How to forgive an infidelity
Infidelity is a traumatic experience that happens to many couples today, whether married, living together or exclusively dating. When it happens, emotions run high, ranging from pain and hurt to anger and revenge. Recovering from such an experience is never easy, but some couples do manage to work through it and stay together while others do not.
Researchers have performed a number of studies to try to determine what factors are involved in determining whether people will continue their relationship or decide to separate. Two factors in particular have emerged that play a definite role in this process — attributions and forgiveness.
People are always evaluating the behavior of themselves and others to try to discover why a certain behavior occurred. This is a cognitive or “thinking” process. People determine in their own minds what reasons to “attribute” to the infidelity of their partner. These may or may not actually be the reasons from the other person’s point of view, but they are the reasons that are attributed and believed by the partner who’s been cheated on.
These attributions carry a lot of weight when viewed in a traumatic situation such as infidelity. If a person makes attributions like:
“He didn’t really mean it,” or
“She was coerced, it wasn’t her fault!” or
“My partner only cheated because he/she got put in a bad situation but he/she won’t cheat again”
then this person is less likely to get as upset as another one who thinks:
“He just did it to hurt me,” or
“She’s just selfish and doesn’t care at all about my feelings” or
“he/she is untrustworthy, and isn’t going to change”.
The attributions in the first examples are known as “benign” attributions, and the ones in the second set are called “hostile” or “aggressive” attributions. A person making benign attributions is less likely to feel the most negative emotions possible in such situations, such as anger, resentment and a desire for revenge, while the opposite is true for someone making aggressive attributions.
The power of forgiveness has been demonstrated time and time again, but is often misunderstood. Forgiveness does not mean condoning someone’s behavior in any way. It does not mean inviting the behavior to continue. It does mean the ceasing of pain or the feeling of being wronged. Forgiveness is for the forgiver. Forgiveness is the refusal to store up bitterness or to constantly ruminate on the wrongdoing. Forgiveness allows one to move forward.
The goal of forgiveness is for the injured person to gain a more balanced view of the offender and the infidelity, while decreasing negative affect and behaviors toward the offender and increasing empathy. Couples recognize that forgiveness is a necessary part of the healing process, and is equally important for couples that reconcile as it is for those who separate.
How Attributions and Forgiveness Can Affect Reconciliation
A 2006 study by Hall and Fincham looked at these two concepts and their effects on couples struggling with the infidelity of one of the partners in the relationship. Previous studies had already indicated that people’s reactions to behavior were largely influenced by the attributions or explanations that people made for the behavior. They could blame themselves, they could blame chance, or they could blame someone else, and when blame was attributed to someone else, aggressive or hostile responses were more likely to be the result.
Hall and Fincham studied couples who had dealt with infidelity and how their level of forgiveness were related to the kind of attribution they made, and how both concepts affected a couple’s decision to remain in the relationship or leave it. Their findings are important in helping couples who are working through this trauma, and for the professionals who may be trying to help them.
- The person whose partner was unfaithful will most likely make attributions as to why the infidelity occurred.
- The ability to forgive was directly related to the attributions assigned, ie. Benign attributions were more likely to be forgiven than hostile ones while hostile attributions were likely to inhibit the forgiveness process.
- Breakups are more likely to occur if the partner’s attributions are hostile and conflict-promoting.
The conclusions from this, then, indicate that couples looking to stay together should work towards forgiveness by the wronged partner, and that forgiveness might be made more possible if their attributions can first be modified. Therefore, in a therapeutic setting, attributions should be address first, to help facilitate the process of forgiveness.
It should be emphasized that forgiveness is considered the optimal outcome rather than the reconciliation of the relationship. While forgiveness is a crucial stage in the process of recovery, forgiveness does not require reconciliation. Even for couples who decide to separate, forgiveness can provide emotional closure when moving on. But if couples are entering treatment with the goal of reconciliation, then forgiveness is an important part of the process that will help to facilitate this outcome.
While forgiveness does not require a couple to stay together, it may make reconciliation more likely. Forgiveness, by definition, increases the probability of pro–relationship behaviors and thus may increase the injured spouse’s desire to rebuild the relationship.