Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Do You Struggle with Forgiveness?

This week we hear from another wonderful friend and fellow survivor of infidelity. Mona Shriver and her husband, Gary, co-founded Hope and Healing Ministries, a Christian ministry offering support to couples working through infidelity, in 1998 after their own experience with infidelity recovery. Gary and Mona authored the book, Unfaithful: Hope & Healing after Infidelity, 1 and Mona has authored additional articles online and in magazines.

 

It happened again. Another couple. Same stumbling block.

My husband and I come alongside couples in infidelity recovery through a Christian peer support ministry, Hope & Healing. We have for almost twenty years now. We co-founded the ministry with another couple a few years after our own experience with infidelity and healing. We’ve written a book that deals with betrayal from a couple’s perspective - what healing looks like behind closed doors - and we talk with many couples. We’ve learned a lot from experts in the field, like Rick Reynolds and Affair Recovery. We understand the value of educating yourself about this journey called “healing” from infidelity.

It’s not uncommon to hear an unfaithful spouse say, “If he/she would just forgive me we could move forward.” They believe that forgiveness is the stumbling block they keep running into.

What we’ve discovered is this: It very often has little to do with forgiveness and much more to do with our misconceived ideas of what forgiveness looks like. Most often what they’re talking about is trust.

First we must understand what forgiveness is. I really struggled with forgiveness after my husband’s infidelity. I was trying to do what my family had taught me about forgiveness, which really wasn’t all that healthy. Frankly I wasn’t getting anywhere. The harder I tried, the harder it got and the more confused I became. So out of desperation I set out to find some answers, and it quickly became clear that one of the reasons I was struggling was because what I was trying to do wasn’t even forgiveness. So I had to undo some learning.

Forgiveness is not managing my emotions. It’s not pretending it didn’t hurt, cause anger or inflict pain. In fact, forgiveness does not immediately diminish the pain.

Forgiveness is not a denial of wrongdoing. It doesn’t justify what someone did or let them off the moral hook. It doesn’t say there are no consequences. Yet so many of us who struggle with forgiveness tell ourselves that forgiving sends the message that the betrayal was okay. This is so not true.

Forgiveness is not an excuse. It does not remove the responsibility for the harm done. It’s not saying the pain is over forever or that we understand how we got to this place in our marriage. If that were true forgiveness wouldn’t cost us anything, and it always does.

Forgiveness is not forgetting. It’s not some form of sentimental amnesia. There is no such thing as forgive and forget. Forgetting is impossible. How can you forget something that caused so much pain? Would you ever forget the car wreck that put you in ICU for a week? Of course not. You’d remember, but you probably wouldn’t dwell on the memory; it wouldn’t stop you from living. You would eventually be able to drive a car again, though perhaps with a few extra scars.

Forgiveness is not trust. Trust is a whole other subject. Affair Recovery has one of the best articles I’ve ever read on the subject, The Shocking Truth about Trust. I’d encourage you to obtain a copy. But for right now, let’s just agree forgiveness is not trust.

Finally, forgiveness is not reconciliation. Reconciliation requires forgiveness and trust. It’s about committing to a future with someone, while forgiveness simply means accepting the past.

So what is forgiveness? Various dictionaries define forgiveness as “ceasing to demand a penalty for, ceasing to blame”. It’s giving up a claim for payment. The Hebrew and Greek words that translate to forgive generally mean “to send away, release, set free, or offer a gift of grace”. The intent is to cut something loose, like the weight of resentment for being wronged. Forgiveness is more a behavior than a feeling.

What does that look like with real hurts, like betrayal? How do we grasp that concept in a practical way? Author and Pastor Dr. Charles Stanley describes a three-step process that helped me personally in my own journey. 2

First, it’s about recognizing there’s been an injury. This is not too difficult when we’re talking about adultery. Second, it’s about admitting there’s a debt - that something has to be done for that injury. There is something inside all of us that cries out for justice when there’s been a wrong inflicted. I see that as the debt owed - justice is due! Then finally, it’s about ME releasing you from what is due for that injury.

Let me give you a practical, oversimplified example. You borrow my new car. You drive recklessly and trash it. The injury occurred. Once I know about the car, I say, “You trashed my new car. You owe me a clean, functioning car.” The debt has been acknowledged. But then step three comes in. I tell you, “But you know what? You don’t have to pay that debt.” I have just “forgiven” you. It doesn’t mean I’m not angry. It doesn’t mean I haven’t incurred a loss. It just means you don’t have to pay.

Of course there are a couple of big problems here. One, adultery is much bigger than a broken vehicle. Two, the forgiveness costs a whole lot more than a new car. But here is where I think so many of us struggle: First, some of us try to bypass the “you owe me” part. It just doesn’t feel right to demand payment, even though everything in us and every behavior loudly proclaims that it’s owed. But how can I release you from something I’ve never acknowledged? How can I let go of something I’ve never held in my hand?

The second problem is our refusal to let go of that demand for justice because “something” has to be done. Yet we have no idea what and we get stuck. In reality, what can ever compensate for some of the wrongs done to us? Even the death penalty doesn’t take away the injustice or the pain. If I hang onto what you owe I’m always looking back and dragging the weight of your wrongdoing around with me. The longer I do, the heavier it becomes. The problem is that it’s on my back, not yours.

If I can release that claim, I can be free of the burden of trying to obtain what in some cases is impossible. More importantly, I can cease to allow what happened to forever have power over me, influencing every move I make. Then I can move on to have a better future, in a marriage that fully heals, that future can include you.

In fact, there are studies that show unforgiveness actually ends up causing us more pain. It negatively affects our physical health, our emotional health, and our spiritual health. The reality is that forgiveness is more about me than it is about you. But it’s my choice to do the releasing of that debt. Although the person I need to forgive can make the journey easier or more difficult, it’s my decision.

Here’s a biggie: experiencing emotions does not mean un-forgiveness. It takes time to work through all the emotions. They’re not quickly processed and are often overwhelming. You can choose to forgive but still can have very intense emotions. In infidelity recovery there are often multiple areas of forgiveness. That’s the point - forgiveness is a decision, but it’s also a process. As you work on healing and make progress, the emotions will diminish. Forgiveness means letting go of the past.

So remember that couple and the stumbling block, “If he/she would just forgive me we could move forward.” When we talk with the one who’s verbalized that thought and ask them to describe what it would look like, very often what they describe is not forgiveness at all, but trust and reconciliation instead. Forgiveness is about the past, trust is about the present, and reconciliation is about the future.

We need to understand that you can forgive without rebuilding trust or reconciling. In the car example, I can choose to forgive you the debt of replacing my car. But that doesn’t mean that when I get my new car I’ll give you the keys. Much less put my kids in the backseat. That would require trust and reconciliation. Sometimes it’s simply not safe to be in a relationship with someone even if we forgive them.

But sometimes it is. Those of us who have worked through infidelity recovery, made the decision to forgive, and worked to rebuild trust will tell you it is worth it. And it can be done. You can rebuild a marriage after infidelity and have love, respect, intimacy and trust. Learn and understand the difference between forgiveness, trust, and reconciliation so you don’t waste your precious energy on what doesn’t work for healing.

Mona and Gary have been married since 1974 and have 3 grown sons. Mona worked as a nurse before going into ministry full time. She enjoys reading, walking with friends, watching movies and camping.

 

If you’re in need of a pathway to recovery and forgiveness, I’d like to invite you to consider joining our Harboring Hope course for betrayed spouses. It provides some of the essentials for your individual recovery: expert help, community support of other hurting women, and hope for both forgiveness and personal restoration.

 

 

  1. Shriver, Gary and Mona. Unfaithful: Hope & Healing after Infidelity. Life Journey: Colorado Springs, 2009. Print.
  2. Stanley, Charles. The Gift of Forgiveness. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1987. Print

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Comments

Unforgivness

Thank you for the article. It explained things so well. I am working on total forgiveness for my husbands betrayal. Some areas I am finding easier to work though and offer forgiveness. Some areas are much harder, but I think that is because of the red hot emotions and pain that those areas still cause. Thank you for explaining that in the article.
We are about to embark in the online program because there has not been a weekend thing we could afford to attend or travel to. I appreciate the work the Mona and Gary do. I have talked to Mona and emailed with her several times. What a beautiful lady. And I have found so much assistance on the web site. I just wish and pray that the services offered could be extended more to the south. Even finding a good therapist in our area proved to be a struggle. Recently I gathered 9 ladies together that have offered me more love and support over the past year than should ever be required of friends. Out of 9 ladies 5 have experienced infidelity in their marriages. And I had 2 friends that could not make it that have dealt with it. So out of 11 ladies, 7 have faced these issues. It is just sad. Sad to me that this is such an issue in America yet the church does not address it and society seems to push for it.

Anyway the article was wonderful and so very very helpful. Thank you all for the much needed work you do.

forgiveness

What can be done if I need my husband to provide proof of something intrinsic to marriage and he considers what I need as punishment which he considers telling the truth to be a punishment not the natural consequence of lying and serial cheating. This has undermined my belief in anything he says.

Question

This is a wonderful question and the situation you describe is not at all uncommon. I personally believe this is where a counselor or peer support can be so helpful. It's difficult to face the reality of consequences because it often makes us look fully at our behavior. The truth is that infidelity instantly wipes out trust. The truth is most of us, for the first time, discovered just how capable our spouse is of lying convincingly. The reality is that after one has deceived and broken trust, they are no longer trustworthy. The point of "providing proof" is not about being accountable to your spouse like a 2 year old for the rest of your life (that isn't a healthy marriage) but rather it's about taking advantage of every opportunity to show your spouse that you are doing everything you can to become trustworthy again. When the trust has been rebuilt, and it can be, then that "proof" requirement will not longer be there. But it is up to the betrayed spouse to determine when they feel they can trust again. And it'll often be the last segment of a long journey. Just focus on healing and rebuilding. Hope that helps.

I too have asked for proof

As the betrayed I also have asked for proof that I could trust again. D day was nine years ago and I have forgiven, accepted, and owned up to my part. Even after all this work and three more children, I sometimes feel like a fool. My life is full and wonderful and my marriage is now great except for .....I dont even know what, except for his lack of doing anything "special"? Or much of anything. I know he isn't cheating right now, but what about tomorrow? He broke our vows, I took off my wedding ring because of it, and told him when he means the words to our vows to give the ring back. Maybe I shouldn't have done that however the symbolism really meant and still means something to me. After so long and explaining this over and over ........crickets. This in return has caused a further lack of trust, and a return of old feelings and flooding. I guess the thought that knowing if something was that important to him.....I would do almost anything to prove it to him. Is this normal? Or is he still living a lie without acting it out? It seems these thoughts didnt come up at until last year. Maybe healing comes in waves too.

Can't forgive

After reading your article on forgiveness, I still can't forgive my husband. How do I begin to forgive someone who was in an affair for over 13 years, who had unprotected sex with her all the time he knew she had herpes, and still chose to have sex with me, without a thought of protecting me. Not to mention after I find out about his other life things started to fall in place, he had left me and moved in with her 3 times that I now know of, and he stills try to tell me they were just friends. How do I try to get to the point of forgiveness? What do I need to do to help me to try and see forgiveness?

respect

I readily understand and accept my own actions that contributed to my wife being vulnerable to have an affair. I completed understand how someone can be hurt and feel desperate for attention. But I don't understand how someone can be so callous, conceiving and deceit..even sleeping with someone in our own house. I don't understand how someone can give in to an affair when they comoletely understand their actions and that it will ruin a whole family.
I'm sorry, but I cannot respect anything about that process or find respect for my spouse.
I have found forgiveness as I understand the conditions that lead up to it, but I don't believe that I will ever regain the respect and desire to be with a person who would do this to me, to our children and to our lives.

Affair

I too am struggling with the aftermath of finding out that my husband was having an affair. The anguish, pain, and emotional turmoil caused by his betrayal to us and our adult children was and is heartbreaking. I totally trusted this man and never would have thought that he would chance our marriage, family and home we built for the comfort of another woman. We have been together over forty years and experienced life together building our family history and foundation wanting better for our family than what we had. For this affair to happened really pulled the foundation of what I thought we built our life together on from beneath us. After finding out about the affair, my husband immediately ended his contact with his paramour. We attended counseling that we had already began due to I found emails to women that were questionable and eventually led to my exposing his questionable contact with one woman in particular. I am struggling with trusting him again. He wants us to move forward, but to visualize him sharing intimate time and space with this woman for a year and five months keeps me awake at nights and unbelievable distress and pain. How does a spouse or your significant other become involved in a relationship with someone else so selfishly and expect forgiveness to move on in a relationship that they ultimately destroyed? To know this man and to visualize him with another woman and sharing his body and exchange of bodily fluids through their intimate contacts is not forgivable. I accept that I cannot change what has happened and want to move on as he wants and hope that our relationship will heal with time, but it will take time. I don't know if I will ever be able to trust him again, although all the articles and counseling indicates otherwise. It's as if the adulterer wants acceptance of their deceit and betrayal, to be forgiven, and all is well. No the dynamics of your relationship, marriage, family has been changed and adversely affected by your selfish behavior, accept it.

forgiving the other offender

my situation is a little different as in My wife's affair was with my best friend. I'm doing well with forgiving my wife and we have made great progress towards rebuilding trust and our relationship. We live very close to my former "friend" so I see him quite often. Our kids are also friends which adds to the awkwardness. I have no plans to ever reconcile with my friend but I am really struggling with forgiving him since looking back he threw what he was doing with my wife in my face numerous times by making what I thought at the time were just smart a$$ or off the cuff comments. He tok full advantage of every detail I ever shared with him about issues with our marriage and used them to his advantage to play her like a violin to get her in to bed.

Wifes affair with Best Friend

I can totally relate to you. My husband had a affair with someone I knew since I was 8 (now I am 52). She would make smart remarks and he would hear her say them. She was always jealous of me and everyone else but especially me. Her only daughter even said she loved my oldest son more then her. I have a hard time understanding and forgiving my husband as he watched her throw digs and forgetting that no one liked her. She was coming over almost every day for 2 1/2 years. I knew she was not a true friend as well as everyone else we knew. All my true friends and family always told me to dump her but I felt sorry for her. My husband knew her for as long as me. He knew for 13 years she would push her daughter off on us or anyone every weekend. He knew she was sleeping with 5 other guys within a 2 month period. She was seeing a guy that was living with a girl for 8 years and tell me and she tought it was funny at that point I didn't even want to talk to her anymore but my husband told me are kids think of her as a aunt you cant do that to them and I was dumb enough to believe him. I never shared any of my marriage details with her. She was not the type of person you could vent to instead she would just try to make matters worse. The best is she actually thought I was jealous of her that's what she wanted. She never got I was never jealous of her I used to feel sorry for her but as time went on I was disgusted by her. Part of the hardest part is how could my husband be so desperate to think a Alcoholic drug addict was going to solve all his problems. I found my designer sun glasses in her car which she made up the stupidest story (she thought they were here mothers) 2 of my kids caught her going threw drawers on the same day looking for my husbands prescribed pills, she told him a woman she did some work for the last 20 years accused her of stealing her pills and no longer used her services. I will never understand how someone can be in such denial of who someone really is and think she was a Goddess when she even told us a few years ago I love drama in other peoples lives. I found out 3 1/2 years ago. He cut off all contact. It took me almost 2 years to realize (I had to be in shock) what a fool he made of himself, his children and me over a piece of ............. A year ago i received a email (she was not computer literate) she received a new phone and had her number changed she had the same number for 15 years. I told my husband I am positive she found herself another married man but this time she messed with the wrong wife. 1 week after I received that message my kids found her daughter posted on facebook that she had passed away. When driving by her condo we saw a huge crack threw her picture window. You can tell someone threw a huge rock at it. (we live 5 min away from her). I will never know the truth but I do believe either she overdosed not sure if it was intentionally or not since she could not tell any one else who she really was I have a feeling the walls were falling down all around her. Or if the drinking and drugs just finally took a toll on her body. I would never wish this on her but it does take a little burden off my shoulders knowing I will never run into her since we live so close to each other. Then again sometimes I wish we did run into one another since I know she is the type that it would bother her that I stayed with my husband but didn't speak to her. She wanted us to divorce because she did not want me to have a good marriage. In my mind all my husband did is tell her she is so gorgeous she was worth giving up his kids and me for her. That is what I have a hard time forgiving. It only makes me wonder if he could do it with no guilt or shame with her coming to our home almost every day how do I really believe it didn't happen before with someone he meet outside of our house. How do you forgive someone that you are almost sure they are no to embarrassed to tell the truth. If your not happy get out of your marriage. I honestly think cheating is one of the cruelest things a person can do. I think its sick how someone can turn your life upside down when you thought your life was not perfect but that one person you trusted the most just threw you away I am having a very hard to time trusting it wont happen again.

I understand! My husband

I understand! My husband also had an affair with my "best friend"for over 3 years. It has been much harder for me to forgive her than to forgive my husband. She was the only person I could talk to about problems with my marriage, and she too used everything I said to play him
I Could see his extreme pain and remorse and He spends everyday trying to make up for all the devastation in our family but I never heard anything from her. During the affair she was never better, he found it difficult to live with himself. I choose everyday to forgive, but only God can make my feelings line up.

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