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

The Problem with Forgiveness

If you’re looking for specific information on how to reconcile, you’ll need to look elsewhere. However, if you want freedom from the pain of a relationship betrayal, then you’re at the right place. This article is about finding peace in the midst of your storm—through forgiveness.

Yet Those of us at AffairRecovery.com believe there are two elements to this aspect of forgiveness: vertical and horizontal.

Vertical forgiveness is the gift you give yourself. It’s a personal matter and allows you to release yourself from desire for retribution and to free yourself to love again. Vertical forgiveness sets me free from the hurtful actions of others and allows me to move on with dignity and confidence. It is not condoning the unloving acts of others; on the contrary, it’s choosing to act in my own personal best interest.

Sad to say, this wasn’t my approach growing up. I was much more into vengeance. If anyone hurt me, I wanted to make sure they’d never consider messing with me again. Failing to understand that the only person being hurt was myself, all I wanted to do was punish others. It took years for me to learn that forgiveness was for my benefit, not anyone else’s.

Horizontal forgiveness, on the other hand, is about reconciliation, but not just about reconciliation. You can certainly forgive another person for your own benefit without reconciling with them. Therefore, forgiveness involving reconciliation needs to be based on safety. Why put yourself at risk if the other person does not take responsibility for what’s happened and is not committed to stop the hurtful behaviors? On the other hand, if the person who hurt or betrayed you does take responsibility and is making every effort to be safe for you, then why not consider reconciliation?

Let me explain. Suppose you’ve come to my home for a visit, and as you’re pulling a volume off the top shelf of my bookcase, the entire bookcase falls, damaging books and smashing my computer. Your actions have cost me a computer and other property. As a result of this situation, there are four potential outcomes.

  1. You can offer to pay for the damage.
  2. I can tell you not to worry about it, that I’ll take care of it. I purchase another computer.
  3. We can split the cost.
  4. Neither of us can replace what was lost and I have to go without.

Infidelity leaves only one option, number four. There is no way to repay the debt incurred as a result of cheating. No currency in existence can bring life from the grave, and therein lies the problem—betrayal creates death.

Unlike computers or books, broken vows can never be replaced. Broken hearts may mend, but only after the wounded party has paid the price. Shattered dreams and broken homes can’t be redeemed with good intentions and “I’m sorry.”

So how do we, as the one who was hurt, respond if option four is the only choice? Here are seven reasons to choose forgiveness.

  1. For Love’s Sake
    The problem with love is its natural demand for suffering and sacrifice. No committed relationship can meet all your needs. There always comes a point of disappointment where we don’t agree, or my mate fails to meet my expectations, or maybe the relationship just doesn’t provide all I wanted. At that point I have a two-choice dilemma: (1) Do I remain faithful to the relationship? (2) Do I abandon the relationship in search of a solution that will help me feel better? If I chose the latter, my mate pays the cost for my relief. In a sense, I offload my pain to my mate, who then has to decide what they’re going to do. If they choose our relationship, then they have to deal with that pain.

    “Pain that is not transformed will be transmitted,” said author Richard Rohr in his CD series How Do We Breathe Underwater? This is certainly not intentional, but failure to deal with the wounds inflicted upon us profoundly impacts others we love. Each of us carries many wounds; some were passed on from our parents, who failed to deal with the pain inflicted on them by their parents. Other hurts come from current relationships and still others from the disappointments of life. Regardless of the origin of our pain, failure to address the wounds results in the passing of that pain onto others. Our unwillingness to address these wounds brings a continual offloading of our pain to those we love as we desperately try to modulate our personal discomfort. When I choose my personal relief and happiness over my loved ones, my pain will be passed on to them.

    In relationship betrayal, once a hurt mate is wounded, the only action capable of restoring the relationship is forgiveness; but oddly the cost of forgiveness can only be paid by the wounded party, not the unfaithful mate. The unfaithful party can take responsibility and grieve over the impact of his or her actions, and while that may expedite the healing process for the hurt partner, it still doesn’t right the wrong. Bad decisions, as well as good ones, are forever painted onto life’s canvas, and nothing can erase that reality. The decisions we make in life are what they are, and once made, for better or worse, are integrated into the story of our relationship.

    You may be wondering why we should forgive such intense hurt, but forgiveness is the only currency that can pay the debt incurred by actions that are contrary to love. Remember, hurts are not all equal, therefore every act of forgiveness is not as significant as another. For instance, if you hurt me by forgetting to meet me for lunch, if we’re going to remain friends, I have to forgive you, but it is not such a difficult hurt to forgive. If I feel rejected by you and we’re going to remain engaged together in life, I have to forgive, whether the offense was great or small. The greater the hurt, the more difficult, yet significant, is the forgiveness in order to sustain the possibility of reconciling.

    The problem comes when we choose not to forgive. At that point, we’re held captive by the actions of the one who hurt us. The pain never heals and eventually is transmitted to others we love. Please don’t pass on the pain; let it stop here. For the sake of love, do what’s necessary to heal from the pain.
  2. The Alternatives Are Worse
    The wounded mate can attempt to extract payment in the form of revenge, but it will only complicate matters. I’ve seen many wounded people diligently work at having their unfaithful mate endure an equal amount of suffering, and in the process they compromise themselves by having affairs so their mate can see how it feels. Or they use anger and a sharp tongue to inflict pain, only to find themselves behaving in ways they loath.

    Others move into self-protective mode, defending themselves with resentment and bitterness. They refuse to be fooled again. They disconnect and disengage thereby protecting themselves from future hurt, but the consequence to this approach is loneliness and isolation. I believe we were made to connect and to love, but with that comes risk. C. S. Lewis wrote in his book The Four Loves, “Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give your heart to no one. It will not be broken, it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The only place outside of heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all dangers and perturbations of love, is hell.”

    Others choose denial or avoidance and either terminate the relationship or pretend nothing happened. They feel no need to forgive if they can rid themselves of the problem. But getting rid of the source of the pain doesn’t heal the wound; it only takes away the reminder and allows you to move forward as if nothing happened. The problem is that something did happen, and not dealing with it doesn’t make the pain go away. Freedom from pain only comes with forgiveness. It’s the act that liberates you from past hurts and allows you to move unburdened into the future. Failure to forgive leaves you forever a victim.

    Regardless, any of the above alternatives leave you alone and rob your joy and peace. Consider forgiveness over a life of self-protection.
  3. For Freedom’s Sake
    Take a moment and write your definition of forgiveness. In our Harboring Hope Online Course for betrayed spouses,  we like the following definitions:
    • Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person's sin.
    • Forgiveness means giving up all hope of ever having a better past.
    • Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.

    What most fail to recognize is that forgiveness is more of a personal matter than a relational issue. One aspect of forgiveness, reconciliation, is relational in nature, but the majority of the act of forgiveness is personal. You cannot experience freedom until you engage in exercising this forgiveness both vertically and horizontally.

    In a sense, forgiveness is the action we take to set ourselves free from the pain inflicted by others. Forgiveness is love’s response to their hurtful actions, liberating us from painful memories and enabling us to move unfettered into the future.
  4. Forgiveness Works Better than Controlling
    Frequently the wounded party will use forgiveness (or withholding forgiveness) as a means of controlling the behavior of the unfaithful mate. Fear and guilt can only work so long in restraining their negative behavior. As long as the guilt or fear is present, it serves as a motivator for the unfaithful spouse to keep their nose clean, but as the pain inflicted by the hurt spouse (through unforgiveness or control) wears off, so does the effectiveness. We desperately want to believe that we can keep ourselves safe by withholding forgiveness from the one who hurt us—that somehow our bitterness and resentment will keep them from doing it again.

    But what we don’t realize is how this approach puts us in a prison of our own making. If we’re to hold our betrayer hostage by anger or resentment, then we sentence ourselves to the same. Every jail needs a jailer, and the price of keeping our mate’s behavior at bay is the loss of our own freedom. In the long run not only does this approach not work, but is condemns us to a miserable life. Besides, even if it could work—and it won’t—you’ll only find yourself in more difficult circumstances. You never want to be your mate’s motivation for recovery.
  5. You Can’t Receive What You Can’t Give
    All true spirituality is paradoxical—the way up is the way down, the first shall be last, you have to give to receive—and so it is with forgiveness. To receive forgiveness you have to give forgiveness. This isn’t some abstract concept; it’s a reality. Have you noticed how much easier it is to forgive a person who themselves is quick to forgive?

    Therefore it’s pragmatically smart to forgive if you want to maintain healthy relationships. Those who forgive will not only set themselves free but they will also set others free to live at peace with them in return.
  6. It’s Your Best Shot at Growing Up
    I believe we were made to love, and that love is not about others getting it right; rather, it’s about being able to act in the best interest of others even when they get it wrong. Mercy always triumphs over judgment. Remember what I said at the beginning of the document, we’re not talking here about how to reconcile; we’re talking about the forgiveness you give yourself. Love always acts in the best interest of the other person, and there are certainly times when it’s not best to be in relationship with the other person. It’s not loving to enable your mate’s hurtful actions; love requires you to address those actions. These are responsible, mature reactions to pain, only possible through forgiveness.

    Life isn’t about the “pursuit of happiness”; it’s about the pursuit of love—not the pursuit of “being loved,” but growing in our knowledge of love and growing closer to the source of love. If you want to know how far you still need to grow and mature in this life, just try to go twenty-four hours without thinking of yourself, and you’ll quickly discover how much growing you need to do. If the majority of your day is spent on concern for self verses concern for others, then your life will always be dependent on others’ ability to get it right. Do yourself a favor; grow up by learning to love.
  7. Don’t Be a Victim
    When someone comes to my office and presents him or herself as a victim, one thing is for sure—they’ve got unforgiveness in their hearts. Unforgiveness leaves us forever anchored to the failures of others. They aren’t even our mistakes, but we’re the ones affected. We have two choices: we can either hang on to the hurt out of a sense of justice, or we can extend mercy out of a motive of love. Resentments are nothing more than the deadly toxin we take to kill the one who wounded us.

    If you want freedom—and who doesn’t—then learn to forgive. You don’t have to be a victim. You can live a small life focused on how others are mistreating you or you can actually become a proactive person full of life and love.

I know you may not have a clue about how to let go of your hurt. You’re human, and so you want justice and for your mate to feel what you’re feeling. I can’t say that I blame you, but my prayer for you is to find freedom and peace in the midst of your storm. I hope these points have encouraged you to consider letting go of vengeance and convinced you to embrace forgiveness and love. There really is life after death. If you would like to forgive your mate, a great next step is joining Harboring Hope. If you would like to forgive yourself for betraying your mate, a great next step is joining Hope for Healing Online Course for unfaithful spouses. If you want to find out if there's anything worth salvaging, try our Free 7 Day First Steps Bootcamp for Surviving Infidelity.  You can complete this bootcamp alone or together as a couple.

Harboring Hope is 12-week online course designed to help you heal from the wounds of betrayal. Harboring Hope is unique in that it anonymously joins you with other betrayed spouses in a small group through a weekly conference call. In fact, Harboring Hope was designed by betrayed spouses just like you, and to my knowledge it’s the best resource available for those who want freedom and hope. Our ultimate goal at AffairRecovery.com is to help you heal. We encourage you to take action; please don’t allow resentment to rob you of life.

Hope for Healing is a 17 week course designed to bring healing to unfaithful spouses, regardless of the stance of the betrayed spouse. Hope for Healing will teach you to identify your barriers and break through them. We know it is scary, but we will help you cut ties with your affair partner, if not done already, and help you set up boundaries to begin healing those you’ve wounded. Utilizing customized materials from Rick Reynolds himself, Hope for Healing joins you with several other unfaithful spouses in a private, small men’s or women’s group. The group communicates via a weekly conference call as well as an online forum that is available 24/7. Your small group is a safe place where you can receive support from others on your path to recovery.




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