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

Do You Struggle with Forgiveness?

The struggle with forgiveness after infidelity

This week we hear from a wonderful friend and fellow survivor of infidelity. Mona Shriver and her husband, Gary, co-founded Hope and Healing Ministries, 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 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.

What Forgiveness Is Not

First we must understand what forgiveness is not. 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.1

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.

Unforgiveness Can Cause Us More Pain

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 if you're a woman or men if you're a man, and hope for both forgiveness and personal restoration.


1. Stanley, Charles. The Gift of Forgiveness. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1987. Print.




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