Affair healing Blog
Withholding Forgiveness As Punishment
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."
8/23/2017 11:06:15 am
I find myself in this situation. It has been three months since I found out my husband had been having multiple affairs. I chose to stay and work things out. When I ask questions he conveniently forgets details. When I have triggers I try to remain quiet and not "punish" him but I try to deal with it on my own. Two nights ago he kept pushing me to talk even though I was upset. I told him my thoughts. I think he's still doing stuff. I have no proof so he eluded it was all in my head and that I'm just looking for an excuse to leave. So I told him that he can't handle the ups and downs of my emotions in the aftermath of this. He expects me to just be quiet and move on so I will leave. It's not what I wanted but I'm tired of being made to feel bad for having emotions about his affair. I'm trying to handle things the best way I can but I guess it was not good enough.
9/7/2017 04:49:50 pm
I've been in this so called recovery phase five years now. He's lied and half stepped in ways that only a Lifetime Movie could portray.
9/8/2017 10:41:08 pm
I relate to your story so well. For me, healing is something we have to allow ourselves to go through, for ourselves, our children, and for our relationship with our God. Since finding out about his affair, I prayed that God would help me use this time of separation and hurt to grow me...please dont let all of this pain be in vain.
9/13/2017 01:19:59 pm
8/24/2017 03:30:23 pm
You write: "At least she was being honest, but her marriage was doomed."
8/25/2017 11:03:15 am
Oh CoCo my dear. please know that it is waaay too early for you to really know what you want or to have sorted out your feelings. I feel you...I hear you. I understand EXACTLY how you feel. Be gentle with yourself...don't judge your feelings....they are going to be ALL OVER THE PLACE. You will be confused and not able to think well....unfocused and angry. But....please keep getting up day by day....it will get better....and you will be able to figure out if you can forgive or not......because really, sometimes we are unable to forgive....and sometimes, it just takes a long time to figure out if we can forgive.........
8/28/2017 08:59:33 pm
Thank you for the encouragement. I hope you are right, but I am not optimistic. I have not seen progress in the last several months. Regression, if anything. Still. I appreciate that there is a chance, however small or distant it seems now, that I will learn to find something closer to Peace in all of this. That maybe I will learn to love again. Even writing that seems hollow-- like a self-help mantra repeated out of obedience instead of belief.
9/20/2017 07:53:45 am
Girl. I know exactly how you feel. this thing is crazy! I can tell you that my emotions changed all over the place......back and forth...I love him, I hate him..i love him, I hate him. its an awful existence. your ability to move on will depend on your husband's response to you and what you really want. if he is an ass...well, you gotta protect your heart and move toward healing yourself......if he is truly repentant and trying to repair, then you have real work to do,....its extremely tough, unfair, harrowing, exhausting, and brutal.........either way....you MUST walk through the pain..its the only way........you MUST walk through it.....all the disillusionment about him and what your love was....walk through the pain of it.......its awful. BUT...I know you don't think it....but you will get better....you will....slowly......you will. read articles, listen to podcasts....listen to ester perel.......its a nightmare...but you can do it......
1/3/2018 05:23:33 pm
Holy smokes CoCo.... wow. THIS IS MY SAME STORY! Remove the "he" and replace with "she" and this is me. Thank you for so elegantly describing exactly what I now feel about my marriage. Sigh, indeed.
8/27/2017 04:56:37 am
coco, your letter hit me so deeply. i can relate to it completely. i felt like my husband and i had such a deep, perfect love that would never die...when i also was blindsided by news of his having had an affair. i still love him, but i don't think that i can ever get back to the way i used to feel about him. and that is so tragic and sad. your letter really touched me.
8/28/2017 09:02:15 pm
I am saddened to hear that my letter struck you--I don't wish anyone this sort of pain. I hope there is some comfort in knowing that the things we feel are not unique. That others are out there living through the same circumstances, and somehow finding a way through it. I hope your story is different than mine, in that you more quickly start to see a path to forgiveness. That you more quickly are made whole.
8/30/2017 03:01:50 pm
Oh, Coco. I'm crying as I read your post because I feel exactly the same way. You express so well the exact situation I find myself in: unable to believe that I will ever trust my cheating husband again. I am also only six months out, and also had a romantic, idealized view of our marriage. I was deeply in love with him, even after fourteen years together. After the initial shock of discovering the affair and realizing that my husband was not the wonderful, trustworthy person I thought he was, I convinced myself that if we worked hard enough, we could heal our relationship. He said he would do anything it took to make things better. But so far I he has done nothing. He won't read any books, see a counselor, or even talk about the situation with me. He hasn't done a single thing to reassure me or rebuild trust. I don't know what to do about it, and feel angrier at him now than I did six months ago. From time to time I have panic attacks (heart pounding, shortness of breath, feeling dizzy and sick) triggered by thinking about he affair, and he sees it and forces me to tell him what's wrong, but when I share my feelings he just gets angry and walks away. I feel like i still love him and need to be with him, but I will never trust him again or love him the way I did before. How can I when he doesn't appear to love me enough to try to help me or help us? Everything between us is different now, and it appears to be my destiny to just have to suffer alone in silence from now on. I know I need to be a stronger person and at least take care of myself, but some days I just want to die. The old me, the one who enjoyed life and had interests and a positive outlook on life, is dead. I wish I had an answer.
1/3/2018 05:28:57 pm
Hi Coco, you wrote this response on my DDAY. I am so moved by your initial comment that I was wondering how you are feeling now? Has is got any better? I hope so...
9/7/2017 04:54:38 pm
Yes, same here. He may have done too much to trust him EVER again. Forgiveness...I'll have to see him as a really sick person and release all expectations of him. It's gonna take a Miracle because betrayal feels like you've been hit by a bus, pushed down a ravine, and left to die besides the road and the Person you Loved is standing over you asking," Hey, can I get a few dollars 💵?"
9/20/2017 11:19:39 am
Fiery Phoenix- yes! that is exactly how it feels. It's horrible! And the crazy part is, I would probably give him the money! Like Robin says, the emotions are all over the map. One moment I want to leave him, the next I feel like everything could be patched up if I just bend over backwards to treat him really, really nice, even if he's totally unrepentant, because I would do anything to try to feel like I used to feel about him. Then I ask myself, what happened to my self-respect? At least now I am starting to have a glimmer of hope that things eventually will get better, whether we stay together or not.
9/24/2017 09:54:54 pm
My heart breaks for each of you. In my case, I was the cheater. To think I caused my husband of 30+ years such pain breaks my heart. My affair was very brief, and I told my husband about it. It has been over a year since I told him. It is the only time I have ever done something like that, and while I was hurting deeply from a loveless marriage, I take full responsibility for my actions. I could have made another choice, like leaving him. I have read many books, listened to Ester, Marriage Builders, and continue to do so. I have begged him to go to counseling with me, but he refuses. As a matter of fact, have been begging him for years to go to counseling with me (long before my affair). He has not forgiven me, yet. I don't know if he ever will. I don't know what else to do, other then try and be supportive and let him know I'm not going anywhere. He says I am not remorseful, but won't tell me what I'm not doing to make him think that. Please help me, if you can, with insight from your perspective.
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Unless otherwise noted, articles are written by Tim Tedder, a licensed counselor and creator of this site and its resources.