out of forgiveness. Forgiveness-givers can be selfish, too.
I hesitate when it comes to pointing out the shortcomings of an offended person. After all, why should anything be required of a victim? Shouldn't the offender carry the full responsibility for making things right?
And in the case of an affair, shouldn't the cheater be expected to do all the work of fixing the marriage?
Yes... if the only concerned is for justice or recompense. If there is hope for healing, however, there must be a place for grace and compassion. Genuine forgiveness requires the offended spouse to consider the offender's burden of shame and give them permission to let go of it.
I hear the objections: What if the offender doesn't ask for forgiveness? What if there is no remorse? What if the offender isn't even around anymore? What if the offense was huge (extreme abuse, acts of violence, etc.)? Those are fair questions that demand thoughtful consideration, but this article deals with a very specific condition: the need for forgiveness in intimate relationships. Intimacy requires forgiveness, and forgiveness requires compassion.
Compassion doesn't come easily when we are hurt by someone we love. The more natural reaction is to continually attack or retreat until we believe the offender feels enough remorse. But there is a risk of staying stuck in those self-protective responses, especially when the wound is deep. In response to our pain, we may limit our vulnerability by requiring ongoing penitence without offering hope for pardoning. We punish by withholding our forgiveness.
I often point to the example of a married couple came to see me because they had been unable to move past the affair that the husband had 10 years ago. I was the latest in a series of counselors they had seen. After a few sessions, it became clear that the wife had no intention of granting forgiveness to her husband. Despite the fact that he had confessed, repented, and never returned to that behavior again, she continued to focus on his betrayal. Her unforgiveness allowed her to stay in control and minimized the risk of being hurt again. But they were miserable; their marriage was full of conflict and void of intimacy.
I finally asked her, "What could your husband say or do that would allow you to begin moving toward forgiveness?"
She just stared at me, expressionless, and finally said, "Nothing, because he can't undo the past." At least she was being honest, but her marriage was doomed.
Let me be very clear about this point: I believe it is wrong to push a betrayed spouse too quickly toward forgiveness. Forgiving out of obligation is not satisfying. (I remember the silent animosity I felt as a young boy when, after fighting with my sister in the back seat of the car, my parents made me hold her hand.) Outward compliance that masks inward resentment is fake forgiveness.
If there is a desire for the restoration of the marriage on the other side of an affair, the betrayed spouse will need to eventually grant real forgiveness. The healing process breaks down when this doesn't happen. Instead of giving the message, I'm willing to let go of this and leave it in the past, the hurt spouse communicates any of the following:
Is it okay to want to see contrition? Of course! Can it take time to truly forgive? Absolutely, and deep hurts often take more time to heal. But consider your partner's relief, not just your own. Don't stay stuck in the pain. Find your way to the freedom of "I forgive you."