Admitting and Forgiving Infidelity
Following my recent tip-off about Henry’s two-year infidelity with a colleague, he ceased contact with Anne, joined me in therapy, and apologized for endangering our marriage.
But he won’t admit he had an affair, or tell me anything about it! He insists Anne was “just a good friend” he never mentioned because he didn’t want me upset.
Well, I’m beyond upset. Why is the truth so hard for him to tell? And (how) can I forgive him—for my sanity and our unity and our family?
People don’t jeopardize their life’s foundation for “just a good friend”. As your gut knows, Henry had an affair—and now he’s lying to you about lying to you.
That’s a problem; in addition to Henry’s present and future fidelity, you need his validation of the past. Ideally, you need to hear every detail you ask for, when you ask for it, so you can heal and trust again. If Henry would do that, science says your odds of reconciliation and forgiveness would soar, your likelihood of divorce would plummet, and you might even achieve intimacy you’d never known before. Telling saves relationships.
But that’s the opposite of what most people believe. Even 41% of therapists (!) erroneously think True Confessions ruin reconciliation. If that’s Henry’s fear, at least he’s trying to do the right thing now—albeit in the wrong way.
And maaaaaybe Henry stopped short of sexual intercourse with Anne. As an earlier Q&A showed, men tend to construe anything but Tab A in Slot B as not an affair—whereas most women find their partner’s emotional infidelity even more alarming than physical cheating.
Yet forgiveness is the norm after infidelity —even among 2/3 of sex addicts’ betrayed spouses! Whether Henry confesses or not, you can eventually get there, too.
1. Feel What You Feel
Henry’s affair is new News. Upon Impact, it’s near-compulsory to feel confusion mixed with every sad and ugly emotion ever invented. (Ugly behavior is another thing; go there too often, and your marriage will implode no matter how right you are.)
Months later, most couples find meaning and forgiveness. But now, if you force it, all you’ll get is denial with a prettier label. For the present, feel what you feel, behave respectfully, and forgive Henry…later.
2. Avoid Doormatitis
Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t the same thing. The former is an absolute necessity for your well-being. But since Henry has not told you everything, keep listening to your gut, which is likely to be right a surprising amount of the time. *Staying together* is safe only if the betrayal stops, and stays stopped.
To err is human; to forgive is divine. But to be a doormat is optional.
3. Forgive When Ready
The Stanford Forgiveness Project found that forgiving *causes* better health, reduces stress and anger, and heightens optimism. It’s a gift we give ourselves, regardless of whether the other person deserves or even knows about our forgiveness.
And…Forgiveness Can Be Learned:
a) Buy –don’t borrow— Shirley Glass’ book Not “just friends”. How often have I said people really must buy a book? Only once before . And you truly need this, as does anyone wishing to prevent or survive infidelity.
b) See things through Henry’s eyes. There is no forgiveness without empathy. And empathy entails seeing things from the other person’s viewpoint so you can replace your anger with insight.
For instance, Henry is probably not only trying to prevent a divorce by refusing to discuss the past; he also likely intended for Anne to be “just a friend”. The most common form of long-term infidelity today starts when men and women who meet at work begin as (appropriately) friendly co-workers—and then without planning it out, eventually start relating (inappropriately) intimate details of their lives. Once this occurs, a cascade of emotional, and often sexual, bonding begins between the former friends—with corresponding deceit towards the spouse. All without an ounce of mean-spirited intent.
This doesn’t excuse, condone, negate, or make you forget what Henry did. Nothing short of traumatic head injury can (should?) do that. And it does not mean you agree with Henry’s behavior, or even with his interpretation of it.
But envisioning Henry’s viewpoint paves the road to forgiveness. And nothing else will.
c) Put it in words. Tell someone—Henry (without attacking him), a friend of your marriage, and/or a journal:
*Say you’re in pain, and specify what you’re in pain about. “I felt my heart and trust fall apart when I got that tip-off email. I was in total shock, and it’s still hard for me to think back on it without pain and anger.”
*Express how Henry might see his actions (see above).
* Denote your boundaries—what you expect and what you won’t abide— to help you map out your distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. “I won’t tolerate any more secret friendships. I expect that you and I will actively avoid sharing anything with an opposite-sex friend that we could not easily say in front of one another. And I expect my questions about your friends to be answered honestly and willingly to protect our marriage.”
*Specify what you’re forgiving Henry for. “I forgive you for refusing to acknowledge your secret relationship as an affair. I forgive you for not giving me details I asked for. I forgive you for having had an emotional affair with Anne. And I forgive you if it was a physical affair.”
d) Be patient and persistent. Forgiveness is not achieved in a flash of insight, but gradually. The greater the betrayal, the truer that is. And sometimes hurt and anger will rear their snakey heads, Medusa-like, just when you thought this was Done.
Yet with patient persistence, you’ll begin to see that you and Henry are vulnerable to each other once more, which is Forgiveness and Reconciliation in one. You’ll resume living and loving again.
So yes, Katherine, you *can* forgive your husband for his affair…not today, perhaps, and not easily, and not quickly—but surely. I admire your wisdom in working towards it. And I wish you restored in every way forgiveness heals.
The author wishes to acknowledge the following scientists and sources:
—Shirley Glass, for authoring THE book on affair prevention and recovery—Not “Just Friends” : Protect Your Relationship from Infidelity and Heal the Trauma of Betrayal—and doing much of the research showing what works and what doesn’t. Unless otherwise indicated, Dr. Glass was the source for all research in this article.
—Everett Worthington, for authoring THE research-based book on forgiveness (of all kinds of offenses): Five Steps to Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Forgiving . The man knows what he writes about, personally and professionally: After he was already renowned for forgiveness research, Dr. Worthington’s mother was
murdered—and he managed to forgive the murderers.
— Peggy Vaughan, for surveys showing that marriages are *more* likely to last if the involved partner discloses all the details of the affair, discussing it completely with the betrayed spouse (Glass found the same thing in her formal studies.). Vaughan’s results showed that if an errant spouse would answer every question the betrayed spouse asked, 86% stayed together and 72% rebuilt their trust—compared to 59% and 31% if information was not forthcoming. You can see her survey here.
—Jennifer P. Schneider and others, for research and international surveys showing that forgiveness of sex addicts is the norm, and that almost all couples dealing with sex addiction ultimately agree that revealing details the betrayed spouse wants to know is the best course of action.
—Kristina Gordon and Donald Baucom, for studies showing thatforgiveness of infidelity travels through three reliable stages of Impact, Meaning, and Moving On—and that false forgiveness that is given too soon results in less intimacy, ultimately, than waiting until one is truly ready to forgive.
—Carl Thoresen and Frederic Luskin and others in the Stanford Forgiveness Project, an experiment that randomly assigned half the participants to a 9-hour forgiveness workshop, resulting in improved health and happiness in a wealth of regards for those who went through the process of forgiving.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and LoveScience Media, 2010, 2014