I can answer that question. Let me begin with an email I received from a client.
One year ago today I found out that my wife was having an affair. I really didn’t think we were going to make it. I had such anger, even hatred for her. And I couldn’t believe that she would do this to me and to our children. I felt so betrayed. Somehow, after joining your program, we were able to get back on track. She cut off the affair and we started reconnecting like you teach. But I still struggle with forgiving her. I just can’t forget what she did. When I see a love scene in a movie, I think of her with the other man. It’s so painful. It’s not like it’s all I think about. We’re doing much better and we do spend nice time together. But I just feel I haven’t completely forgiven her and I don’t know why or how to do it. Can you help?
Center Harbor, NH
First I want to say that it’s highly commendable that Mark would be willing to forgive his wife and give the marriage another chance. That’s not easy to do. Many people can’t do it or aren’t willing to try.
Especially in cases of infidelity, it’s easy to justify calling it quits. “I deserve better. This is unforgivable.” And you’ll get plenty of support.
It’s absolutely necessary. It’s not possible to live so close to someone for so long without making mistakes and hurting them, sometimes making big mistakes and hurting them badly. If that’s the case (and it always is) then each spouse simply must be committed to forgiving the other if the marriage is going to succeed.
And that’s true of any marriage. People mistakenly think that they’ll be better off moving on to a new relationship where they can start with a clean slate. But some enough, that slate won’t be clean either. It might not be infidelity, but everyone is fallible.
Don’t get the wrong idea.
And I’m not absolving the sinner of their responsibility. Nonetheless, when a couple is together for many years, you will get hurt, and therefore, if your marriage is going to succeed, you must learn to forgive. And of course, when the roles are reversed (and they will be), you’ll need your spouse to forgive you too.
Over the years, you’ve heard me talk about forgiveness, but this time I want to make an important distinction that will answer Mark’s question and I hope be helpful to you too.
When you first learned about forgiveness from your parents, it probably sounded something like this: You have to learn to forgive and forget.”
Somewhere along the way, these two acts, forgiving and forgetting, got lumped into one. The expression “forgive and forget” assumes that these two acts go hand in hand. It suggests that they can be accomplished simultaneously.
But is that true? Do forgiving and forgetting go together? Are they the same? Do they go hand in hand? Can they occur simultaneously?
To forgive is a verb. It’s NOT a thought or a feeling. It’s an action, something you do.
The word “forgive” offers a clue into its deepest meaning and an indication of what the verb “forgive” looks like in action. Look at the word forgive…for-give, in other words, to GIVE as you did beFORE. And that’s what it really means to forgive someone, to not hold the offence against them and to treat them as you treated them before they erred. That’s what forgiveness looks like, that’s the act of forgiveness.
Notice that the definition above does not say anything about thoughts or feelings. Again, forgiving is an act. And it’s possible to do the act while still harboring ill will. In fact, it’s quite likely when you first forgive, you will NOT be able to forget.
Very often, a person will say “I forgive you,” but continue to treat their spouse in a punishing manner. Forgiveness is not a proclamation; it’s a deed. It’s all about how you treat your spouse. You can forgive long before you forget. And you can do that by resuming “normal” interaction between you and your spouse despite that fact that you’re struggling with negative feelings and thoughts.
Read Mark’s letter again. You’ll notice a distinction between forgiving and forgetting in his experience. He’s doing pretty well forgiving; but he can’t forget. Mark’s realizing that these two acts do NOT go together.
Forgetting takes more time. He learned in the Marriage Fitness program how to get her marriage back on track by behaving in a certain way. But he’s still plagued by his thoughts.
Forgetting is not a voluntary action like forgiving. You can’t control your thoughts and feelings. You can, however, control your actions. Forgiveness is a personal initiative. Forgetting is a result of passivity; you simply have to wait. “Time heals” is the cliché, and it’s true. But in the meantime, you can forgive.
Although there is no substitute for time when it comes to forgetting, it’s worth noting that forgiving does help you forget. In other words, if you continue to punish your spouse up for their mistakes, you’ll just reinforce your anger and remind yourself of your pain. But if you treat your spouse as you did before their offence, your positive behavior will contribute to more positive feelings. If you’re sad, smile! If you’re tired, exercise. You get the idea.
I want to say something else about forgetting. I’m not going to sugar coat this. It comes from personal experience. It’s not pretty, but it’s true.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t go on. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a successful marriage. But Mark is going to have to accept the fact that he’s NEVER going to forget that her wife shared a bed with another woman. And if, for example, he knew that it was a bed at a Holiday Inn, then there will never be a time that he drives by that sign and doesn’t feel a pit in his stomach. That’s sad, but it’s not cause for divorce, and it doesn’t mean that Mark can’t have a successful marriage and a happy life.
As you may know, my wife and I lost 3 children. Thank God, today we have 5 beautiful children and wonderful family. Have we moved on? Absolutely! Are we healthy and happy? I think so. Do we think about those loses every day? No. But did we forget? No.
There are certain images from that hospital room that will always be with us. We speak of it rarely, but when we do it hurts. We’ll never forget.
Forgiveness is a choice. Forgetting is up to God.
Forgiveness happens first. Forgetting comes much later, if at all.
But no matter what offences afflict your marriage, the act of forgiveness can create a healing and allow you to experience a fulfilling relationship. Keep that distinction in mind. Do what you can to forgive. And we should all pray that God will grant us the gift to forget.
I never suspected his infidelity. That was 2 years ago and nothing short of a miracle has happened. Our family is restored and our future is bright. It would not have been possible without your help.