10. Foregiveness / Reconciliation - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
Go to content

Main menu:

10. Foregiveness / Reconciliation

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > SorryNotEnough- Infidelity-Cpl

Sorry is not Enough, Infidelity and Betrayal in Couples and Couple Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Forgiveness is often important between the offended partner and the unfaithful partner.  It has implicit meaning for the partners, but may be more complex than they expect.  Olmstead et al., (2009) named the components of forgiveness of infidelity.  They are:

Theme 1: Understanding Forgiveness

Theme 2: Psychoeducation
Subtheme 1: Understanding the process of forgiveness
Subtheme 2: Addressing misunderstandings about forgiveness

Theme 3: Clarity
Subtheme 1: Clarifying couples’ wants and needs
Subtheme 2: Clarifying language of forgiveness

Theme 4: Time
Subtheme 1: Forgiveness takes time
Subtheme 2: Therapist timing of forgiveness

Each partner conceives of, requests, and/or gives forgiveness from his or her experiences.  These may differ significantly from each other.  The therapist should check what forgiveness means to each of them, especially if they hold it differently.  The partners may need psychoeducation about how the process of forgiveness works and how it may apply to them.  Specifically, it is more than “I’m sorry,” followed by acceptance as indicated by, “I accept your apology.”  Therapeutic instruction, perhaps along with reading must facilitate understanding and minimize misunderstanding.  The partners need to also understand differences and relationships with other concepts such as reconciliation, condoning, and especially excusing.  For example, therapy should discuss “the distinction between forgiveness (an intrapersonal process) and reconciliation (an interpersonal process):  Reconciliation and forgiveness are two different processes.  And we often think, ‘well if I forgive I have to reconcile.’ …you can forgive a scoundrel but you don’t have to reconcile with them.  You can forgive an errant spouse but that doesn’t mean you have to go back to them.  [These are] two different issues often thought of as one issue.  Therapists emphasized the importance of clarifying that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same, and that, in fact, they can be two very different processes.  When forgiveness is confused with a significantly different concept, clients may be working toward a goal different from that which they had originally intended” (Olmstead et al., 2009, page 58-59).

The unfaithful partner may be very contrite and ask for forgiveness to the partner he or she has betrayed.  The offended partner however may not be able readily to grant that forgiveness.  The partners often intuitively know that reconciliation does not automatically include forgiveness.  Reconciliation may come from the offended partner accepting or acknowledging that there has been infidelity and being willing to continue or remain in the relationship.  Reconciliation is thus based on the condition that the unfaithful partner will not breach the monogamous sexual boundaries again.  “In such cases, reconciliation can be seen as provisional.  Provisional reconciliation usually occurs in voluntary marriages when only one incident of unfaithfulness has taken place” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 11).

Sometimes the offended partner that feels he or she is in a volitional relationship agrees to a provisional reconciliation to bide time.  Agreeing to remain in the relationship may soothe the unfaithful partner’s fear of imminent separation.  However, the offended partner may intend to terminate the relationship as soon as necessary situations and plans are worked out and/or a more beneficial or promising choice in partners becomes available.  Someone, on the other hand who feels stuck with the unfaithful partner may be unwilling to forgive because the affair or infidelity is not the first time it has happened in their relationship.  He or she may have forgiven the partner’s prior infidelity after gaining promises to be faithful only to have the partner repeating sexual betrayal again- perhaps, several times.  The offended partner may also be unable to or resist forgiveness because of other experiences of the unfaithful partner deceiving, lying, showing unreliability, and being erratic in other aspects of their relationship.  This can be about finances, addictive behaviors, and non-sexual relationships with others.  Sexual betrayal fits into a larger pattern of the partner being unfaithful and not to be trusted.

The therapist needs to help the partners clarify what they want together as a couple and individually.  The future or a future with the two of them together may be vague for both of them.  Forgiveness and reconciliation may be joint goals or only one of the two goals may be definite.  Forgiveness without reconciliation may be the goal.  Or, the goal may be reconciliation without forgiveness.  This would be staying together without dealing with meaning and injuries of infidelity.  The partners need to be clear what they together and each may want.  “It is difficult to come to an understanding of how clients view forgiveness without first gaining clarification on the language they use to describe it.  Couples may come to treatment for infidelity wanting to forgive, but may be calling it by different names.  One or both partners may have a different word for forgiveness, which may also differ from the therapist’s language.  It is vital that the couple and therapist be on the same page in terms  of having a clarified use of language for the forgiveness process” (page 59).  The partners may be in a rush to be done and continue their lives, but working through issues including forgiveness often takes a significant amount of time.  Forgiveness often cannot be considered until attributions about the unfaithful partner and infidelity has been addressed.  Working through issues to get to forgiveness may not only take a longer time than anticipated, but also one partner may take much longer than the other.  In addition, the therapist in moving too quickly to forgiveness may harm the couple’s process and slow, impede, or even prevent the recovery and healing process.  The therapist must have the patience for the process to develop and progress.  He or she preaches similar patience for the couple to allow their process to mature or risk complicating their growth.

Forgiveness can free both partners from paralyzing ambiguity and confused dynamics due to the psychic disruptions from infidelity.  Anger, hate, guilt, shame, and confusion permeate throughout the relationship and within the partners.  They do not know what to do, what to think, or what to feel.  While the forgiven person seems to primarily benefit from some release from condemnation, forgiveness often is a greater relief to the forgiving partner.  Forgiveness works only when both partners experience release from toxic feelings and gain a sense of partnership in having created the context of dysfunction and to recover and heal the relationship.  “Forgiveness can be viewed as a process which makes possible the outworking of the ethical consequences of relationships.  It allows the indebtedness that is incurred through the fundamental ontological facts of dependency between parents and children and between sexual partners to be discharged and it enables relationships to be continuously renewed after conflict has occurred, by its restorative impact upon the relationship as a whole” (Walrond-Skinner, 1998, page 5).

The offended partner can turn giving or withholding forgiveness into a powerful weapon in the relationship.  As a strategy and a tactic, the offended or victimized partner may be empowered by withholding forgiveness in a couple’s dynamic where he or she had previously been unable to assert much control.  Whereas the unfaithful partner’s emotional presence or absence, demands and disappointments, and fluctuating moods defined their prior homeostatic relationship, the offending partner can take and hold a moral righteousness that alters the status quo.  “Reminding the unfaithful spouse of his/her transgressions becomes a potent weapon that can be used to defeat the offending spouse in marriages where conflicts are seen in terms of win-lose, zero sum challenges” (Bagarozzi, 2008, page 11).  The offended partner can use an accusation or reminder of infidelity as the trump card never previously held or available to gain power in the relationship.  Withholding forgiveness while ostensively reconciling to stay together may be a means for the offended partner to keep the unfaithful partner around to punish him or her.  The therapist should be aware of the inherent dysfunctionality of such a dynamic.  The unfaithful partner may accept the new role as a whipping boy (or girl) as his or her just desserts.  It would be a role that would create eventual psychic corruption and may not be tolerable over an extended period.  The therapist should make the partners aware of this and how it may predict further issues later in the relationship.

A partner may have internally forgiven the other person, but not expressed it verbally or in a recognizable behavioral manner.  “…several ‘barriers’ …could inhibit a victim’s expression of forgiveness even if the internal process has previously occurred.  For example, a victim may choose not to express their forgiveness in order to keep the perpetrator morally indebted and/or to maintain certain benefits or rights that are acquired with victim status.  The opposite of silent forgiveness is termed hollow forgiveness (Baumeister et al.) and is characterized by the interpersonal expression of forgiveness without any internal transformation.  For example, a victim could express forgiveness because it is the ‘right’ thing to do or to maintain the public appearance of a harmonious relationship” (Friesen et al., 2005, page 62).  The offended partner may forgive the unfaithful partner verbally and in private and in public because of a value- perhaps, religiously based that requires forgiveness even though he or she remains unforgiving.  The value and practice of compelled forgiveness despite its hollow nature may be endemic in the relationship.  Either or both partners may overtly express forgiveness but actually accrue a huge reservoir of grievances and resentments against each other.

Another form of inauthentic forgiveness occurs when it is given prematurely or instantaneously.  The good Catholic girl instincts in Helen prompted her to quickly and unconditionally forgive Bart for his affairs.  This confused Bart rather than relieved him.  It did not make sense to him intuitively.  He had not done anything or understood enough to explain his infidelity to himself, much less to her or to deserve forgiveness.  Such forgiveness occurs “prior to any account being offered of the relational transgression.  Sometimes this amounts to a subtle way of refusing to forgive” (Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 11).  Immediate and unconditional forgiveness may “on the face of it... could have been a gracious and magnanimous example of authentic forgiveness.”  However, it may be “experienced by the other party as a denial of the pain that had been caused and a refusal to do the emotional work required for authentic forgiveness to be given and received.”  The emotional work may involve painful confrontation and conflict that one or both partners wish and collude to avoid.  For the offended partner, however giving forgiveness can constitute unconditional capitulation to the unfaithful partner.  The unfaithful partner’s repeated begging for forgiveness can also be strictly motivated by fear of the offended partner leaving versus any real accounting and internal emotional process.  Immediate forgiveness can be heartfelt and genuine, but the therapist should consider potential motivations on the part of the offended partner to avoid or waylay deeper examination of the infidelity.  Or, it may be an assertion that enough has been done to proceed.  “Premature forgiveness is offered and/or accepted, in the erroneous belief that the necessary work has been done to restore the system to its pre-conflictual relational capacity.  Many games of ‘let’s pretend’ serve to enable a relationship to continue but only on the basis of denying conflict and its consequences” (Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 11-12).

On the other hand, the need for forgiveness may be denied or refused by one or both partners in an authentic manner.  The offended partner may hold that the other’s behavior of the other has been so destructive that there is nothing the unfaithful partner can do to gain forgiveness.  What has been broken cannot be repaired.  The unfaithful partner may believe this or agree to this conclusion as well.  A mutual decision to terminate the relationship is made.  Alternately, the partners may decide to continue the relationship at a different level of intimacy, anticipated fulfillment, and conditions.  The partners may decide that the cost of engaging in the process of forgiveness is too great and would rather lose the relationship as it was and/or lose the optimal relationship otherwise desired.  However, they may be willing to accept a lesser relationship based on new diminished expectations.  Weighing costs and benefits in the relationship needed to recover and heal from infidelity can bring the partners to conditional forgiveness.  “Forgiveness is offered in exchange for the acceptance of blame, an apology, promise of changed behaviour, etc.  These conditions range from the simple ‘I’ll forgive you if you apologize’ or ‘I’ll apologize if you will’, to the subtle relational conditions that may operate in a marital conflict... Conditional forgiveness is a process that is common in all types of reconciliation and other kinds of negotiated peacemaking processes.  There is an even-handedness about it and it may form part of the ritual required of both parties before authentic process forgiveness can be achieved” (Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 11).

“It’s OK” becomes a perfunctory obligatory response to end open conflict that hides righteous indignation.  “It may be difficult to distinguish between authentic forgiveness which provides emotional release and promotes reconciliation and growth within relationships, and premature forgiveness, which is a defensive strategy arising from an inability to feel sufficiently safe or worthwhile to confront the wrongdoer or to sustain anger towards them sufficient to promote catharsis and a growth in self-affirmation and empowerment (Walrond-Skinner, 1998, page 6).  Determining the authenticity and integrity of forgiveness is a key goal for the therapist.    Walrond-Skinner (1998, page 12-13) offers five characteristics of authentic forgiveness:

It is unconditional: on offer to the other, regardless of his or her response.

It is self-regarding as well as altruistic.  As well as being offered for the well-being of the other and of the relationship as a whole, it is nevertheless firmly predicated upon the well-being of both parties involved.  It does not require psychic self-injury, though it always involves a cost to the self.

It occurs as part of a developmental process, and not as a short cut to avoiding painful negative emotion towards the other person.

It usually involves a process that occurs over time; it is not an event that takes place instantaneously.

It is asymmetrical, although it may and often does have symmetrical consequences.  In other words, part of its unconditional nature means that one party usually instigates the process and may be the container of the relationship’s momentum towards and capacity for forgiveness for some considerable time.  Whether or not the offer of forgiveness is accepted or received, its offer always makes a difference which in turn creates a difference.

If the therapist determines that both partners sincerely wish to work towards forgiveness despite intrinsic difficulties, the partners need to work through how it may occur.  The therapist may proceed as if the partners’ forgiveness process was sincere or need to problem-solve aspects as it may prove disingenuous.  The quality of forgiveness may not be determined beforehand and/or may require meeting the emotional challenges that arise in the process of recovery and healing to become genuine.

Bagarozzi provides a definition and major components for forgiveness.

Definition—Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate and willful decision on the part of the offended spouse to grant pardon to the offending spouse for his/her act or acts of infidelity.

In granting forgiveness, the offended spouse agrees to cease feeling angry and resentful feelings toward the offending spouse.

In granting forgiveness the offended spouse agrees to relinquish the right to retaliate against the offending spouse.

In granting forgiveness, the offended spouse agrees not to use the offending spouse’s unfaithfulness as a calculated maneuver, strategy or weapon to defeat his/her mate when disagreements arise between them.

If the offended spouse agrees to abide by the conditions outlined above, the offending spouse must:

Acknowledge that he/she has willfully violated the marriage contract/agreement by becoming involved in an extramarital sexual relationship.

Accept full responsibility for the infidelity and not blame his/her spouse or others for his/her unfaithfulness.

Request forgiveness.

Promise to discontinue the extramarital relationship (if it is still ongoing) and promise not to become involved again, in the future, in any other extramarital sexual relationship.

Outline the specific behaviors that he/she agrees to perform in order to demonstrate his/her sincerity and to demonstrate that any and all extramarital relationships have been brought to an end” (2008, page 12).

Walrond-Skinner (1998, page 14) proposes that there are three interrelated parts of forgiveness: cognitive, emotional, and behavioral.  When the offended partner contemplates the relationship and situation, he or she would need to recognize that revenge is either not possible or not productive.  Staying stuck as they are without forgiveness creates barriers to relationship resolution or satisfaction in the present and for the future.  The losses and grief suffered are weighed and a balance is acknowledged that there is important worthwhile benefit to restore and heal the relationship versus staying embattled.  “Thus there may be an enhanced motivation for change derived from a cost/benefit analysis relating to the current situation.  When such a cost/benefit analysis is not a major feature, there will be an even stronger cognitive component to the decisive act of instigating the process of forgiveness, involving as it does the risk of rejection and humiliation.  Even if rejection does not occur, there is still no certainty of a favourable personal or interpersonal outcome.  Risk is always involved and must therefore be assessed.”  Therapy aids the partners examine the prior historical benefits and the potential benefits of staying together against the injuries suffered and the work necessary for recovery and healing.  Partners who cannot risk rejection again or whose humiliation is too profound may find the costs exceeding the possible benefits.

Forgiveness potentially offers important emotional components into the calculation.  “These may include a sense of increased self-esteem; a reduction in negative affect; feelings of sorrow for what has occurred; feelings of empathy for the other party and their situation; and the beginnings of a process of emotionally working through the hurt and loss, to allow an absorption of the pain that has been incurred” Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 14).  The partners often have an intuitive sense of the emotional components, which affect the cognitive examination.  Helping them identify and articulate how emotions are involved and how they have been and will be affected are critical.  Without emotional calculation, the logic of whether to stay together becomes a business decision and forgoes partners’ fundamental needs for intimacy and secure attachment.  Staying together for the children, for financial reasons, social status, or to avoid family, community, or religious humiliation are usually overtly included in the cognitive assessment.  Personal emotional and psychological needs, especially when not acknowledged inevitably negatively tip the balance or will do so over time.

“In the resolution of attachment injuries such as betrayal and infidelity, a sequential process can be necessary to effectively foster the growth of trust and the beginning of positive interaction.  Offering a safe haven and a secure base can generate a catalyst for change in the relationship.  Therapeutic rituals can play an important part of this process by providing a symbolic way to transform the relationship” (Winek and Craven, 2003, page 255).  The behavioral elements of forgiveness may “include the offer of an apology for hurts inflicted, or a request for or offer of forgiveness; reparation for the offence that has occurred through ritual or symbolic acts; and the stated desire to make necessary changes in behaviour, and to bring about the restitution of the relationship.  It will also involve, in certain situations, putting in place situational changes to reduce the possibility of recidivism occurring and to build supportive structures to protect new behaviours” (Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 14).  The partners may orient quickly to and try to implement the behavioral components of forgiveness without working through the underlying substantive emotional and psychological symbolism of infidelity.  While establishing new rituals or other symbolic behaviors can be useful, they ring hollow without symbolism that honors the covenant of the relationship.  When the therapist assists the partners in establishing key behaviors for fidelity, he or she should continually focus the partners on whether their symbolic nature has been and is being respected.  The behavior becomes perfunctory unless their underlying commitments and feelings are genuine outcomes of renewed intimacy and attachment.

Friesen et al (2005, page 62) cite research of a reciprocal relationship between partners who are more willing to forgive others with higher commitment, closeness, and relationship satisfaction.  Conversely, partners who are less willing to forgive have negative personal and relationship characteristics such as increased psychological tension, decreased psychological well-being, and increased blaming.  Partners that attribute more positive motivations for the other, tend to be more willing to forgive, while negative attributions of motivation correlate more with unwillingness to forgive.  Holding resentment can be considered a diametrically opposite response to forgiveness or a negative emotional or psychological deposit that accrues with lack of forgiveness.  The therapist should explore the value and habit of forgiveness versus accumulating resentments for each partner as it is relevant both to the context of infidelity and to recovery and healing from an affair.

Personal characteristics influence the individual’s ability to forgive.  “The person’s selfesteem and sense of self-worth needs to be sufficiently intact for narcissistic wounds to be withstood.  He or she needs to have sufficient self-knowledge and ability to perceive and accept his or her own capacity for inflicting hurt and also to have learned how to forgive him or herself” (Walrond-Sknner, 1998, page 14).  When the transgression reminds the individual of previous injuries that creates an additional accumulative effect.  The injury or infidelity does not have to have been perpetuated by the same person or partner.  If remembering old hurts by others are triggered, both current grievances and a potential litany of injustices can combine for exponentially powerful damage.  All the resentment is heaped upon “the current offender, making the current offence much more difficult to forgive” (page 15).  In addition if the current circumstances of being wronged reflect similarly in some way to previous circumstances of wounding, forgiveness becomes more difficult again.  The individual’s lesser ability to withstand narcissistic wounds and a pattern of engaging with partners who hurt and betray may be jointly rooted in some characterological issue.  This may become a focus of therapy either in the couples work or individually.

The therapist needs to help the partners conceptualize how forgiveness works in their situation.  Forgiveness itself as a concept and practice may not fit into for them.  The partners may have distinctive and conflicting beliefs about what forgiveness is about and what it entails.  Forgiveness offers a possible direction for the relationship while the lack of forgiveness or the inability to forgive creates other consequences.  The partners need to understand these choices within their individual experiences and relationship dynamics.  The sequential and progressive nature of forgiveness and specific steps may need to be negotiated or prescribed for the couple.  Getting to or considering forgiveness is usually the result of the evolution of the relationship after the discovery of the affair.  There will be lessons and principles that continue to be applicable to the process of forgiveness.  A significant issue in forgiveness is the implication that it means that the offended partner is giving in or has condoned the infidelity from a position of weakness.  The unfaithful partner may believe that the affair has been accepted and excused.  If the offended partner thinks forgiveness lets the unfaithful partner get away with infidelity, he or she will resist giving forgiveness or withhold it.  The offended partner can only forgive if he or she is able to feel that the unfaithful partner is still held accountable for the affair.  Forgiveness is more likely to be viable when “therapists language forgiveness as being personally beneficial to the injured partner rather than being beneficial to the offender in the relationship.  Thus, the way therapists language forgiveness could either open or close clients toward forgiveness as a part of therapy” (Olmstead et al., 2009, page 51).  Despite careful therapeutic language however, forgiveness may nevertheless be untenable for the offended partner.

The therapist may have comparable reservations about potential implications underlying forgiveness in absolving the responsibility of an abuser or aggressor.  In addition, victims may verbalize forgiveness from being intimidated to get along with or being accepted by an abuser.  “In our sharper knowledge about family violence and child protection needs, it may seem collusive with the victim of violence’s defensive need to deny anger or fail to deal with negative feeling or confront conflict in relationships” (Walrond-Skinner, 1998, page 5).  There is the potential for forgiveness to be used by transgressors, including unfaithful partners to manipulate abuse or infidelity victims to repress their anger and deny their hurt.   “…the notion of forgiveness can be, and often is, abused and disassociated from its profound psychological import.  For example, the ‘healing of memories’ may be offered to troubled individuals within a public act of worship with the implication that they are now ‘forgiven’, and/or individuals may feel compelled to ‘forgive’ those who have wronged them as a condition of themselves feeling acceptable and reinstated within their religious community.  Forgiveness may be seen as something magical and instantaneous, and if healing is not then experienced afterwards, the individual may be made to feel doubly guilty for this ‘lack of faith’.  Particularly in situations of sexual and physical violence, forgiveness may be inappropriately urged upon victims with the effect (intended or not) of releasing the perpetrator from responsibility for his actions” (Walrond-Skinner, 1998, page 8).  Couple therapy can become comparable to such processes where the offended partner is manipulated or compelled to forgive the unfaithful partner in order to keep membership in the community.  In this case, the community is the relationship of the couple.  In order words, the offended partner who wishes to keep the relationship is intimated into giving forgiveness.  He or she feels forced to forgive or risk the unfaithful partner leaving.  The therapist needs to carefully conceptualize forgiveness within a couple.  While it must involve addressing expectations, boundaries, assumptions, and the behavioral expression, forgiveness must also have integrity for the offended partner in particular.

Forgiveness can have a moral and quasi if not overt religious orientation.  The therapist or partners may be resistant or uncomfortable because of such connotations.  Forgiven becomes a logical and necessary path when the offended partner has judged and condemned the unfaithful partner for the betrayal of infidelity.  The unfaithful partner may gain the forgiveness of the offended partner but still may condemn him or herself without any compassion for self.  In individual therapy, the therapist often works with an individual to undo and mitigate internalized shame and self-condemnation that was the result of compelling forces, problematic persons, and extenuating circumstances.  Therapy helps the individual identify his or her developmental vulnerability to emotional, psychological, spiritual, and cognitive stress, modeling, and trauma from childhood experiences.  The individual often has shame and guilt that is undeserved from limited or blocked capacities and competencies during early stages of growth.  These may have lead to problematic life and relationship choices throughout his or her life.  Getting the individual to absolve him or herself of shame and guilt and to accept how ignorant and malleable he or she was is often a key to healthier self-esteem, self-image, and confidence.  The individual who faults him or herself for the ill-luck to have been born into a dysfunctional family in unstable economic or political times with some genetic or acquired functional deficit such as a learning disability or weak hearing or limbs often needs guidance from the therapist to acknowledge his or her challenges.

Understanding the difficult or dire circumstances of his or her development leads to compassion for self rather than negative self-judgment or self-condemnation.  This process constitutes a reframing of behavior and choices.  There is a reframe of the quality and motivations of the individual.  Reframing changes the energy within the individual towards a more positive state away from shame and self-hatred.  Reframing attributions about the what, why, and how of either partner’s choices and behaviors may be key to reconciliation.  “…attempts to increase forgiveness of infidelity may be more effective to the extent that attributions for the behavior are first modified” (Hall and Fincham, 2006, page 518).  Forgiveness is intricately related to perspective and insight about infidelity, the relationship, and the unfaithful person.  Together understanding and compassion facilitates the individual accepting his or her challenges and variably successful attempts to compensate and survive.  Self-judgment or self-condemnation becomes irrelevant because the individual understands and accepts his or her innate developmental inability to have “chosen” other than what was possible.  Attributing behavior and choices to such circumstances, influences, and limitations as opposed to inherently negative intentions or moral failings puts the individual in a different place.  Remorse and regret instead of shame and guilt become more dominant psychically.  Given developmental limitations, cultural models, parental demands, ignorance of ignorance, and other circumstances outside his or her control or awareness, the individual did what he or she had to do, considered what he or she could consider, and became what he or she became within a circumcised set of possibilities.

Forgiveness as it exists in the aftermath of judgment and condemnation empowers the condemner/forgiver with righteous superiority.  To need to be forgiven places the unfaithful partner in a weaker supplicant position of moral inferiority.  Neither position lends readily to an egalitarian balanced power dynamic between partners.  The offended partner is labeled among other names, the “victimized partner.”  The status of the victim is inherently one-down, but ironically can become a one-up status of moral superiority.  The unfaithful partner is the moral inferior for having “sinned.”  Therapy tries to reveal both partners’ contributions to relationship dysfunction and hence, to the infidelity.  The process of recovery and healing from infidelity involves significant attention to accepting the historical development of each partner.  The examination of how their respective experiences create the context for the affair directs the partners to self and mutual acceptance.  The unfaithful partner commits infidelity despite having moral boundaries because of some compelling set of circumstances, forces, and energies.  There is a logic- albeit, a very unfortunate logic to how a critical mass of dynamics creates the vulnerability for the individual to violate his or her own professed moral code.

The offended partner may be led to understand and accept the totality of the person of his or her partner with all the faults and vulnerabilities, and to understand accept his or her totality as well.  From or coinciding with understanding and acceptance, the offended partner may find compassion for the turmoil, stress, and psychic vulnerability of the unfaithful partner to utterly betray him or herself.  The unfaithful partner may gain his or her partner’s forgiveness or acceptance, but still condemn or be unable to forgive him or herself.  Self-acceptance, as having been constituted by experiences thrust upon him or her as well as non-volitional and compelled choices is as important as the offended partner’s acceptance or forgiveness.  Acceptance constitutes all elements of infidelity including individual characteristics, the family-of-origin, attachment issues, stress, emotions, psychology, and logic.  Forgiveness can be seen to have only one element beyond acceptance.  That would be its moral quality deriving from judgment and condemnation.  Acceptance as opposed to forgiveness as it excludes morality, and focuses instead on the context of infidelity.  The make up of the context can be accepted, while still rejecting infidelity in the relationship and holding the unfaithful partner responsible and accountable to change.  Acceptance versus forgiveness allows for the behavior to be deemed immoral without the individual to be condemned as amoral.

The therapist and the partners may find acceptance to be a more pliable and productive goal for recovery and healing than forgiveness.  The offended partner may not be able to forgive the great wrong done unto him or her, but be able to accept how his or her partner came to it.  The unfaithful partner may never forgive him or herself, but accept the forces, compulsions, and choices that lead him or her to infidelity.  Acceptance may be as far as the partners can go or it may be a transitory step to a more complete reconnection.  On a practical level, forgiveness and morality leads the partners to fidelity through committing them to values they already had but failed to hold.  Acceptance of the context of infidelity however, directs the partners individually and collectively to specific areas to work on to prevent a repetition of dysfunction.  Many of these issues had never been adequately addressed to their detriment in a variety of ways- not just the infidelity.  Forgiveness was a concept that Bart and Helen with their Catholic background understood.  However, it failed to help their process as Helen got stuck in the self-righteousness of being the victimized partner and Bart got stuck in the shame of being the sinner.  Helen said she forgave Bart because her values said she had to, but it was not a genuine forgiveness.  Forgiveness because of its religious connotations was not particularly palatable to Aidan and Cathy who were not religious.  In addition, as a strong woman with high self-esteem and quantifiable and qualitative achievements, forgiving Aidan seemed to Cathy to deny her rights as a independent powerful individual… or woman.  Aidan who had high moral values was clear that he could never forgive himself for hurting Cathy with the affair.  He could however come to accept how his vulnerability developed and he came to betray himself and Cathy.  Both Aidan and Cathy were extremely intelligent and academically and rational thinkers, so insight work about the logic of highly influential forces and compulsive energies driving choices and behavior made acceptance… acceptable.  Aidan’s infidelity was still horribly wrong and destructive to both of them, but they could accept how it tragically made sense and how it happened.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
Back to content | Back to main menu