Forgiveness in the wake of betrayal


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Q: I was inspired by your column about forgiveness (August 27). It was quite relevant to my own situation. You wrote about forgiving a partner who’s cheated. What if you add on a repeat occurrence, two years later, with the same third party? Would this change your reply significantly, or would you counsel continuing to work on forgiveness?

A: Thank you for your response to my column about a couple whose relationship had ended because of infidelity. The forgiveness I spoke about was suggested as a way to recover from ongoing hurt and resentment.

Your situation is significantly different. You and your partner decided to stay in the relationship, and to rebuild, in the wake of a betrayal.

Where there is great love, and a relationship worth fighting for, it is possible to survive an infidelity. People make mistakes that can result in sincere regret, remorse, and a determination to do better in future. It takes time, patience and forgiveness to rebuild trust. You are creating a new relationship, because you cannot go back to the way it used to be.

The most important thing to remember is that forgiveness is about self-healing. To forgive is not to forget, or to expunge the deed. It does not mean suppressing your negative feelings in order to make those who offend against you feel better, in some semi-masochistic attempt to be a holy person. It does not mean being a doormat, or a sucker.

If a dear friend had a gambling problem, stole money from you, ‘fessed up, and was remorseful and deeply apologetic, how would you respond?

Once the initial hurt died down, you might choose to forgive them, and to give them a second chance, for the sake of the friendship. Nevertheless, you would be unlikely to leave your wallet lying around if they were visiting. You might let go of your bitter feelings, but you would always be guarded, taking care to protect yourself.

However, if they stole from you again, you might decide to stop seeing them, and the friendship might be irreparably damaged. Eventually, there might be forgiveness, but protecting and respecting yourself would be paramount.

In your case, you have given your partner that second chance, and have stayed in the relationship. For two years you have worked to forgive, and to rebuild trust. Now you have discovered that the original infidelity has been repeated, with the same lover. No doubt you are shocked, hurt, angry, and confused.

What happens now is your decision. What is most likely to move you in the direction of personal wellbeing, and future happiness? If you believe that the relationship must end, that is a valid choice.

So, where does forgiveness come in? When one is wounded, it is tempting to lash out, to act out the hurt and anger in the form of revenge. We all know the urban myths about prawns in the curtain rods, tipping cement into the sports car, or slashing the suit collection. These ingenious attacks can make for an entertaining story, and can be cathartic, and seemingly empowering, but they end up damaging everyone concerned. Taken to the extreme, the result is domestic violence, and murder.

Only you know the details of what has happened, and what, if anything, this partnership does to enrich your life. If you do decide to try to rebuild once more, you would be well advised to get professional relationship counselling, both separately, and as a couple. You need strategies, guidance and support to negotiate this treacherous territory.

If you choose to break up, do so with as little acrimony, spite and litigation as possible. Try to be calm and civil, not to make your estranged partner feel better, but for the sake of your self-respect. Again, professional counselling would be invaluable.

You cannot change the past, so put your energies into creating a better future for yourself. One day, you might be able to completely forgive everyone whose behaviour has pained you. In the meantime, you will have not said and done things to perpetuate the cycle of hate and revenge.

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