RECOVERING FROM AN AFFAIR, PART 3
by Mike Sorenson, LPCMH [download printable PDF version]
“Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?”
If you are in the process of recovering from your partner’s affair, you are facing a betrayal the likes of which you never imagined you would face in your lifetime. You feel as if your heart has been ripped out and your whole life is in upheaval. The person you trusted most in life has obliterated any safety or stability you may have felt in what was supposed to be a lifelong relationship. Most people I talk to experience unparalleled levels of depression, despair, anger and resentment as they begin to digest the details of their partner’s affair. No one wants to stay in such a distressing state of mind, but letting go of anger toward a wayward spouse can seem unfair, frightening and downright impossible. Facing the daunting task of forgiveness fills many with even more resentment as it becomes another unwarranted burden dumped on their shoulders by their unfaithful spouse. So how does a person move on from such betrayal and feel happy, peaceful and content again? Forgiveness is a profoundly spiritual practice and is riddled with pitfalls and misconceptions. To understand how to reach the other side, we will first have to dispel some of the myths associated with it.
The first resistance people usually feel to forgiving their husband or wife is that it seems to require an unjustifiable level of trust in the reliability of the other person. Most people hold onto their resentment because it protects them from letting the now dangerous person in their life from getting too close to them. Forgiveness seems to move us toward reconciliation, a process most people are not ready to consider in the early stages of recovery. While it is true that forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, in reality they are separate considerations. Forgiveness is required unconditionally if you are going to follow Christ, but reconciliation is not. Mending the relationship requires trust, which can only be established when a person has shown themselves to be trustworthy (read part 2 of this series for some guidance on evaluating this part). Forgiveness is about letting go of the bitterness associated with the affair. The anger we experience in these kinds of situations is about a debt we rightly feel the other person owes us due to their hurtful behavior. In our resentment we demand repayment. Forgiveness merely means you are letting go of your claim on getting something back from your partner from how they have hurt you. Sometimes this will mean restoring the relationship. Other times it will mean being able to wish them well as you move on with your life. Either way, it is about you moving forward emotionally, no longer being held hostage by the overwhelming hurt and resentment associated with the affair.
The other point of resistance that most people discover in trying to forgive is that it seems to justify the bad behavior of the spouse that has cheated. We rightly long for justice to be done and can’t stand the thought of seeing someone who has wounded us so deeply get away with such abhorrent behavior. The desire for justice is a righteous one that is shared by our Father. He is angry as well at the hurt you have experienced and the sin of adultery. The crux of forgiveness is not denial of the ugliness of the sin but reliance upon God to correct the wrong. Our problem is not our desire for justice to be done, but our need to control it by taking it into our own hands. Do not give up one ounce of your disgust for the sin in order to feel better. That is never what God is asking of you. Instead, you must continually remind yourself that you make a poor judge and a lousy enforcer compared to your Father in heaven. He knows your husband’s heart better than you do and knows what it will take to restore him to repentance. He will follow through with consistency, firmness and gentle grace, always knowing the perfect timing and the proper approach. He will also be able to restore you through your deepest hurts and fears.
This engaging of God and turning over to Him is usually the first step in forgiveness and something you will have to continually come back to throughout the process. This kind of forgiveness does not come easily or quickly and you will need supernatural help if you are going to do it well. It is not a natural thing to give up the rights to retribution or to let go of resentment for something that cuts so deep. Our instinct is to hold onto the anger and look for resolution in the pain of the offending party. Even if we don’t desire to do them harm, often a part of us wants to see them feel the pain of what we have endured. This desire will continue to rise up as you go through the healing process, discovering new details and facing the painful realities of your now radically changed life. If you continue to turn it over to God, reminding yourself of the commitment you made to forgive, you will find they begin to be fewer and farther between. If you persevere with this process, you are likely well on your way to experiencing the peace of total forgiveness, but there is often one more obstacle that stands in the way: self-righteousness.
The root of this sinful state of mind is often very understandable and justifiable. We were horrified to see what our spouse was capable of doing to us. We were appalled at the depth of deception and callous nature of his or her reaction. It is so shocking to see someone we love and depend on sink to such levels that we can easily begin to elevate ourselves to a superior moral level in our own minds. None of us like to think of ourselves as self-righteous, but if you find yourself thinking or saying things like “I am not perfect, but I would never…” or “I deserve better than this…” you are likely slipping into this mindset. You will never be able to forgive while looking down on the other person. Forgiveness is not rooted in pity.
The roots of forgiveness stem from our own relationship with God. This process is what Jesus illustrates with his parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. In response to Peter’s question about how many times they should forgive another person, Jesus told the story of a servant who owed a large debt to the king and was called upon to settle his account. After begging and pleading for mercy, the servant had his entire debt, more than a lifetime of earnings, erased by the king. The servant seemed appreciative at the time, but when called upon to do the same his selfishness was revealed. Confronted with someone who owed him a day’s wages, the servant threw the man into prison to repay the debt. Upon learning of the servant’s unmerciful response, the king called the servant back to himself and reinstated his debt, punishing him with prison and torture. We can all see the fault of the unmerciful servant, particularly since his debt was so much larger than that of the fellow servant he callously rejected. You might have trouble indentifying with him in your current circumstance, however, since your own faults seem so minor in comparison to the betrayal and deception your husband or wife has brought upon you. The reason, though, that you should begin to identify with this servant is not the severity of the sins you have committed, but against whom you have committed them. The debt you owed God for your sins is infinitely greater than the debt your spouse owes you because your debt is owed to an infinitely holy and sovereign God. You can claim no justification for your sins against Him, for He has never sinned against you. Like the servant, you have no capacity within yourself to pay off what you owe to Him. As you become more aware of the gravity of your deficit toward your Father, any debt owed to you begins to seem petty. If you want, then, to rid yourself of the temptation toward self-righteousness, spend some time in meditation about your own sin before God. How much did you have to be forgiven? How many times have you had to go to Him to repent over the same bad habits and vices? Familiarize yourself with your own desperate need for grace in the face of His holiness and others’ offenses begin to shrink in their importance. This is often the biggest pitfall of forgiving an affair, because the self-righteousness seems so justifiable, especially when we fail to call it what it really is.
Hopefully you are beginning to see that the true danger in failing to forgive is not really about the relationship at all. Most people think of forgiveness as a gift they are offering to the person who has betrayed them. Your wife’s rejection and betrayal has wounded you deeply and the last thing you want to do is to give her the gift of forgiveness. The truth is, your forgiveness is a great gift to your spouse, but withholding it from her is not really hurting her any more than her sin has already done. By choosing not to forgive, you are really damaging your own spirit. If you do not face your own self-righteousness, you will grow distant from God and from others, not really experiencing the grace and connection you long for in your own life. If bitterness is allowed to grow and rule in your heart, you will never find peace and contentment in life. There is a reason God has unconditionally commanded us to forgive those who offend us. It is not primarily to fix our relationships that he calls us to forgiveness, but because of the damaging effect of unforgiveness on our own spiritual and emotional health. No matter how deeply your partner has wounded you with their betrayal, do not give in and allow the poison of bitterness and self-righteousness to wreak havoc on your soul. Healing, peace, contentment and freedom in moving past this betrayal will only come to the degree that you are willing to embrace the process of forgiveness and pursue it to the end. The very relief you are looking for is waiting for you on the other side. Don’t stop until you find it!