Infidelity: Distinguishing the Difference Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation in a case of marital infidelity? Over a year ago, I discovered that my husband had resumed an emotional affair with a good friend of mine. Altogether, the two episodes covered a span of nearly ten years. After I confronted him for the second time, he wept and said he was very sorry. He has assured me – and I think he is sincere – that the relationship has ended. I honestly believe in my heart that I have forgiven my husband, but in spite of this I have had a hard time trusting him or feeling any affection for him. This upsets him. He says that it should be enough for me to know that the affair is over and that he has promised never to be unfaithful again. Even our counselor – who has never talked with us about what went on during the affair or the pain it has caused me – has said that my feelings are evidence that I haven't forgiven my husband. I'm hurt and confused. Can you help me?

Let’s come straight to the point. There are some very significant distinctions to be made between forgiveness and reconciliation. For one thing, forgiveness is an individual matter, whereas reconciliation is a joint venture. As a matter of fact, we can say that forgiveness is an element in the larger process of reconciliation. Without true forgiveness there can be no reconciliation, but one can forgive without necessarily being reconciled. A great deal depends on the other person’s response.

There’s also an important difference between the choice of forgiveness and the emotion of forgiveness. Once you’ve made up your mind to let go of a past offense, it can sometimes take a while for your feelings to catch up with your cognitive decision. Changes of this nature don’t necessarily happen overnight.

As we see it, it’s precisely this time element that seems to have escaped your husband’s notice. Sadly, your counselor appears to have overlooked it, too. Both of them are demanding that you hurry up and get on with the job of revitalizing your original feelings of trust and affection for your spouse. They want you to snap your fingers and change everything back to the way it was before the affair. This is entirely unrealistic. Infidelity has a deeply destructive impact on a marriage. Ten years is a long time for a man to carry on a dalliance with a woman other than his wife. Not only have you been betrayed and deeply hurt you’ve actually had to learn to accept your pain as a way of life.

Under the circumstances, your emotions are completely understandable. It’s no wonder you feel invalidated as a person when your husband asks you to sweep them aside in an instant. That’s not the way to work together toward mutual reconciliation. He needs to give you time to work through those feelings of betrayal and invalidation.

We assume your spouse may also be trying to make the case that the affair was “not that big of a deal” since there was no sex involved. If that’s his line of reasoning, we’ve got a surprise for him. In most cases, the damage inflicted by an affair is not dependent upon the presence of sexual activity. On the contrary, the physical repercussions of sex are probably the least important aspects of an affair’s aftermath. The emotional and psychological sides of the problem are often of far greater consequence, and can also be more difficult to resolve. Your husband’s attachment to the other woman may have been purely emotional in nature, but this does not mean that you will find it any easier to get past it. On the contrary, there’s a long road ahead, and it will require a lot of hard work, discipline, patience, and understanding on the part of both spouses.

Since your counselor doesn’t appear to appreciate this aspect of the problem, we’d suggest that it might be time to find another therapist. Focus on the Family’s Counseling staff can provide referrals to counselors and marriage specialists practicing in your area. As part of the counseling process, it would be a good idea to take a close look at the dynamics of your relationship at every level and find out where changes need to be made. It’s likely that each of you bears some responsibility for the tensions at the heart of your marriage. This is not to imply that you are accountable in any way for your husband’s affair. Far from it. It’s simply to suggest that every marriage has underlying “issues” of various kinds.

Meanwhile, your husband needs to realize that before there can be any true reconciliation, he needs to respond to your forgiveness by taking the initiative to rebuild trust into the relationship. In addition to taking clear steps to end all contact with his partner in the affair, he must agree to make himself accountable to you going forward. Through his actions he has forfeited a degree of his personal freedom. Real healing and reconciliation can’t occur unless he’s ready to be open and aboveboard about all of his comings and goings and social interactions. That includes granting you access to his cell phone, his Facebook account, and all of his online activities. Trust may be restored if accountability is maintained over a long period of time, but not otherwise.

As the offender, this is his job. He is the only one who can assume this vital role. He can’t wait around for you or your counselor to give him a “to do” list. On the contrary, if he really wants to make things right, he has to admit that he has done wrong and come up with new ways to demonstrate his fidelity, reliability, and trustworthiness as a person. That’s what repentance is all about. Your task is to stay open to trusting him again in spite of the baggage of the past.

If you have additional questions or would like to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our staff, we’d like to invite you to call Focus on the Family’s Counseling department.

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