Forgiveness After an Affair
Forgiveness after an affair is a process with predictable stages. This post looks at what the healing looks like, what to do one things cool down, and why premature forgiveness is a bad idea. It reviews 3 important variables:
- Restoring our belief in the humanity and worthiness of our partner.
- Next, the Hurt partner surrenders their rage and sense of victimization by conducting a vulnerability assessmen and asking: “How the hell did we get here in the first place?”
- Last, they resolve remaining hidden issues to restore a deeper level of trust.
The Danger of the Premature Apology by the Unfaithful Spouse
Some therapy generalists have pretty 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), may be managing resentment, deep shame, anxiety, or fear.
A premature apology is a band-aid of closure over a deeply penetrating wound. It can be the death knell of recovery. The more the unfaithful spouse apologizes, the more they expect to put it behind them.
“Why can’t you get over it? …I said I was sorry a hundred times.”
Leaning into the Hurt Partner
The Involved Partner needs to be curious about how their intimate 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 as a way 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 as a way to avoid understanding your partner’s pain, or you accept your partner’s apology too quickly as a strategy to avoid conflict, the possibility of intimate understanding leading to authentic forgiveness is thwarted.
Forgiveness After an Affair…What Does Healing Look Like?
After rumination and obsession wane, the Hurt Partner tends to become exhausted. The work of science-based affair recovery shifts at this point to begin to explore the question “Why were we vulnerable? What happened to us? How do we prevent this disconnect from happening in the future?”
These thorny, generative questions strengthen the couple’s emotional muscle. Open and candid dialogue, however uncomfortable, promotes an intimate way of talking that was previously unknown to them. They became stronger. They became closer. And they acquired a more realistic appreciation for their marriage and family.
This is where a Marriage Intensive Retreat is so profoundly valuable. I use the terms Couples Retreat, Couples Therapy Intensive, and Intensive Marriage Retreat interchangeably.
I want my couples to slow down and be renewed, not exhausted; after an affair recovery retreat. I would rather them feel restored, reconnected, and revitalized. And they do.
A science-based Intensive Marriage Retreat helps the couple to unpack all of the unresolved issues and hidden conflicts with structured interventions which are informed by a meticulous clinical assessment.
These couples connected their family-of-origin dots. They’ve learned about their individual and relational weaknesses, and they lean into and support one another. Couples engaged in frank therapeutic dialogue understand the impact they have on their kids, as they have a greater respect for how they were impacted by their parents as well.
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 to you. Your old marriage is dead.
I can tell 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 affair need a greater depth of intimacy than they have probably ever known with their partner. They may never been this intimate with anyone in their lives.
It is exhilarating, and maybe 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 hard 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?”
They have to not only be fully aware of their partner’s enduring vulnerabilities, but they also have to have a healthy appreciation for their own.
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 infinity 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
We sometimes ask couples to design a ritual of forgiveness after an affair. If they don’t have a history of valuing ritual 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 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 moral response to their partner’s relational injustice.
There can be forgiveness without reconciliation… but there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness.
How to Forgive a Cheating Spouse and How Forgiveness 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 trauma is called post-traumatic growth (PTG).
The researchers used questionnaires which 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.”
Forgiving an Unfaithful Spouse: Differentiation, Empathy, and Intuition
Forgiveness after infidelity is 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 believed that mirror neurons are the physiological basis for empathy.
Neuroscientists have called this phenomenon at the extreme as mirror-touch synaesthesia, 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 an Unfaithful Spouse Also Related to Intuition?
Every hurt partner who has a straying but 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 spouses’ infidelity with nothing more than a hunch. I strongly suspect that other couples therapist have also had similar experiences with their clients as well.
I believe that 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 pretty 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 complete 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 pick up on the signs of infidelity without quite understanding how they knew.
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.”
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 or not one partner had been unfaithful 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 judgments 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 human interaction, we can make pretty accurate “snap” judgments about other people.
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 phenomena. Perhaps some hurt partners decide to forgive because they believe, by virtue of “thin slicing,” that they safely can.
Forgiving You Cheating Spouse
Forgiveness and marital repair are a process of successful stage of 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?”
Effective affair recovery helps the Hurt Partner answer each of these questions.
The study was published in the journal Personal Relationships (Lambert et al., 2014).
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