Infidelity, cheating, emotional betrayal are very difficult things that a couple must face once a marriage contract as defined by one person or both has been broken. No one gets a user manual on how to deal with infidelity and unfortunately there are heaps and heaps of “relationship” advice available to people coming from all sorts of unqualified and qualified places such as family, friends, religions, women’s magazine and various articles found searching google.
Forgiveness as the primary strategy to dealing with infidelity is not an effective framework for several reasons. The burden of forgiveness shifts the responsibility of repair to the betrayed person. Forgiveness implies a bit of magical thinking that if the betrayed person can dig deep and find the means to forgive their betraying partner, the relationship can be saved. This simple is not true and stop shorts of the hard work BOTH people in the relationship need to do.
Forgiveness implies that the saving of the relationship is up to one person, the betrayed. The betrayer has very little responsibility other than to grovel, feel bad and keep saying sorry and sit around and hope that their partner can get over it. When a person chooses to go outside the relationship, this is a choice they made all on their own and they did not consult with their partner. To shift the responsibility to one person to save the marriage when they did not have a say in their partner’s decision making process is ineffective and it won’t work. The betrayed person’s pain and hurt needs to be dealt with by the betrayer in a way that facilitates saving the marriage if that is what both people want.
Another problem with pinning all your hopes for marriage salvation on forgiveness is that even if the betrayed person can forgive the betrayer, what has actually changed? Forgiveness again is a moral implication that the betrayer is a morally flawed, weak-willed or somehow sick person. The betrayed person’s forgiveness doesn’t cosmically change the DNA of the betrayer. Nothing is changed in the relationship.
In most cases, the betrayer is a regular person, they are simply a person who is very unhappy with aspects of their marriage and they lack problem solving skills and relationships skills to discuss their unhappiness with their partner to find a workable solution. In fact, usually both couples are lacking in this area and they both need help which probably contributed to a break down in creating a relationship that the beytrayer wanted.
Forgiveness is incomplete because it doesn't fix anything. So when the betrayed “forgives” the betrayer, what has changed? How has this addressed the fundamental issues in the relationship? How does forgiveness go about fixing what is broke in the relationship? It doesn’t. Couples that rely solely on forgiveness seem to have more repeat affairs. Forgiveness doesn’t fix anything, it just gets in the way of people talking about the hard stuff that both people have been avoiding.
Focusing on forgiveness shifts the couple away from dealing with the real problems in relationship. Affairs come about not because something is “wrong” with the betrayer, but rather because something isn’t working in the relationship. Sometimes, a person may have an affair because of existential issues such as they made a decision at age 25 to get married and today at age 40 they are not liking the consequences of that choice, or they are getting old and the loss of their youth or feeling young in their relationship is hard to deal with. It can be a wide variety of personal reasons as well as relationship issues. None-the-less the issues must be dealt with and forgiveness doesn't address these issues.
Whatever the reason, infidelity is a solution to some problem, not a great solution but a solution, as defined by the betrayer. If you shift the conversation to whether or not a person will forgive another, you are not tackling the real issue and if that doesn’t get fix, infidelity will likely happen again.
Forgiveness has this really cause-effect connotation about human behavior that is simply not true. People think that if I forgive you and give you another chance (CAUSE) then you’ll be good and faithful in the relationship (EFFECT). However, people are not cause and effect, but rather people are CAUSE- CHOICE 1, CHOICE 2 and CHOICE 3.
People get data and then they make a choice, and they often have many choices. Just because you forgive someone it doesn’t mean that person will have a behavioral change, or magically, whatever wasn’t working for them is solved and the relationship is somehow better through forgiveness. People need to have the hard, difficult and sometimes scary conversations about what is going on between the two people to see if the relationship can be fixed.
Lastly, forgiveness shifts the power of the relationship to the forgiver/betrayed person. Forgiveness can come across as judgmental and contemptuous. The betrayed is elevating themselves into a higher power base than the betrayer and sitting in judgment of their spouse and deciding whether or not to grant forgiveness. If this is not managed well, this can be very contemptuous, the #1 predictor of divorce.
Forgiveness in this context also stops any examination of the betrayed partner’s behavior. While no one’s behavior can CAUSE someone to cheat or is justification for cheating, both people are contributing in different ways to a relationship that isn’t functioning.
When I speak with people who are dealing with infidelity, rarely do they ever want to go back to the relationship they had prior to finding out about the affair. Couples need to look at how they were functioning in the relationship and what their responsibility was in the unhappiness. The betrayed is not responsible for the betrayer’s cheating, but they are responsible for the quality of the relationship. Forgiveness can shift the spotlight off the relationship and turn it more into a judgment of another’s person’s choice. This is not helpful for problem solving.
Ultimately, what couples will need to decide is if there is one version of the marriage they both want going forward. If they do not want the same thing there is no need for reconciliation or repair. The process to see if there is one marriage the couple wants can be a difficult journey that does get complicated by infidelity. It is important when dealing with infidelity that we deal with the betrayed person’s hurt and pain but in a way that allows for examination of the relationship and to see if it can be saved. Inflicting more pain to the betrayer will just leave 2 people unhappy and reduce the chances of saving and repairing the relationship.
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