Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How To Forgive An Affair

July 10, 2000

You have discovered your spouse's affair. Your mate is full of sorrow, remorse, promises, and pleadings to keep the marriage intact. There is no equivocation, no half-hearted gesturing, no long list of angry justifications, no straddling of the fence trying to keep the lover in the picture. Your mate has made a definite choice to rebuild the relationship.

Now what do you do? You are too hurt, angry and confused to forgive. Your trust has been shattered. You need to sort out what was the truth and what were lies. Why should you believe these promises when so much else proved to be false?

Getting the affair behind you. First of all, get to the bottom of all the lies. It is hard to build trust if you don't understand how the affair happened or if you are not convinced it is over. It is the truth that heals. One caution: Asking for sexual details will create haunting memories that will prolong your pain and create images you can’t easily erase. The "whys" are important, not the "hows."

Marriage counseling is a safe place to have a frank discussion about the affair. Ask your questions. Satisfy yourself that the explanations make sense and are consistent. It may take several months to quiet your mind about the betrayal. Forgiveness is difficult as long as you have lack of trust. The hurt was so bad you don't want to take the chance it could happen again. People hang on to bad feelings as a way or protecting themselves from future hurt.

Gaining peace. Find ways of stopping obsessive ruminations about the affair from taking over your life. Consciously being busy or involving yourself with other things helps. Reaffirm your worth through your friends, job or family; or with a minister or counselor.

It is important to realize that the affair wasn't a deliberate attack on your attractiveness as a person or on your own masculinity or femininity. It was "their" problem, not yours.

See if love returns. Allow trust to grow. You can't force someone to love you or be faithful. Let your partner's actions speak for themselves. Trust can only be earned. Actions are the essence of loyalty and trust. Accept your spouse's efforts to make amends.

Why it is tempting not to forgive. How do you get even short of having an affair yourself? You don’t. Do you take revenge? Do you hold off on your forgiveness as a payback for some of the hurt?

The guilty party has no defense. You can take power in the relationship by using the affair to your advantage. Your spouse can't complain (for a while anyway) because the affair was so much worse than the pain you are dishing out.

Bringing up the affair is the ultimate weapon in an argument for which there is no reply. It is a huge temptation to use that power.

Mentioning the affair is a tactic to prevent another one from happening. The snips and the jabs are unpleasant reminders to a spouse of the risks of another affair. You trust only your own vigilance and ability to control your partner through fear. You don’t want to live that way. Put the responsibility where it belongs.

The failure to forgive. Sometimes the failure to forgive ends up hurting the relationship more than the affair itself. I have seen betrayed spouses carry pain and bitterness for years after an affair was over. The memory is allowed to cast a long, dark shadow over the marriage.

Forgiveness is a choice. To forgive means letting go of the past and starting with a clean slate. Failure to forgive prevents a two-way exchange of love from coming back full force into your marriage. Eventually you'll get back what you give - criticism and rejection.

Advice for the guilty party

  • Be patient. The emotional aftermath of an affair takes several months to subside. Don't judge your spouse how long it takes. It takes time to work through the feelings of pain and anger and to trust again. Obsessions about the lost lover are poisonous and throw cold water on anything you are trying to get going.
  • Tell the whole truth. Don't be protective of the third party. Having the whole story come out piecemeal will make your spouse wonder what else you might be minimizing or covering up. Answer questions patiently. Your ability to show empathy to your spouse while he or she is hurt and angry will determine more than anything if the affair can be healed.
  • Don’t bring up marital problems as an excuse for an affair. There is no excuse for an affair. Don’t connect the two issues. When marriage problems are talked about, don’t be so aggressive or "right" about your side of the issue. You owe your partner a lot and being argumentative or aggressive about your side of disputes won’t feel right. Things won’t be - and shouldn’t be - equal in your relationship for a while until you have paid a substantial price in your spouse’s mind.
  • Love your spouse. Put him or her consistently first in your life. Let your honesty and love be so obvious and compelling that the memory of the affair won't compare to the good things that are happening now. That more than anything will help your spouse be able to forgive you.