Relationships: Tips for Cheating Spouses and their Victims to Forgive Infidelity
While interviewing for my book, “Cinderella Was a Liar,” I heard more than my fair share of tales depicting love-gone-wrong. From infidelity to financial deception, these men and women had been through the ringer and it had left many of them carrying around emotional baggage filled with anger, hurt, and frustration long after the offending party had moved on. We’ve been told carrying grudges can harm our health and that forgiveness is a gift bestowed by the “bigger” people but anyone who has been wronged by someone they loved and trusted knows that letting go of past hurts isn’t easy. In fact, it is one of the hardest things anyone will ever do.
When Mike*, 32, found out that his wife Debbie*, 30, cheated on him with her boss, he was devastated. “There was no way I could have prepared myself for that kind of betrayal,” he says. I just could not imagine this woman I loved harming me in that way. I kept going over it in my mind, trying to prove myself wrong,” he says.
Here are some lessons learned and steps toward forgiveness for those wanting to move forward and let go of the pain.
STEPS TOWARD FORGIVENESS
1. Accept That It Happened.
Denial is a defense mechanism that can help us cope with unpleasant realities that threaten to unravel our sense of reality, ourselves and those we love. It is not uncommon for victims of betrayal to suppress their feelings about a traumatic situation or the entire event itself. While acknowledgment can be painful, it’s also an invaluable ingredient in forgiveness.
Janet*, 29, and Amanda*, 31, had been best friends for ten years when suddenly Janet stopped calling and ended all contact. “I was worried something had happened to her but after I checked in with mutual friends who told me she was fine; my gut instinct told me she was seeing my ex who lived in the same city as she did. She finally confessed to me a month later.”
2. Find Some Understanding.
Understanding how an event might have happened doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it but placing yourself in the shoes of the person who hurt you is a step toward moving on. Instead of beating them over the head with a moral cinderblock, try and understand what they might have been dealing with, how they might have felt or what led them to make such a huge mistake. Was alcohol involved? Were they dealing with a particularly difficult situation? When have you found yourself in a similar situation? Remember that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and we don’t always handle situations the same way. Again, taking time to empathize and understand isn’t saying it was OK, it’s simply giving you a more thorough view of the situation and might offer insight into whether or not you should trust them again.
“My ex destroyed me emotionally and though we broke up, I remained friendly and never really let him know how angry and hurt I was by his actions. Now it is seven years later and I am seething with rage and playing the victim and telling me I have no right to be upset because it was so long ago,” says Shally*, 31.
3. Communicate How You Feel Constructively.
Getting bottled-up feelings out of your system — whether on paper or through verbal communication — with the person who offended you can be a great way of releasing toxic emotions and feeling heard. If the person you are trying to forgive is still a part of your life, let them know how their offense hurt you, share your fears about the situation and the future and maybe even ask them what they might do if the roles were reversed. If you are no longer speaking to the person and simply wanting to let go of the pain and move on, write your feelings in a journal or on a piece of paper that you rip up and throw away. Repeat as often as you need to until you squeeze all of those horrible feelings and thoughts out of your system.
After Amy, 42*, left her first marriage emotionally and financially bankrupt due to her ex’s deceitful and selfish ways, she was understandably cautious about love. Three years after her divorce, she met and married a man who seemed the polar opposite of her ex. “He was compassionate, smart, trustworthy and really cared about me, or so I thought,” she said. “Six months after walking down the aisle, everything changed. I awoke one morning married to a verbally abusive monster. I divorced him but cannot understand how these men could treat me this way. I am a good person,” she said.
4. Realize Bad Things Happen To Good People and Good People Sometimes Do Bad Things.
Many men and women who have been hurt are searching for a reason that will give them the big, “Oh, I get it!” moment when, unfortunately, the reason for bad behavior is usually pretty flimsy and it often has very little to do with them at all. “I cheated on my beautiful, smart, loving wife because I was a drunk and angry man that night and I made a really stupid decision. It was not about wanting sex with the woman at the bar or her being better or sexier than my wife. She actually paled in comparison. It was not about hurting my wife, either. I didn’t even think about her until the next morning, which shows you just how selfish I was that night. I wish I could take it back or give her a more substantial reason for hurting her so deeply but I don’t have one,” says Sam*, 40. Painful situations often feel deeply personal but the truth is: most betrayals are not fueled by a desire to hurt.
5. Accept Their Apology.
Accepting someone’s apology is often more difficult than dealing with someone who never says they are sorry because the decision can be infused with so much doubt and confusion. Rebuilding trust is not an easy task and it will take the work of both parties. The betrayer will need to show how serious they are about deserving trust by never repeating the betrayal or displaying similar behaviors and the betrayed will need to curb suspicions and resist the urge to self-bash by attributing forgiveness with weakness.
6. Let Go Even If You Let Them Go.
Forgiving someone is a strong and noble thing to do and letting go of past pains unhooks your soul from the proverbial hook that is keeping you from moving on with your life. You don’t have to have the person who hurt you in your life to forgive them but if they aren’t in your life, there is an even stronger incentive to let it go. Why hold yourself back with pain and anger while they are out there living their life and moving on? You deserve the best life possible, don’t you?
TIPS FOR THOSE LOOKING TO BE FORGIVEN
Blame-shifting and denial show an inability to accept full responsibility for what you have done, which will only increase the betrayed party’s fear that it will happen again.
Listen to Their Concerns Without Countering.
Allow the person you have hurt to share their grievances with you without having to defend their right to be hurt and upset. Try and put yourself in their shoes and understand how difficult it might be for you to trust them again if the roles had been reversed.
Take Time to Understand Yourself.
If you don’t understand why you did what you did, how can you avoid doing it again? Individual counseling can be a great help.
End All Contact With the Other Person.
There are no exceptions to this. The cheating spouse must establish no contact with their affair partner. Let the other person know you are sorry you have had this affair and intend to work on your marriage and do not wish to see, speak to, or hear from them in any capacity from this point on.
Expect Trust to Take Time.
Just as it would be foolish for you to give blind trust to someone who has hurt you, the person you have hurt will need time and proof from you that you are worthy of a second chance.
Support Your Spouse.
Some betrayed spouses suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and many will have mental images and “triggers” that will cause them to break down or act and react in highly emotional ways.
Understand That Everyone Is Human.
Your cheating spouse is only a person and while he or she might want to be strong and supportive 24-7, there may be times when they are defensive, say the wrong thing and have their own triggers and breakdowns.
Don’t Make Excuses; Cheating is Never OK.
No matter what has been going on in the marriage, bringing another party into it and placing your spouses emotional, mental, and physical health at risk is never an acceptable solution. Cheating is called cheating for a reason, you are cheating your partner out of the marriage you both agreed on without their consent or knowledge.
A qualified mental health professional can be of great assistance to both parties. Marriage counseling, reading books like “Just Not Friends” by Dr. Shirley Glass together and reaching out to a local clergyman, if applicable, can be extremely helpful.
Be Honest With Your Partner.
You may think holding back information is best for the union and may even want to protect your betrayed spouse from the “gory details” but rebuilding trust takes a lot of work and time and how do you think they might feel if they do the work and start to trust you again only to uncover yet another lie? Also, they have a right to know what has been going on in their marriage.
Accept Your Limitations (for the Betrayed).
The bottom line is that there are some couples who can work through infidelity and some who can’t and it is important that you not judge your decision or allow others to shame you for what you choose to do. Staying with someone who cheated on you does not make you weak nor does leaving. Try not to judge yourself for the decision you feel is best for you.
Don’t Involve Your Kids.
Your children love you both and see you as their mother and father and should not be privy to the details of your spouse’s deception or be placed in the role of confidante or counselor.
Know That Once a Cheater is Not Always a Cheater.
Yes, it is a sad reality that some cheaters will cheat again but others will learn from their mistakes and do the hard work of building a stronger moral fiber and healing the internal wounds that caused them to cheat in the first place.
Appreciate The Gift of Forgiveness.
That is exactly what it is, a precious gift. Give and accept it wisely.
Whether you or your spouse committed infidelity, healing and forgiveness are possible. It will take time, but it can be done.
*names have been changed.