Being overwhelmed with options
Finding out that your spouse cheated on you elicits strong reactions. You may find yourself experiencing anger, threats, fear, confusion, and other strong reactions. After the initial reactions between you and your spouse, emotions will begin to subside. The calm happens unless you or your spouse do an ‘instant replay’ and keep the fireworks going.
When emotions calm down, you will face many questions and many options. You will need to find a way to deal with what happened. You will have to find a way to deal with the cheater. You can choose to end the relationship or continue your relationship with the other.
In the event that you choose to continue the relationship, you will eventually have to deal with forgiveness. One of the questions that is probably going through your mind is “Should I forgive them?” Although people often talk about forgiveness, few understand what it is and how to do it.
Choosing not to forgive and the consequences
You can choose to forgive or not to forgive. Either option is a valid option. Just because the cheater asks for your forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to give it to him. Many cheaters want to “move on” rather than go through the forgiveness process. Real forgiveness brings responsibility. Few cheaters understand this. They want a ‘free get out of jail card’ that has no responsibility for it.
When you choose not to forgive, you are choosing to keep holding on to the pain. You are also choosing to hold onto the memories of what happened. When you have the memories of what happened and the pain, a perpetual damage machine is set up that keeps repeating the thing over and over again in your mind. Repeating that pain is like having the car stuck in the mud, the wheels can keep turning faster and faster, but you are getting nowhere. There is no forward momentum. You may need time to recover, but the longer you stay in the situation, the more stuck you will become in the relationship.
Holding on to pain can lead you to believe that you are a martyr. The danger of being a martyr is that it can lead you to assume a position of self-righteousness, in which you are the good part and the one who hurt you is the “bad” part. Although you may believe this, those around you see what happened and how you are choosing to hold onto the pain. As long as you hold on to the pain, you think you can keep blaming the cheater for what happened. As long as they’re painted bad, you don’t need to make any changes.
On the bright side, holding onto the pain can help you identify what your issues are with the affair. Pain is actually a protection of life and when we feel it, it is trying to tell us something. You will have to discern what it is that it hurts to tell you. There is a lot of insights you can gain by holding on to pain and listening to what it is telling you. Some people forgive too soon because they don’t know what they are really forgiving. They just know that they want to get out of the pain.
You may need to hold on to the pain to get a clear idea of what you are forgiving. Whether it’s the pain of betrayal, the pain of being lied to, the torment of your spouse being with someone else, the disappointment of your vows, and marriage plans that turn into a sham. You need to forgive, whether it’s betrayal, lies, disappointment, etc.
The choice not to forgive also erects a restrictive barrier in the relationship. That barrier becomes a wall. Keep the two of you from being close to each other. Limit closeness. It constantly prevents the two of you from being connected to each other.
In the first few days after learning about the affair, you may need to avoid them getting close. Once the issues have come to light, the barriers can become a prison that keeps them or anyone else from getting emotionally close to you forever. The wall protects your heart, but it also keeps people out. Tearing down the walls built by unforgiveness is often a long process.
Holding onto pain and pain brings its own burden. Many people, including you, may not be able to bear that kind of pain for a long time. Holding on to pain often has consequences in terms of having a strained relationship, worsening health problems, fragmented spirituality, and loss of peace of mind. There are many psychosomatic disorders that get worse when you hold on to these pains.
Some of those disorders include high blood pressure, ulcers, diabetic conditions, skin irritations, cancers, and a host of other diseases. The affair did not cause these conditions, but choosing not to forgive can make them worse. Being in poor health is not much of a comfort compared to having better relationships with your spouse. There is a price tag associated with your decision not to forgive.
Holding on to unforgiveness can also turn into a ‘grudge’ or resentment. The grudge will give you perceived power in the relationship, although the price for that power is expensive. You may think that it gives you control over the cheater, but the reality is that it does not. The idea that by holding onto pain, you have control over those who hurt you, is similar to the magical superstition of a mind voodoo doll that you believe you can inflict pain on according to your whims.
You can assume that it hurts when you do not forgive them. In the early days, it does, but over time, the amount of influence decreases. Eventually it gets to the point where their pain doesn’t affect them at all.
If you choose to forgive them, there is no rule that says you should do so immediately. It can be helpful to let them soak up the pain of their bad decisions for a period of time. Let’s say you choose not to forgive, how does it benefit you?
Forgiving the act versus forgiving the person
Once you decide to forgive, you will need to consider other options. When you decide to forgive, who or what do you forgive? You may never have considered the question of whether you forgive the cheater or the cheater. The answer you choose may determine whether you continue to suffer or whether you allow your spouse to return to your life.
The act or behavior of infidelity should not be forgiven. It is not the forgiveness of the act that restores the closeness to the relationship. What brings closeness to the relationship is when you forgive the person.
The only thing that can be forgiven is the person. You can only forgive the adulterer / adulteress. What they did was wrong. You can forgive them, but you cannot forgive their actions. It is letting go of any resentments that may have formed. You choose to let them re-enter your life and your heart.
Who they are and what they did are two different things. There is a big difference between their person (who they are) and their performance (what they did). Although today’s society tries to combine the two, it is necessary to keep them separate.
Who you are is MORE than what you do. Society often equates person and performance (person = performance). You will have to challenge that assumption if you hope to forgive. As long as you equate who they are with what they do, you will find forgiveness a struggle. The two must be separated.
You will need to let them know that they are acceptable, but cheating is not. You love them, but you hate what they did. They are not allowed to cheat, that cheating is not tolerated, nor will they be in the future. For example, if I acted like a cow, it doesn’t make me a cow. I can moo like one and bellow like one, but I’m not a cow. Also, the cheater acted in an unacceptable manner. It didn’t change who they were, they made a bad choice. The cheater as a person is still lovable, acceptable and can be forgiven, his actions are not. You allow them to come back into your life, but you don’t erase the board. They need to know that their choices hurt you and brought consequences. It is not up to you to punish them, although you will hold them accountable for their actions. They will need to talk to you more, communicate where they are going, and open up more about their needs.
When you forgive the person, you let go of the barriers that kept you apart. You allow them to return to your heart and your life. They allow the two of you to start relating to each other. The cheater may have trouble with this idea, but it’s okay. You may also have problems at first. Learning to forgive takes time. Some days may be better than others.
Forgiveness is also a process. Since we are human, it is easy for us to accept offenses and resent the cheater. You will have to put aside the desire to punish the cheater each time this happens. Some days you can do it and other days, it can be a struggle. The cheater may also have a hard time separating his person from his performance. They may be confused as to how you can forgive them, but not what they did. If they have the idea that forgiveness is a “get out of jail free” card, it will be a struggle for them.
Many people have trouble separating the two concepts.
This is what happens when you try to forgive the cheater instead of the cheater. Choosing to forgive “the act” of infidelity brings problems. Choosing to forgive the act often only encourages it to happen again. It’s as if you erase the act, wipe the board, and behave as if the affair never happened. For the cheater, the slate has been cleaned and may be filled again. Choosing to forgive the act only serves to erase the last episode of what they did. It also creates some mental confusion for you. If you want to remain consistent in your mind in viewing cheating as unacceptable, you will need to be consistent in separating the cheater from the cheater. Trying to forgive the act without forgiving the cheater creates inconsistency. Trying to forgive the act also leaves the cheater still feeling unaccepted. Remember, you want to get back in a relationship with your spouse, not change your position on infidelity.
Consequences of forgiving the act
Forgiving the cheater restores the relationship. When you forgive the person, you can still hold them accountable for their actions. It is not about punishing them over and over again. They made a bad choice, they admitted it, they regret it, and now they are trying to get it right. Keeping punishing them over and over for a bad choice only creates more problems.
You will need to let the cheater know that cheating, lying, etc. hurt you and hurt them. His choice started a series of events that cannot be undone, especially if someone became pregnant or was frightened by the events. Those scars and pregnancies don’t go away. They are part of the consequences of a bad choice. If the cheater contracts a disease from the adventure, there will be changes in their private lives. Forgiveness will not make those consequences go away.
The connection between the behavior and your response should be very clear. You love the cheater, but HATE what he did. There is no place to fall in love with what happened. It wasn’t pretty. The cheater needs to HATE what he did. With many cheaters, if they don’t learn to HATE what they did, they can revert to that pattern of behavior. When they romanticize the adventure, they have not learned to hate what they did.
Punishing them is not the answer. When I read about all the spouses who punish cheats, I shudder. I know that doesn’t solve the root problem and only sets the stage for more problems. It is not up to you to punish the cheater. Allow your conscience to do that, not you. Because they have to deal with the consequences, the pain will bring change on its own, without your help. Forgiving the cheater (your person) allows your conscience to “turn on” and begin to bring you transformation. Pain brings changes. Letting the cheater out of pain often brings incomplete changes in their lives and yours.
Understanding the dynamics of forgiveness is important in knowing how to handle the affair and improve your marriage.