How to Forgive Husband’s Betrayal

Note: This is the first of a two-part series.

Dear Neil:  My husband slept with one of our business customers 18 months ago.  I found out, and my life just hasn’t been the same since.  I have tried to put it behind me, but I just can’t get the betrayal out of my head.  To make matters worse, he lied about what happened.  I love him, but I can’t forgive his betrayal and the hurt I feel.  Looking back, I think I dedicated myself to my children, leaving little time for us to be a couple.  What do you think I should do?

Unforgiving in Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Unforgiving:  It is commonly assumed that when you forgive, your negative feelings are completely replaced by positive ones.  The problem with this expectation is that it puts forgiveness out of reach.  In truth, when you grant forgiveness, you make room for negative or angry spikes in your emotions that are bound to arise.  So says Janis Abrahams Spring in the book How Can I Forgive You? (Perennial Currants).

She says that what happens when you genuinely forgive is that you allow more tender or positive emotions, such as love, sadness and grief, to co-exist with your negative betrayed emotions.  By doing this you allow a richer, more balanced, more complex reaction—encompassing what your husband did wrong and what he did right, both the damage he inflicted on you and his efforts to make good.

Here’s what you can do if you want to explore how you can let go of your hurt and resentment in order to forgive, according to Spring:

  • You honor the full scope of your emotions.  You appreciate the magnitude of the wrong that was done to you and give full voice to the violation.
  • You give up your need for revenge but continue to seek a just resolution.  The goal of revenge is to crucify the offender; your goal is to resurrect your best self.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner points out in Living A Life That Matters, our “thirst for revenge is really a need to reclaim a power, to shed the role of victim and substitute action for helplessness.”   Before you act revengeful, ask yourself:  “What response will best help me recapture my dignity, my self-respect, my sense of control over the world?   In the end, what am I after?”
  • You stop obsessing about the injury and reengage with life.  You must make a conscious decision to break loose from your nagging thoughts about feeling betrayed, reclaim your energy and reach out to life again.
  • You protect yourself from further abuse.
  • You remind yourself that, yes, your husband did something to you but what he did was not necessarily about you.  You realize that he was born with a deck of cards, that over time he was dealt a few more and that today he is playing out his hand with you.  If you weren’t there, he might be playing out the same hand with someone else.  Perhaps his behavior is less personal than you’ve been thinking.  His anxieties and insecurities—and his inability to address his emotions with you—triggered his hurtful behavior.
  • You look honestly at your own contribution to what happened.  The assignment of blame is rarely as simple as “I’m innocent, you’re guilty.”  Injuries are more often the result of, each person’s behavior ricocheting off the others, each misstep pushing you both further toward the edge.   You might ask yourself “Did I act inappropriately myself?  Was I off-balance in ways that were callous, offensive or dismissing?”

I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.

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