I believe infidelity is one of the most difficult challenges a couple can experience and attempt to recover from. In my work with people who have experienced infidelity—who may still be reeling from its effects—I’ve noticed some similarities between their varied experiences. While some come to me days after discovery and others may wait decades, many of those seeking help share one common experience, regardless of the amount of time that has passed: the pressure to forgive.
While many partners who have been unfaithful and want to salvage the relationship seek to be forgiven, sometimes almost immediately, many partners who have been betrayed are not ready to forgive until they are sure their partner understands the pain the act has caused.
Understanding Infidelity’s Impact
Infidelity can come in many forms, and it is not always characterized by a sexual relationship. Often infidelity occurs in the form of a new relationship outside the primary relationship. In some instances infidelity may be undetectable to all involved. Typically, an affair suggests that an individual was unfaithful over a period of time with an affair partner was an active, knowing participant. To some, infidelity also includes secret thoughts about a person other than a partner or the development of an emotional connection outside the primary relationship. A partner can also be unfaithful by hiding income or debt.
In most cases, infidelity is evidenced by:
- Guilt over the crossing of relationship boundaries, even if one partner is not aware of what happened.
- Acts or thoughts kept secret by one partner because they know the other partner would not approve
- A feeling of betrayal when the acts or thoughts are discovered or revealed.
People who have been unfaithful may not be aware they have crossed the line into infidelity. They may also not have had the intention of harming their partner. In the aftermath of unfaithfulness, however, they often discover the pain experienced by the other person goes deeper than they could have imagined.
A betrayed partner may come to find their world view, sense of safety, and very identity has been shaken. Many people I treat experience both physical and emotional symptoms, such as intrusive thoughts that creep in over the course of their day, difficulty sleeping or eating, or depression symptoms, among others. These effects, and the pain experienced as a result, may heal in time. But time does not automatically heal the wounds of infidelity; therefore, there is not a specific timeline for forgiveness. Couples who want to recover from the trauma of infidelity generally find it necessary to invest significant time and effort into rebuilding the relationship.
What Forgiveness Can Signify—and What It Doesn’t
After infidelity comes to light, the person who was unfaithful may hope to be forgiven right away. While forgiveness may be a necessary part of infidelity recovery, it generally does not occur at the beginning of the recovery process. In my experience, forgiveness more often comes near the end of the process. To the partner who was betrayed, forgiveness often means the end of the journey. Why? Because forgiveness can feel dangerous.
Forgiveness can feel dangerous because, to some, it may indicate certain beliefs they may not necessarily support. Let’s consider a few of those.
1. I can never feel hurt or upset again.
When an affair is discovered, couples who are trying to reconcile may fall into opposite roles. The partner who was betrayed is the “good” partner while the partner who was unfaithful is the “bad” one. They remain in these roles until the “good” partner sees the “bad” partner begin to understand the hurt they experienced as a result of the “bad” partner’s actions.
Hurt stemming from a breach of trust such as infidelity may cause emotions and symptoms that affect activities of daily life. In this case, the betrayed partner may feel it’s better to forgive for the good of the relationship, but that doing so will remove the pain from the experience. By forgiving, they might feel, they can never try to heal from the pain or learn what is needed to prevent it from happening again.
But forgiveness does not wipe away or invalidate the pain or trauma resulting from an act of infidelity, nor does it indicate the person who was betrayed no longer experiences those emotions.
2. I am excusing or accepting your behavior.
Many partners I’ve worked with struggle with the idea that forgiving infidelity does not mean the behavior is acceptable. Some equate it to raising children: if there are no consequences to deter behavior, then the behavior is excused. Partners who have been betrayed may feel by forgiving, they are offering the partner who was unfaithful a “get out of jail free” card.
After infidelity, most couples struggle to find a way to ease the pain, and forgiveness may seem like a less-painful way out. Unfortunately, when a partner who has been betrayed is rushed to forgive, increased pain and distance is often the result.
But both partners need to work to find a way to separate the pain of the breach from the freedom of forgiveness. The reality is, forgiveness is for the forgiver. It can help to think of forgiveness as taking the weight of your own hurt and pain and tossing it into the ocean. By forgiving, you are saying “I do not want to carry this burden of pain any longer.” A person can still experience hurt as a result of a behavior but choose to forgive—because they want to begin to heal.
3. Now I have to want to restore the relationship.
A partner who has been unfaithful may believe once they are forgiven, the relationship will return to the way it was or be automatically repaired. But this may not be the case. Even when a person is able to forgive, they may still not be ready to repair the relationship, at that time or at any time.
Restoration is not always the goal of infidelity recovery, and infidelity recovery does not have to involve both partners. Sometimes one or both partners may choose to heal alone. Forgiving a partner who was unfaithful may, to some, mean moving on from the relationship. Some partners who were unfaithful may similarly choose to move on from the relationship.
I teach the people I work with that there are levels to recovery.
- The first level, forgiveness, involves releasing the self from the pain of this action. People may struggle to heal when they are consumed by pain.
- The next level is reconciliation. This level is different for everyone. Many couples may find this to be the most comfortable goal of counseling, as they want to build something new together out of the rubble of their old relationship. Realizing the old relationship was broken, they choose to work to create a new one that incorporates their prior experience. This can be a cautious approach, as the partner who experienced betrayal may continue to scan the relationship for any signs of danger well into the healing process.
- The highest level of forgiveness is restoration. This is a level many couples aspire to, as it generally indicates the relationship is restored to its previous standing.
In most cases the first level is sufficient for individuals who choose to recover on their own. Reconciliation is necessary to rebuild trust, but it is important to remember forgiveness does not automatically mean reconciliation will follow.
4. Now I must be ready to trust completely.
I’ve heard partners who have been unfaithful say, “If you forgive me, then you have to trust me.” I work diligently to teach them forgiveness and trust are two separate events. Forgiveness can mean a partner wants to trust again at some point, but it may not yet be possible. Forgiveness helps the person forgiving find release from pain, while trust can allow the person who was forgiven to find release from guilt. The act of rebuilding trust also requires the participation of both partners.
After infidelity, most couples struggle to find a way to ease the pain, and forgiveness may seem like a less-painful way out. Unfortunately, when a partner who has been betrayed is rushed to forgive, increased pain and distance is often the result. While in some cases, forgiveness may not be possible, in other cases being unable to forgive may prolong pain.
Finding the place where forgiveness is beneficial can be a delicate process, and patience, with both the self and with one’s partner, is more likely to aid recovery than forcing the process. No recovery has a timeline or a shortcut. Recovering is hard work, whether partners choose to end a relationship or attempt to rebuild it. In either case, recovering from infidelity can present an opportunity for both partners to find strength and grow, and couples counseling can be a helpful step in this process.
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