I know this is a family paper, so I’m going to keep my question vague and hope that you’re able to read between the lines. Last year, I found out that my husband betrayed me. For a while there, I was almost paralyzed with shock and grief so that I couldn’t even think straight or know what to do.
After much coaxing from my husband, I finally agreed to go for couple’s therapy to “work things out.” The therapy was helpful in general, allowing my husband, Chaim, and me to learn more about ourselves and each other. However, when the issue of “forgiveness” came up, I started having a hard time. I find that I’m not able to understand what the word means. Obviously, I get it on a shallow level. But I can’t wrap my mind around what it means in terms of my relationship with my husband, how I view him, and how I view our marriage. I’m stuck.
My initial instincts told me to run away, that I deserve so much better, that I wasn’t going to live the clichéd life of the wife who looks away from such betrayal and just keeps on smiling and moving forward. I’m told that many wives (and, I suppose, husbands) are able to do that. For some reason, I’m not.
On the other hand, I have a close friend who found herself in the same predicament as mine, and she did get divorced. She often tells me that she’s sorry she ended her marriage; despite how flawed it was, her life (and the lives of her children) is far more difficult now, and if she could do things over, she would just tolerate whatever it was and stay married.
So here I am, afraid that divorce might leave me suffering even more than I am now. Yet, I just don’t know how to “forgive” my husband for what he did to us and to the sanctity of our marriage. How does a person actually forgive? Let it go? Move past it? Is there some magic formula that allows people to honestly put their pain behind them and stop thinking about it?
I’d rather not get divorced. I have three wonderful children who seem happy and naïve enough to believe the world is a safe and predictable place. The thought of destroying that makes me feel beyond guilty but I still find I’m unable to look at Chaim without disgust.
Please tell me how to forgive!
Much has been written and spoken about the concept of forgiveness. Not all of it is identical. It’s a complex idea that means different things for different people. If I were to try and find the common denominator that underlies many discussions, it would be the idea that forgiveness is more tied in with the person who has been hurt or betrayed rather than the person guilty of the wrongdoing. Many people make the decision to forgive because they want to live a freer life, a calmer life, a life less motivated by anger. Forgiveness is often a gift one gives to oneself, rather than to the betrayer.
Forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting. One can forgive and still be well aware of what the other party did to him or her, but without the range of emotions that is often self-destructive. I think this is an important distinction, because some people struggle with the idea of giving the perpetrator a total pass, sans any repercussions for what he did. Most of us have a strong sense of justice, which can make that idea hard to swallow. Why should anyone get off the hook so easily? It doesn’t seem right. But it makes sense if it allows individuals to liberate their hearts and minds from toxic, unhealthy thoughts and feelings.
Now let’s get back to you as you struggle with the entire notion of forgiveness and what it means for you. Understand that you have free will to decide the meaning of forgiveness for yourself. While not being in denial about what happened, can you nevertheless decide that everyone’s life improves if you can find it in your heart to release all the hurt and anger that you are still carrying around? What would it mean for you to do so? What would it take for you? What’s holding you back? While holding onto that anger, who is ultimately the loser? When answering these questions for yourself, it’s important to step outside of your old ways of processing information and see if it’s possible to embrace a new normal. This may not seem conventional or feel familiar to you but in the long run, may work much better for you.
Few of us, if any, live a perfect life wherein everything lines up properly and no compromises need to be made in the way we think about ourselves and the quality and functionality of our lives. We all must learn how to bend, adjust, and go with the flow for the greater good. Often the struggle is deciding what that greater good is. Once you’ve figured that out, understand that it will take a certain level of forgiveness—letting go of the anger and desire to see justice prevail — to accomplish your ultimate goal. If you can achieve that feat, you come out the winner! You’ve taken back control of your life and are making choices that will allow you to live your best life.
Finally, let me be clear. I’m not telling you whether or not to stay in your marriage. I hardly know enough about you, your husband, and your marriage to comment on it. But I hope to impart ideas that may help you understand the wide range of consequences that true forgiveness offers individuals who properly understand its benefits.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther offers phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.