Infidelity is a traumatic event, but if you are searching for information on forgiving a cheater, you have already taken a few steps forwards.
This guide has combed through much literature on infidelity to give you a neat guide on how to forgive and move on.
- Should You Forgive a Cheater?
- Forgiving a Cheater And Recovery
- Impediments To Forgiving
- Steps Into Forgiveness
- Rituals of Recommitment
- Checklist for Banning Affairs
Should You Forgive a Cheater?
I cannot answer that question for you.
It’s a fair question and if there were deeper issues in the relationship this is a good moment for you to take stock of your situation.
I recommend this article to troubleshoot your overall relationship health:
When You Should Forgive
What I can tell you is that if you want to rebuild the relationship, then forgiving is a must.
I’ve seen couples staying together that never moved into forgiveness and kept that constant, burning rage of resentment within them.
And it’s not pretty.
Forgiving is also the final step to recovery. You can heal without forgiveness, but healing with forgiveness is the fuller, final stage.
In short: if you don’t want to forgive, it’s a respectable choice and you should break up. If you want to reach a fuller level of healing and/or stay together, then you should forgive.
Forgiving a Cheater And Recovery
Keep this in mind:
Forgiveness is trauma recovery.
There’s no independent and parallel track for healing and forgiving: the two work together.
We talked about how to ease the pain of infidelity and how to heal together as a couple. As you heal together, you are also laying the foundations for forgiveness.
Here are the overarching steps when bundled together:
1. Letting go of anger
When you re-establish safety (contact with the affair partner cut) and restart compassionate communication, you are letting go of anger.
When you search for the deeper causes and build shared meaning around the affair and why it happened, you were building empathy for each other.
With every compassionate listening, with every caring gesture, you are removing the last bits of revenge-seeking tendencies. And as your resume caring about each other you are moving towards forgiveness.
When to forgive is another difficult question to answer without knowing your situation or personality.
Here’s what I can tell you though: if you wait too long, you are feeding feelings of despair and hopelessness. Not good either for you or your relationship.
If you forgive too soon, it’s not really forgiving and you will try to rebuild your relationship on shaky foundations.
Ultimately, you have to forgive when you are ready to forgive.
Impediments To Forgiving
Forgiving is not always easy. These are some of the most common pitfalls on the road to forgiving:
1. Victim Mentality
The victim mentality is the one that can never move beyond pain… And beyond accusing the cheating partner of that pain.
It sounds like this:
-I will never be able to move on from the pain that you have caused me
-You ruined my life
Sometimes cheated partners have difficulty in moving beyond the victim mentality because they see themselves as the “good” side of the relationship, the saintly half that did nothing wrong.
As long as you keep dividing the relationship into “good” and “bad” you’re not doing yourself any favor. Reality is often more complex than that.
2. Suspicion of Ongoing Cheating
Safety is a necessary precondition for healing. You can’t move on and you can’t forgive unless you’re certain that the cheating has stopped.
It’s a protection mechanism: if you don’t let go of fear, you are in some way shielding yourself if cheating is once again uncovered.
What to do
If it’s true that cheating has not stopped and your partner is lying, you might consider breaking up here.
If you’re not sure, it’s fair to find ways to make sure: hiring a detective is a valid option.
A cheating partner should also welcome all chances he has to prove himself to be on the good side: it’s in everyone’s interest.
Once you make sure cheating has stopped… It’s time to move on.
3. Pain From the Past
If the betrayed partner is mired in anger, suspicion, and revenge-seeking in spite of everything else being clear, there might be other issues.
Some possible issues here:
- Painful infidelities in the family
- Sexual abuse
- Chronic low self-esteem
- Deep-rooted distrust or hatred of men/women
Those should be addressed separately.
4. Aggressive Suffering
Some victims unconsciously want to hold on to their pain. This is something that happens to victims of incest and domestic violence but can happen in very traumatic cases of infidelity as well.
The victims unconsciously believe that a full recovery would mean letting the cheating partner off the hook. If they’re not in pain anymore, that would send the message that cheating was not a big deal.
In a way, this is an aggressive form of pain as it aims to make the cheater feel forever guilty. Of course, this stance is unhelpful to anyone, first of all, the betrayed partner.
You might even push the cheating partner into the more caring embrace of another affair if aggressive suffering keeps going on indefinitely.
5. Self-absorbed Perennial Pain
Sometimes the betrayed partner cannot forgive because he can only focus on himself. This does not apply to every case of course, but in many cheating instances, the betrayed spouse is also part of the blame.
For example, a partner cheat after their spouse broke up with them. When they get back together, the betrayed partner still considers it cheating but fails to realize how his own actions -to break up- also caused the cheating -and the pain-.
If that’s the case, allowing yourself to experience part of the cheater’s pain, or to see things from his point of view, can help you move forward from self-absorbed perennial pain.
Even if you bare little responsibility though, looking at the situation from the cheater’s eyes is important: compassion is a major element of forgiveness.
6. Too Early, Fake Forgiveness
Some partners jump too quickly into forgiving as a way to cut through the difficult confrontational period. It’s a mistake and it doesn’t help anyone.
The betrayed partner will be unhappy in the relationship because they haven’t really moved on. And they’ll wonder if it was the right decision.
Fake early forgiveness will also send the wrong message to the cheating partner: that cheating wasn’t so bad.
You can’t and should not pretend that cheating never happened or that it didn’t hurt. It happened, and it was a mistake.
And it hurt, and that’s OK.
Take the time you need to reach full healing and real forgiveness.
Steps Into Forgiveness
Mutual empathy is the most important ingredient to achieve forgiveness.
Keep in mind you will get there gradually.
It’s a slow and sometimes barely perceptible process, but if you do it right it inexorably advances until, if you do all the rest right, you will have a stronger and healthier relationship.
These steps will help you get there faster and more deliberately:
#1. Look At Your Contributions
I know this will ruffle the feathers of many cheated partners.
But hold on.
Don’t worry, it wouldn’t even cross my mind to turn the tables on you if it weren’t a helpful part of recovery.
It will not apply to ALL partners, but before ruling yourself out, please at least consider the possibility of your contributions: this is an important exercise.
Here are some examples of how the betrayed partner might have unwittingly contributed:
- Leaving your partner on the outside of a child-centered relationship
- Putting work first, second… And third
- Turning away and missing opportunities for emotional connection
- Being generally uncaring and taking the partner for granted
#2. Forgive Yourself
Betrayed spouses rarely feel guilty about their partner’s cheating -but if you do, this applies!-.
But they can often feel guilty about having missed the signs, about having been so gullible, or they feel guilty for what the whole situation will mean to the people around them.
Before forgiving your partner, then, you must forgive yourself first.
The signs are only obvious in hindsight and you weren’t gullible. And even if you were, let it go, we all are gullible at times and there’s nothing wrong with it.
#3. Explore The Betrayal Together
Looking into what brought about the affair from a neutral perspective will help replace anger with understanding.
You should do this exercise with the cheating partner so that it will also build shared meaning, increase each other’s knowledge and build a common understanding.
#4. Address Relationships Weaknesses
An affair is often the contribution of several weaknesses in the cheating partner, the betrayed partner, and the relationship overall.
Looking at cheating as the culmination of several joint weaknesses instead of just the cheater’s fault will help you expand on compassion and empathy.
As you do it, start addressing and working on those weaknesses.
As the relationship improves, forgiving will be easier within a framework of a healthier, happier relationship.
#5. Accept Amends From Cheating Partner
The capacity to forgive is highly -very highly- correlated to the willingness and practical steps that the cheating partner takes in making amends.
Let’s not forget this: the cheating partner must actively seek forgiveness for the mistake.
If they don’t, let them this guide. If they still don’t, they might have a case of entitlement mentality and feel entitled to extramarital affairs.
The more they are willing to make amends, the easier it will be for the betrayed partner to forgive.
Here are some ways the cheating partner can facilitate:
- End the affair pronto
- Allow the spouse to be present when drafting the final letter or doing the final call
- Be more concerned about taking care of the betrayed partner than defending yourself
- Show concrete signs you’re working on the relationship
- Use your spouse’s language of love to make it up
- Prepare and deliver a heartfelt apology
For the betrayed partner: get all the amends you can.
It’s possible that it will be difficult for you to accept early amends as that would mean you’re forgiving too early and letting them off the hook.
Don’t let that mentality trap you: treat each amend separately and “at the moment”. As you welcome them, you will also take gradual steps toward full forgiveness.
#6. Ask for Forgiveness
As a final step, once you’re almost fully ready to forgive, you can reward your partner’s hard work by asking for your own forgiveness.
Based on the first step when you looked at your own contributions, you can tell your partner what you’re sorry about.
Don’t underestimate this step: your partner will likely be very touched and it will catapult you into a renewed level of “we-ness”.
#7. Grant Forgiveness
Finally, you’re ready for the big step. Granting forgiveness. Here are the steps:
- Acknowledge the pain it all caused
- Say how you felt
- Tell them you still hold them accountable…
- … But that you are no longer angry…
- … Because you have no compassion for their weakness and understanding of the situation
- Explain forgiveness is for the past, but in the present and the future…
- … You won’t tolerate X, Y, Z (for example: further cheating)
- Finally, end emphatically by telling them you forgive and are ready to move on
- Make a final grand gesture: a hug, pull out a gift, or a card to remember this day
Stop blaming and start living
Rituals of Recommitment
It can also be helpful to perform symbolic rituals to mark the end of infidelity and recovery and to kick-start your new and improved relationship.
Here are some ideas:
1. Destroy Symbols of Cheating
Rona Subotnik and Gloria Harris propose to write down a list of all the wrongful acts that happened. Then tearing it up and throwing it into a river -or alternatively burning it and burying the ashes as a symbol of the death of the affair-.
Note: I might be a hopeless environment-friendly guy, but please don’t throw it down a river :).
Burning it should do, then go have a picnic on that river and enjoy it clean and nice.
Sometimes cheating can be very painful when the betrayed partner discovers typical courtship activities in the affair relationship.
It’s even more painful if that courtship was missing in their relationship.
In either case, kicking off a renewed period of courtship with dates, romantic movies, and candlelight can benefit any recovering couple.
In case you need some inspiration for the music.
3. Renewing Vows
Renewing wedding vows is another way to strengthen the bond and officialize the new beginning. You might also go on a new honeymoon afterward.
Checklist for Banning Affairs
To prevent future affairs, here’s a brief checklist of what you need to make sure of:
- You are aware of your past weaknesses
- You are clear about what constitutes inappropriate “friendship” out of the relationship
- You present a united front to the world
- You agree on what commitment means
- You are open to talking about future vulnerabilities and dangers
- You make your relationship a priority
For more information read:
Forgiving the cheater is the final step towards healing from an affair. You can heal without forgiving, but you cannot rebuild a strong relationship without forgiving.
Whether you want to forgive or not and whether you want to work on the relationship is up to you.
But if you want, this article showed you how to forgive a cheater and build a stronger relationship together.
- How to overcome infidelity
- How to prevent cheating
- How to forgive a cheater
- Why people cheat
- Emotional infidelity: what is it and how it happens
- How to pick a loyal partner
- Elizabeth Seagull and Arthur A. Seagull (1991), Healing the wound that must not heal: Psychotherapy with survivors of domestic violence
- Rona Subtonik and Gloria Harris (1999) Surviving infidelity: Making decisions, recovering from the pain, Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams Press
- Shirley Glass (2004): Not Just Friends