What to Do When You Can’t Forgive .
You’ve been betrayed.
Your spouse, the person you once loved and trusted most in the world, took advantage of your confidence and walked all over it leaving you to stew in your sickening feelings of anger, shame, resentment, fear, and maybe even jealousy.
Perhaps your spouse cheated on you, breaking the sacred oath of fidelity that was the foundation of your marriage.
Or maybe your spouse broke faith with you by systematically lying about who he was or what he was doing. Gambling, stealing, drinking excessively, or getting involved in nefarious business dealings are a few examples that come to mind.
If this describes the current state of your marriage, you are facing one of the most difficult challenges any married person has to cope with.
You’re desperately looking for a way to forgive your spouse so you can move on with your life and get back the wonderful marriage you once shared.
There’s only one problem.
You don’t think you can forgive your spouse.
The hurt goes too deep. You don’t trust your spouse anymore. What if you forgive and he or she betrays you again? What if he or she has another affair? You don’t want to be walked on like some cheap doormat. And you don’t think you can go through the pain all over again.
You know if you don’t forgive it’s going to be hard . maybe even impossible . to rebuild your marriage.
But you’re terrified that if you do forgive, the consequences may be even worse.
You’re caught in a trap-stuck in a Catch 22-and no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to get free of it.
We’ve all heard the saying “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
But we aren’t divine. We’re all human beings struggling to get by in this crazy world.
The question almost raises itself:
“If I can’t forgive, what’s left? How can I move on with my marriage? How can we rebuild what we once had and move on with our lives?”
I hate to tell you, but you can’t “go back to the way things once were in your marriage.” If you take that path, you are in for more of the same kind of pain you are facing right now.
Going back to the way things once were is not going to solve your problems.
But there is another path you can take.
You can work to make your marriage better than it was-maybe even better than ever.
And the road you need to take to make that happen doesn’t require forgiveness.
In fact, forgiveness may even come naturally if you follow the path I suggest.
You don’t have to forgive your spouse to move on with your marriage.
There is another path you can take. That path can be summed up in a single word .
Let me explain.
A New Path to Forgiveness: Acceptance
In my opinion forgiveness doesn’t work the way many people think it does.
I’ve heard people in my office, on movies, on TV, in books, and in articles I’ve read speak about forgiveness as though it’s something they simply “decide” to do. Once they make their “decision” the light of forgiveness is turned on and everything is wonderful and light again.
This is what I would call “magical thinking.”
I once heard about a couple whose daughter was murdered. This man and woman eventually went down to the prison, met with their daughter’s killer face to face, and forgave him.
Honestly, I have to say this isn’t a form of forgiveness I even understand. I don’t doubt the reality of it. I just don’t understand it myself.
In my view, forgiveness requires work. If you do the work, the feeling of forgiveness comes by itself . in time.
The work you have to do starts with acceptance.
Acceptance is the path you take to move toward forgiveness.
Instead of focusing on the seemingly miraculous (perhaps even divine) act of “deciding” to forgive, when I work with my clients I help them take the path of acceptance so they can work toward a better marriage in a practical step-by-step matter.
I have found that working toward forgiveness this way makes the act of forgiving more accessible to many people.
Acceptance will allow you to systematically work through your anger, overcome your anxiety, rebuild trust in your partner, and do so without being stuck with the feeling that you might be walked on like a doormat one more time.
With acceptance you don’t have to “make a decision” and jump into forgiving all at one time. You can take it slowly, and feel out how things are going in your marriage. This way you don’t get stuck in the process of forgiving only to be betrayed again. Instead, you look at your relationship rationally and do the work you need to make it better.
To start understanding how this works, let’s look at the definition for “acceptance” and see how it is different than the definition for “forgiveness.”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines acceptance as “willingness or ability to tolerate.” The definition for forgiveness is “cease to feel angry or resentful toward.”
In my mind, the difference between these definitions is quite enlightening, and it’s a good indicator for why acceptance is the path you take toward forgiveness.
When your spouse betrays you, it’s very unlikely that you are going to wake up one day and simply cease to feel angry or resentful about his or her actions unless you do some work to make that happen.
In my opinion you can’t just “decide” to make these feelings go away. You have to take some specific actions so you can overcome them.
The first step is to accept that the awful events which occurred in your marriage did, in fact, occur.
This means getting past your initial denial. It means accepting that what happened in the past happened, and there is no way to undo that reality.
It means abandoning the idea that you can “go back to the way things once were.” Because, for most of you, if your honest with yourself, things probably weren’t so great before otherwise your marriage probably wouldn’t be in the state it’s in now.
And it means coming to terms with the idea that you aren’t going to simply “get over it” one day.
The experience of having your spouse betray you has become a part of your history now. There’s no way you can go back to a time before that happened.
There are going to be unpleasant and unwanted feelings associated with this reality. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by trying to swallow, ignore, or “just get over” those feelings. In fact if you try to do that, you’ll likely make your problems worse.
What you can do is accept that what happened happened. You can accept that your spouse’s actions really happened, and your emotional responses to those actions are really happening too.
You can choose to be “willing to tolerate” the actions that happened and the feelings you are experiencing now. If you are willing to do that, you can then take specific steps toward overcoming the difficult emotions and experiences you are now suffering from.
That doesn’t mean you have to like what happened. Acceptance does not mean you have to say, “It’s all okay. What you did is okay. Now we can all be happy again.”
Quite the contrary!
No one can expect you to like the fact that your spouse cheated on or otherwise betrayed you. That’s absurd. Acceptance does not mean you have to approve of what happened in any way.
However, you do have to accept the reality of your situation right now.
Once you do that, then there are specific exercise you can employ to overcome the anger and fear you feel. You can work a set of exercises that will allow you to rebuild your trust in your partner, learn how to communicate, get past your feelings of jealousy, rid your mind of the awful images of the affair, and ultimately rebuild confidence in your spouse.
However, if you don’t accept the reality of your situation, the chances any this will happen are minimized.
When you accept your situation you are saying, “I don’t like what happened. I don’t like the feelings I am having right now. I don’t even like my marriage or my spouse right now. But I’m willing to tolerate this so we can work toward a better future as a couple.”
If you do this, with time and work you will get to a place where the bad feelings you are experiencing move to the back of your mind. You will be aware that your past happened, but the memory of it won’t plague you as much anymore.
This won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen unless you put some real work into your marriage to make it better than ever.
To help you along this path to acceptance, in the next article I will give you another tool. I will explain why you are probably still angry with your spouse, and I will offer you some tips for expressing and letting go of that anger.
In the meantime, let me know how it goes with you. I’d love to hear about your marriage. Post a comment to this blog by clicking the comment link below..
As always, I wish you all the best on your road to a wonderful marriage.
Until next time,
Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.