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

The Problem with Forgiveness

Hope Rising 2019

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Regrettably, forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood variables when it comes to discussions surrounding infidelity. If you're looking for freedom from the pain of a relationship betrayal, then you're in the right place. Today I'd like to help you find a sense of peace in the midst of your own personal storm.

We at AffairRecovery.com believe there are two elements to forgiveness: vertical and horizontal.

Vertical forgiveness is a gift you give yourself.

It's a personal matter that not only allows you to release yourself from the desire for retribution but frees you up to love again. Vertical forgiveness sets you free from the hurtful actions of others. It allows you to move on with dignity and confidence. Choosing vertical forgiveness does not condone the unloving acts of others; on the contrary, by practicing this type of forgiveness, you are acting in your best interest.

Unfortunately this wasn't my approach growing up. I liked the idea of vengeance. If anyone hurt me, I wanted to make sure they'd never consider messing with me again. I failed to realize that the only person I was hurting was me. My motivation for harboring unforgiveness was to punish others. It took years for me to learn that forgiveness was for my benefit -- not anyone else's.

Horizontal forgiveness is about reconciliation.

And reconciliation needs to be based on safety. Why would you 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, reconciliation is worth considering.

Suppose you've come to my home for a visit. As you're pulling a book off the top shelf of my bookcase, the entire bookcase falls, damaging everything in its path, including my computer. Your actions have cost me.

As a result of this situation, there are four potential outcomes:

  1. You can offer to pay for the damage.
  2. We can split the cost.
  3. I can tell you not to worry about it; that I'll take care of the expense for a new computer.
  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. Betrayal creates a form of death and there is no currency in existence that can bring life from the grave.

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 mere "I'm sorry's".

So how does the betrayed spouse respond if option four is the only choice?

I'd like to share six reasons to choose forgiveness:

1. For Love's Sake

The problem with love is its natural demand for suffering and sacrifice. While not an extremely popular belief, the truth is, no committed relationship can meet all your needs. Disappointment is inevitable in times where we don't agree, my mate fails to meet my expectations, or when I realize that 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.

When it comes to indifelity, the only action capable of restoring the relationship is forgiveness; but oddly enough, 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; nothing can erase that reality. The decisions we make in life, for better or worse, are integrated into the story of our relationship.

The problem comes when we choose to not 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 who haven't cheated on us. Please don't pass on your pain; let it stop here. For the sake of love, do what's necessary to heal.

2. The Alternatives Are Worse

The wounded mate can attempt to extract payment in the form of revenge, but will only complicate matters. I've seen many wounded people diligently work at having their unfaithful mate endure an equal amount of suffering. In the process, they compromise themselves by having affairs so their mate can see how it feels.

Some hurt mates will use anger and a sharp tongue to inflict pain and shame, only to find themselves behaving in ways they genuinely 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.

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.

But something did happen. Not dealing with it won't keep the pain at bay forever. Freedom from pain only comes with forgiveness.

3. For Freedom's Sake

Take a moment and write your definition of forgiveness. In our Harboring Hope Online Course for betrayed spouses, we utilize the following definitions:

  1. Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person's sin.
  2. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of ever having a better past.
  3. 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. Reconciliation (one aspect of forgiveness), is relational in nature; but the majority of forgiveness is personal.

You cannot experience freedom until you begin to exercise forgiveness.

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 trauma and enabling us to move unfettered into the future.

4. Forgiveness Works Better than Controlling

Often 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.

Unfortunately this approach only puts us in a prison of our own making. If we are 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 this approach not only fails, but 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. It's Your Best Shot at Personal Restoration

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. Love always acts in the best interest of the other person. There are certainly times when it's not best to be in relationship with the other person. Enabling your mate's hurtful actions is not love. Love requires you to address those actions.

6. Refuse to Remain A Victim

When people come to my office and present themselves as a victim, one thing is for sure—they're harboring unforgiveness in their hearts. This unforgiveness leaves us forever anchored to the failures of others. Resentment is the subtle and deadly toxin we personally consume in an attempt to hurt the one who wounded us. But we only hurt ourselves. We have two choices: we can either hang on to the hurt out of a sense of justice, or we can extend mercy from a motive of love. Failure to forgive leaves you forever a victim.

I hope the reasons to choose forgiveness resonate with you. While forgiveness is not easy, it's certainly worth it.

If you're ready to start the journey of finding freedom and forgiveness, I hope you'll consider registering for EMS Weekend. This 3 day intensive is a safe place for you both to learn, grow and heal.
Our 3-day weekend intensive for couples to heal after infidelity now offering $1,000 discount for virtual months during the pandemic. Limited availability.

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