Ask Sheri: Have I Forgiven Him for His Affair? - BRIGID Magazine

Friday, January 11, 2019

Ask Sheri: Have I Forgiven Him for His Affair?

Dear Sheri,

Fourteen years ago, my ex-husband cheated on me. His second wife ended up being the same woman he'd had the affair with. For many years after, I was hurt and angry by his betrayal. Two years ago, I was finally able to tell him how his actions had injured me so deeply. For the first time, he apologized to me and I truly felt that it was a sincere apology. We had a really good conversation and afterwards I felt as if a weight had been lifted off me. I could even forgive him for what he'd done and leave what had happened to me in the past. But recently, when I thought about how I was treated, it still hurt. I haven't been in love with him for years now — that I know for certain — but have I really forgiven him for his affair if I still feel pain? Have I truly moved on?

NN in New York

✍🏻 ✍🏼 ✍🏽 ✍🏾 ✍🏿

Dear NN in New York,

Thank you for sharing about your struggle with healing and moving on from this deep source of wounding within your former marriage.

Our capacity to love is often squelched by the harshness of life and mistreatment, causing love to morph into fear, hatred, and indifference. None of us are immune to the degree in which betrayal and humiliation can crush the spirit. We have all experienced how relational assaults can morph into self-imposed verdicts, which disconnect us from our innermost being or our deepest sense of who we are. This is especially true when contending with the lies and deceit accompanying infidelity within a marriage.

Attachment is our biological inheritance. We are biologically programmed to form emotional bonds throughout life in order to survive and thrive. Erik Erickson's theory of life span development asserts that the development of the capacity for romantic intimacy is one of the major markers of late adolescence and young adulthood. Additionally, British psychoanalyst John Bowlby explained that the attainment of adult romantic love is largely predicated on the emotional bonds prevalent within the child-parent relationship. This tells us that healthy early attachment is the precursor to mature love. It stands to reason then that folks who carry an attachment blueprint that is anxious, ambivalent, insecure, avoidant and hostile, exhibit an impaired potential for mature adult attunement and love. Essentially, the adult lacking a cohesive adult self due to ruptures in early bonding will likely experience difficulties with measuring up to the responsibility of mature love.

Given our innate need to bond, the aftermath of betrayal can be especially traumatic and brutal. When the unrealized hunger for a beloved is fulfilled, a profound human need to establish a secure relationship is met. This sacred connection awakens our deepest vulnerabilities and dependency needs. Naturally, in order to maintain safety and trust this bond requires ongoing devotion, loyalty, honesty, and stability. When betrayal occurs, the semblance of one's life is disrupted and core relational wounds from one's past converge with immediate heartbreak. Consequentially, we may feel worthless, trivialized, and unlovable. Being 'replaced' by another further exacerbates these feelings of devaluation. The wounding can run so deep that prolonged isolation behind a wall of bitterness and cynicism might ensue. Profound emotional dysregulation and pervasive fears of risking one's vulnerability with another might also result.

The well-known prescription of 'forgive and move on' can actually impede one's process of healing in the aftermath of deep relational wounding. Psychiatrist Judith Herman wrote in her seminal book "Trauma and Recovery":

Like revenge, the fantasy of forgiveness often becomes a cruel torture, because it remains out of reach for most ordinary human beings. Folk wisdom recognizes that to forgive is divine. And even divine forgiveness, in most religious systems, is not unconditional. True forgiveness cannot be granted until the perpetrator has sought and earned it through confession, repentance, and restitution. 

Although it was redemptive and empowering to vocalize your pain to your ex-husband, and you received a heartfelt remorseful response, full forgiveness may not always be possible. One needs to consider the magnitude of the infraction and human fallibility. Often aiming for acceptance is a more sensible pursuit. Within a realistic framework of acceptance one can discern what can or cannot be absolved. From this place permutations of forgiveness might organically arise.

That said, perhaps the conversation with your ex-husband crystallized what remains unresolved and what may or may not be reparable for you. Likewise, perhaps through witnessing his regret you were able to see his limitations for what they were and consequentially experience acceptance. Varied realizations about your ex may have momentarily unburdened you, as we typically blame ourselves — even unconsciously — for the harm inflicted on us by others. A renewed feeling of lightness may have allowed for acceptance and an enhanced perspective that lent itself to forgiveness. However, when the novelty faded and time passed, perhaps you were left with the reminder of having spent years carrying self-deflating judgments fuelled by the callous way your ex chose to exit your marriage. There are so many complex layers and conditions to consider, including antecedent relationships and emotional injuries incurred throughout your life span.

Growth and basic human development necessitates metabolizing the failures of the world and of life. Hence the process of 'moving on' involves making meaning from the betrayal by assimilating the painful lessons. This requires you to examine your own behaviour and expectations, which infiltrated the dynamic with your ex. Recognizing what was awakened from your childhood and adult life can guide you towards healing unresolved sources of original pain. It can assist you with identifying what traumatic enactments and self-defeating patterns were repeated in your marriage. If you experienced being callously rejected and replaced during your formative years, being witness to your ex leaving you to make a life with the woman he betrayed you with, may always carry some degree of sorrow and outrage. Some injuries may always fester, but they don't have to be repeated if you have the courage and the humility to examine what illusions were shattered and explore how you may have unwittingly co-created relational patterns that hindered intimacy. This does not exonerate your ex from the choices that he made, but rather it can assist you with healing and growing through this loss so that your future efforts to cultivate love can be realized.

~ Sheri aka Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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