We get a lot of questions about how to achieve forgiveness after infidelity. Achieving forgiveness after an affair is a process with predictable stages. This post looks at what the healing looks like, what to do once things cool down, and why premature forgiveness is a bad idea. It reviews 3 essential variables:
Restoring our belief in the humanity and worthiness of our partner.
The Danger of the Premature Apology by the Unfaithful Spouse
Some therapy generalists have quaint notions about forgiveness after an affair. They think that if an affair is disclosed or discovered, the unfaithful spouse (“Involved Partner”) must offer the sincerest of apologies. The earlier, the better.
The science of forgiveness warns us that the problem with a premature apology is that the Involved Partner does not yet fully comprehend the full impact of their behavior on the Hurt Partner.
Absent that realization… of what value is the apology?
Involved Partners, particularly those who have been found out (as opposed to fessing up), are managing resentment, deep shame, anxiety, or fear.
A premature apology is a band-aid of closure over a deep penetrating wound. It won’t help you achieve forgiveness after an affair if it’s offered too soon and too often.
The more the unfaithful spouse apologizes, the more they expect the Hurt Partner to put it behind them.
Even if forgiveness is achieved, rebuilding trust is a separate issue.
For many Hurt Partners, forgiving may indicate that they want to trust their unfaithful spouse, but a felt sense of trusting their partner may not yet be within reach.
Forgiveness helps the Hurt Partner who’s doing the forgiving find relief from pain, but trust helps the Involved Partner find relief from guilt and toxic shame. The act of rebuilding trust, according to Gottman, has an almost mathematical dimension and requires the ongoing participation of both the Hurt and Involved Partners.
After infidelity, most couples struggle to find a way to ease the pain, and forgiveness may seem like a less-painful way out. Unfortunately, when a Hurt Partner is pressured into premature forgiveness, emotional distance and prolonged suffering usually follow. Often this “forgiveness” collapses because it is neither resilient nor durable.
“Why can’t you get over it? …I said I was sorry a hundred times.”
Leaning into the Hurt Partner…the First Step in Forgiveness After an Affair
The Involved Partner needs to be more curious about exactly how their Hurt Partner’s world got turned upside down.
Hurt Partners crave to be heard and understood. The Involved Partner too often stuffs an apology into the mix to relieve their own anxiety and avoid meaningful and intimate engagement around the essential question “How could you do this to me?
Conflict-Avoidant Couples complicate matters further by colluding around apologies and forgiveness at warp speed. When you apologize too quickly to avoid understanding your partner’s pain, or you accept your partner’s apology too soon as a strategy to avoid conflict, the possibility of intimate understanding leading to authentic forgiveness is often thwarted.
How to Forgive an Affair
It is easier to forgive after an affair if you use the infidelity to achieve a level of intimacy previously not reached between you.
Your old marriage is dead. Here’s a chance to build something new.
It is obvious when a couple still has work to do when one of them complains, “I just want things to go back to the way they used to be.”
You would never want to return to your old marriage that was vulnerable to an affair anyway.
Hurt partners who forgive after an affair need a greater depth of intimacy than they have ever known with their partner. They may never have been this intimate with anyone in their lives before.
It is exhilarating, and a little scary. In our Marriage Retreats, we teach couples how to “share the scare.” We help our clients turn the “scared parts” into the “shared parts” by asking generative questions.
Sure, there are bumps and setbacks. Sometimes it’s three steps forward and two steps back. This is arduous work. Work that is, however, deeply satisfying and will echo through time.
Here is the counter-intuitive part: The Hurt Partner works hard to get through their rumination and obsession stage. And just as things seem to have calmed down, science-based couples therapists go back into the Lion’s Den and encourage them to talk about the affair.
Forgiveness After an Affair. Things have Calmed Down…Are We There Yet?
First, we want the help our couples discover how they were vulnerable to an affair in the first place. We want to see how attuned they are to each other’s love maps. We ask, “You’ve done a great deal of work here… how do you think either one or both of you could screw it up?”
As my wife is fond of reminding me, “We are all Bozos on this bus.” Our couple must have a felt sense of where they might blow themselves up. That way, they are less likely to do so.
Forgiving a Cheating Spouse is a Two-Way Street
This takes courage. Both partners fess up to how they contributed to why their marriage slid into a vulnerable place. There is no Victim or Perp at this stage.
Just two people being vulnerable with each other about the sadness and disappointment they stuffed down for years.
The final discussion involves forgiving yourself, as well as your partner. Forgiveness must be asked… and accepted. It’s an infinite loop.
I like for clients to forgive each other first, and then forgive themselves. Some therapists reverse this sequence. In any event, self-forgiveness is an essential part of this process.
The Importance of Ritual in Forgiveness after an Affair
We sometimes ask couples to design a ritual of forgiveness after an affair. If they don’t have a history of valuing rituals in their family-of-origin, we may offer some suggestions. A ritual burial or burning of an object that symbolizes the affair is sometimes appropriate. We help the couple to craft a ritual that is laden with meaning for both spouses.
Lewis Smedes’ fascinating 1996 book, The Art of Forgiving, describes three distinct stages of forgiveness after an affair. These stages also apply to the therapeutic work of forgiveness after an affair.
Here are the 3 things I promised to tell you that you must understand about the process of forgiveness:
The first stage of forgiveness after an affair is restoring our belief in the humanity and worthiness of our partner. This only happens after rumination and obsession subside. For many couples invested in affair recovery, the answer to “how could you do this to me?” became more like the generative question, “How did we slip so far apart?”
Next, the Hurt partner surrenders their rage and sense of victimization. This happens during the eyeball to eyeball discussion of “How the hell did we get here in the first place?” I call this a vulnerability assessment. Now we are all thinking systemically about both sides of the street.
Last, they adjust their stance toward each other. Hidden issues are resolved. Trust is restored. A narrative of how the infidelity occurred is agreed upon. The couple uses the affair to create a new, deeper relationship.
For affair recovery to be successful, you must reclaim your ability to feel deeply, connect the dots from your family-of-origin issues, and grieve together. Dr. Susan Johnson, the developer of Emotionally-Focused Therapy, is clear in her assertion that affair recovery in successful when the grief of the Hurt Partner is shared. Couples can emerge stronger and tougher for their efforts. And they model that toughness and emotional resilience for their kids as well.
Forgiving an Unfaithful Spouse: What the Research Says
New research (Lambert et al., 2014) on how couples reconcile after infidelity has examined several factors, such as the passage of time, relationship satisfaction, and commitment. It shows that none of these factors is anywhere near as crucial for reconciling after an affair than forgiving an unfaithful spouse.
Forgiveness is the key to reconciling after infidelity, research finds.
The researchers interviewed nearly 600 couples (almost all of these study subjects were married) who had all experienced infidelity within the previous 6 months.
The research says that when the hurt partner can forgive, it is possible to begin reconciling after infidelity and become even stronger as a couple because forgiveness has been bestowed.
Forgiveness is a spouse’s’s moral response to their partner’s’s relational injustice.
Forgiveness is a complicated human endeavor. There can be forgiveness without reconciliation… but there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness.
How Forgiveness After an Affair Really Works
But how does forgiveness work? Finding meaning in the trauma of infidelity, and the struggle to reconcile creates an opportunity for growth. Growth, which occurs through injury is called post-traumatic growth (PTG).
The researchers used questionnaires that examined how much trauma each study subject had experienced, how the affair had been discovered, and how far along they were toward reconciling after infidelity.
Forgiving an unfaithful spouse, involves a co-created understanding of what happened, what it means, and the implications for a still-shared future. The research revealed that forgiveness played the most significant role in getting over the pain of infidelity.
The authors write:
“Forgiveness trumps all in terms of PTG [post-traumatic growth]. Those who were more able to forgive their partners for the infidelity also experienced more growth after the event.”
Infidelity is becoming an increasingly common problem in modern marriages, the study’s authors noted:
“Infidelity remains one of the most difficult issues faced by couples and for the counseling professionals who work with them. Reviews consistently document that somewhere between 22 and 25% of men and 11 and 15% of women are willing to report having sex with someone other than their spouses while married.”
Stage 2… Unpacking the Issues
Stage 2 of affair recovery is the Epiphany Phase. In order to fully, heal and achieve real forgiveness, there has to be a careful unpacking of how both spouses may have contributed to the infidelity.
What was missing in the marriage just beforehand? This is not going to work if the Hurt Partner feels blamed, or if the Involved Partner is seeking to dilute or shift responsibility.
What is most important is identifying the “enduring vulnerabilities” that rendered the marriage weaker and more vulnerable to an infidelity.
And it’s this careful exploration of pre-affair emotional disconnection that blazes a trail for a new relationship to follow.Have a deep, Generative Conversation and explore the motives behind the infidelity, and the potential for rebuilding trust.
Without an awareness of the circumstances which fueled the affair, the relationship will remain vulnerable, and probably will not change. This will be a tough but much needed conversations. Answer questons in paragraphs. Don’t interrupt. Take notes. And don’t forget to take a break after 20 minutes.
Think of the affair as the tipping point which toppled an already unsteady marital house. Hard conversations will lead to healing and forgiveness. But you will both be asked to co-create of narrative that makes sense.
Hard Questions for Partners Who Want to Heal
If you’re the Hurt Partner, having these conversations will have to wait until your nervous system is more fully under your control. Hurt, furious, and frightened is no way to go about it. And if you’re the partner who had an affair, collapsing into shame or being defiantly defensive is no way to engage with your hurt spouse either.
If you’re the Involved Partner who had the affair, and you want to heal, you must create a feeling of safety for your Hurt Partner. You will need to disclose, be completely transparent, and answer questions (sometimes the same ones over and over).
You will have to be patient and bet here for your spouse for as long as it takes. The luxury of secrecy that you once enjoyed is over. And it won’t come back for awhile. Hurt Partners have many questions. The first ones are usually related to situations on the ground. They want to know more than that it’s over. They may also ask:
How do you know you won’t contact them in the future?
How do I know that it’s over?
What if he or she reaches out to you?What then? Will you tell me?
Have you blocked them on social media? Are you willing to be transparent with me?
You say you want to stay together. How will I know if you change your mind
Status Questions for the Unfaithful Spouse
Forgiveness after an affair is hard work. These questions are for couples that really want to forgive, heal, and move on through time together.
Healing and forgiveness can only begin if the unfaithful spouse takes full responsibility and is contrite.
That involves helping their hurt partner to understand what happened and how their marriage became vulnerable.
That means taking responsibility for the infidelity as well as the painful aftermath. Hurt Partners will ask status questions of their unfaithful partner like these:
Did you ever consider ending it..or wonder how it would end?
What do you regret about having this affair?
How do you feel about your affair partner now?
How do you feel about the impact on us…on me?
Did you ever fear that I would find out?
Did you figure what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me?
Getting Help with the Hardest Questions
The hardest conversations will involve the question, “Why?” Once your nervous systems have calmed down, a different line of inquiry is needed. A good couples therapist can help you with this phase.
However, “why” isn’t such a good question. It’s too focused on the tipping point. “How, what, and when” are much better questions.
How did your affair make you feel? How was it different to the way you felt about us?More powerful? Did you feel more loved? Did you get more attention? Did you feel more nurtured?What was so different?
Have you ever felt that way in our marriage?
When did you stop feeling it?
What, specifically, changed for you?
What was the biggest difference between the relationship with your affair partner and our marriage?
Let’s talk about what needs to be different… You go first, I’ll take notes. Then I’ll go, and you take notes.
Forgiveness and healing require a well-weeded space to bloom. But first, you need to understand the enduring vulnerabilities of your marriage and honestly consider whether or not you want to address them.
Sometimes Hurt Partners may fret about not being able to meet the need, or their resentment and hurt exhausts any desire to even try. That’s why timing is essential. Both spouses will need to be steady on their feet and honestly report what they want and what they want to give. It’s a team effort.
Forgiveness After an Affair: Differentiation, Empathy, and Intuition
Forgiveness after infidelity can be difficult. But the researchers found a particular trait that hurt partners who are reconciling after infidelity has in common. The most significant characteristic of those who were better able to achieve forgiveness was a high degree of differentiation.
The researchers described their findings:
“Differentiation of self refers to the ability to experience both intimacy and autonomy within a relationship. Well-differentiated individuals are able to maintain a clearly defined sense of self and engage in meaningful intimacy while allowing others the space for their own positions.”
In other words, hurt partners who are better able to take care of themselves first, tend to recover faster after the trauma of an unfaithful spouse.
Another critical way forgiveness is achieved is when empathy enters the healing process. Empathy is the ability to not only understand the feelings of your partner but to feel them as well.
It’s’s believed that mirror neurons are the physiological basis for empathy.
Neuroscientists have called this phenomenon mirror-touch synesthesia, where mirror neurons are activated when one animal sees another animal engage in a particular behavior. During moments of deep empathy between a couple, mirror neuron activity can be particularly acute.
Is Forgiving After an Affair Also Related to Intuition?
Every hurt partner who has a straying but a staying partner is challenged by the same question… am I a fool for forgiving and reconciling?
And surprising new research tells us of the power of intuition.
I have been consistently impressed by the many narratives I have heard from hurt partners who have uncovered their unfaithful spouses” infidelity with nothing more than a hunch. I strongly suspect that other couples therapists have also had similar experiences with their clients as well.
The notions of empathy and intuition are somehow two sides of the same coin. Intuition is looking inside oneself to discover knowledge or understanding, which is grounded in felt experience and subconscious awareness.
On the other hand, empathy is the ability to access and resonate with an emotional state outside of ourselves.
New research tells us that intuition is a profoundly useful way to know if a partner has been unfaithful. Researchers learned that we are fairly good at telling if our spouse has cheated just from observing a small amount of their behavior in an otherwise neutral situation.
In this study, even a stranger was able to spot a relationship cheat just by watching an unknown couple interacting for a few minutes.
Both the couple’s degree of trustworthiness and relational commitment ”leaked out” from their behavior.
The study subjects were able to automatically notice the signs of infidelity without quite understanding how they knew.
For the study, committed couples were given a quick-drawing game to play that was recorded. The couples also answered questions about their marital fidelity.
Complete strangers watched the three-to-five-minute video and were asked to guess whether one partner had been an unfaithful spouse to the other.
The results showed that strangers did surprisingly well, considering the meager amount of information they had to go on.
The researchers determined that people can make remarkably accurate judgments about others in a variety of situations after just a brief exposure to their behavior.
Forgiving an Unfaithful Spouse and “Thin Slicing”
Ambady and Rosenthal (1992) referred to this brief, intuitive observation as a “thin slice.”
“Thin-slicing” is defined as observing a small part an interaction, usually less than 5 minutes, and being able to draw accurate conclusions about the emotions and attitudes of the people observed.
Judgments based on “thin-slicing” can be just as accurate, or even more accurate, than decisions based on much more information. Researchers have been debating the phenomena of “thin-slicing” for over twenty-five years.
We know that it’s a fact that accurate information on human beings can be mysteriously gleaned from very little data. We don’t fully understand how, but the fact remains that in many realms of social interaction, we can make pretty accurate “snap” judgments about other people, and of course, our life partners.
We don’t yet understand how human intuition works…but we do know that it exists.
There is no reason to assume that our life partners are exempt from this poorly understood human phenomenon. Perhaps some hurt partners achieve forgiveness after an affair because they believe, by “thin-slicing,” that they safely can.
At the risk of sounding metaphysical, the researchers conclude that:
“…people may be internally programmed to identify inclinations that could be devastating to their relationship.…individuals seeking a committed relationship may be well advised to listen to their intuition or at least think twice before committing to someone they suspect may be inclined to cheat.”
Forgiveness After An Affair Involved 3 Vital Questions
Forgiveness after an affair is typically the result of a successful affair recovery. Each stage requires successful completion before the next is reached. It involves fully answering three vital questions we’ve covered in this post:
“Is my believe restored in the humanity and worthiness of our partner?”
“Do I know how we got here in the first place?”
Last, “Am I confident that there are no more hidden issues and that I can now begin to trust and heal again?”
Active affair recovery helps the Hurt Partner answer each of these questions and achieve true forgiveness after an affair.
Forgiveness After an Affair…What Does Healing Look Like?
After rumination and obsessions wane, the Hurt Partner tends to become physically and emotionally exhausted.
The work of science-based affair recovery shifts at this point to begin to explore the question:
“How were we vulnerable? What happened to us? How do we prevent this disconnect from happening in the future?”
Forgiveness after an affair is possible if both spouses are committed to the process.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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