Practicing Forgiveness After an Affair

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I recently wrote about rebuilding trust after an affair and how forgiveness is important to the process of rebuilding trust. I promised in that last blog that I would tackle that topic which is why I’m writing this one.

I’m sure you’ve heard that you need to “forgive and forget,” but from a neurological perspective, forgetting is certainly not a part of that process. In fact, if you read the last blog then you know that forgetting isn’t even necessarily recommended. You should remember that there has been an affair in the past. That’s a protective factor for both of you.

When you learn to forgive, memories of an affair can play a much smaller role than they do now. So, the aim is not to forget, but to forgive.

Here are some practical steps you can take to work on forgiveness.

#1: Understand why there is a need for forgiveness.

This is a two-parter. First of all, you need to understand what your spouse has done that deserves forgiveness. And this isn’t necessarily a straight-forward answer. For some couples, it takes a few months to get the full realization of what the betrayal means for them. For instance, at first, there may be a focus on the physical part of the relationship while some time later the focus may be on the actual deception that was necessary to hide the affair, still later, the focus may be on the emotional relationship that the spouse had with the lover. But, to fully forgive, you must fully understand all areas of the hurt.

Secondly, you have to understand that forgiveness is essential for a healthy relationship with your spouse and with God. Unforgiveness drives a wedge between you and your spouse creating a barrier to intimacy. You can’t be intimate (physically or emotionally) with someone that you haven’t forgiven. It’s impossible to really share yourself with a person you haven’t forgiven. We also know that Scripture says that if we don’t forgive others, then we can’t stand in prayer before God and expect him to answer us.

#2: Understand that forgiveness is a process.

Forgiveness doesn’t happen overnight. In fact, Dr. Worthington describes forgiveness as a two-step process. We have the ability to decide to forgive and then later we can feel as though we have forgiven.

Deciding to forgive is a little more simple than actually feeling the forgiveness and only requires that you make a decision to forgive the other person even if you’re still upset with them. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the behavior or give them a right to act in the same manner in the future. It simply says, I will not hold this against you any longer. I choose to forgive you even though you don’t ‘deserve’ it.

The emotional part of the forgiveness comes later. After making a decision to forgive, there may be times when you “feel” as though you’ve forgiven at one point in time and then something triggers you to get upset about the previous affair. All of a sudden it can feel as though you haven’t actually forgiven even though you thought that you had. But, it’s not reasonable or possible to “forgive and forget.” You will have memories. When they come back, choose once again to forgive.

Never forget that forgiveness requires the decision and later the emotions will follow.

#3: Sometimes, we can’t forgive in our own power and need God’s help.

I’m certainly not going to pretend that forgiveness comes easy or that you can just decide to forgive someone. There are times when the hurt is so deep that you actually need to seek God’s help to forgive others.

There’s an example I often like to give people when they’re trying to forgive that comes directly from the actions of Jesus. If you read the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus often met with people, would get to know them, and would tell them, “Go and sin no more.” But when he was sent to the cross for our forgiveness he looked down from the cross and said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” So it seems, that in a time of ultimate betrayal from others, Jesus actually sought the help of God for forgiveness. Now I know, theologically speaking the entire reason for him going to the cross was for us to gain forgiveness of our sins. All, I’m saying here is that we can ask God to forgive people when we’re finding it difficult to do it ourselves.

#4: Forgiveness gets easier when we recognize that we’ve been forgiven (even if you’ve never had an affair).<

I noted in the last paragraph that Jesus was willing to go to the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Even before we sinned in fact. He was willing to give his all. As Christians, we can get in the habit of forgetting the great gift that God gave us with Christ’s death on the cross. But, if we can keep in mind that God has forgiven much, we can more easily forgive those that have hurt us.

I’m praying for you and your marriage!

Dr. J.

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