Infidelity 101: Is Forgiveness Possible after An Affair?

By Liz Currin, Ph.D.

We've all heard the old adage "forgive and forget". But, if you're like most people, you've probably asked yourself whether that's really possible. This is especially true with something as gut-wrenching as infidelity. After all, we generally consider marriage to be the most sacred personal and legal bond between two individuals. Adultery can devastate that bond and the two people who vowed to love, cherish, and forsake all others for the rest of their lives.

Forgiveness is deeply rooted in most of the world's major religious traditions. In Christianity, for example, we are to forgive out of obedience to God, because He forgives us for our sins. It is an act of the will, not a feeling, although, in time it is believed that God will soften our hearts toward the individual who wronged us. Jews are required to extend forgiveness to those who sincerely and remorsefully apologize for the wrongs they have done to others and attempt to rectify those wrongs. In Islam, the wrongdoer is required to admit his offense before God and the person he offended; he must commit to not repeating the offense; he must attempt to rectify the offense; and he must ask God for forgiveness. Buddhism focuses on the negative effects on ourselves of harboring hatred and ill-will toward those who have wronged us. It emphasizes instead the release of such feelings and the unreality of those feelings and the behaviors that gave rise to them in the first place. Hindus emphasize forgiveness and atonement for wrongdoing as it relates to karma, or the impact of one's deeds and experiences on one's present and future lives.

Our legal system also recognizes concepts of mercy and forgiveness. A pardon is an official act in which the remaining term of a person's legal punishment is set aside. While it does not mean the individual is not guilty, it does mean he is forgiven and longer deserving of punishment. Clemency is legal leniency or mercy, and generally involves reducing the harshness of punishment to some degree. Commutation of a sentence also involves reduction of the penalty for a criminal act, for instance, commuting a death sentence to life imprisonment. It is generally awarded for good behavior on the prisoner's part.

So, society and history abound with precedents for forgiveness. And while it bears repeating that we never forget something as devastating to a marriage as infidelity, some couples are able to attain forgiveness and move on to another stage in their relationship. Remember that forgiveness is a choice. It is an act of will, not a feeling. It springs from our volition, our capacity to decide something and act independently of our emotions.

Most relationship experts would probably agree that the process of forgiveness must begin with the betraying partner's sincere, heartfelt apology for the pain he has caused. Before he can have any hope of forgiveness, the partner who has betrayed his spouse and her beliefs and expectations about the relationship must express genuine remorse for the havoc he has wrought in their lives. And remorse is only the beginning. The spouse who had the affair must repent, or turn away from, everything associated with the affair and the affair partner. This means that all communication with the affair partner must cease.* Furthermore, the participating spouse must be willing to demonstrate commitment to her husband by becoming extremely "transparent" in her daily activities. Her words must match her deeds, without exception.

But what if you find that you just can't bring yourself to forgive? Then the reality is that your marriage is probably not salvageable. If your spouse has expressed sincere remorse and repentance and the desire to work on repair of the relationship, but you can't get past your anger, bitterness, and resentment, the marriage will either plod along as a place of misery and toxic interaction, or you will decide that it's best to end it and to start over individually. And for some couples that may be the more workable solution to the lasting damage that infidelity does to a relationship. If, after a reasonable period of time in which to evaluate your marriage after an affair, you are still struggling with forgiveness, it may help to contact a knowledgeable and skillful psychologist. He or she can help you assess the viability of your marriage. Whether you are able to forgive the affair and commit to working on your marriage or not, an experienced clinician can help you move forward with your life.

*In cases where the spouse who participated in the affair and the affair partner must continue to work together, special considerations and arrangements will need to be in place. These may include conditions under which the affair partners may speak or meet with each other, acceptable topics of conversation, and the betrayed spouse's ability to monitor their interactions.