Thursday, September 12, 2013

Forgiving Yourself

In our book, Healing Infidelity, I have a chapter in the hurt spouse section on forgiveness in the healing process. You can also read the article on the web. It is a tough subject. More than once I've heard a hurt spouse say, "I'll never forgive him." Granted, that may come from the anger of the moment and their attitude can change, but sad because forgiveness is part of one's personal healing in this pain. A necessary part for full healing.

But I wanted to focus on something I touched on toward the end of that article that was more directed to the unfaithful spouses: self-forgiveness.

For about three months after discovery day (the day I found out about the affair), my wife lived in an emotionally stoic state. I even commented once that she hadn't exhibited any sorrow, remorse, or sadness. In words, yes. But not with her emotions. She resided in an emotional state of shock. Probably because neither of us knew if we'd make it or not, even though we were both committed to rebuilding, and she took a few weeks before she fully came out of the affair fog.

However, about three months out, it hit her big time. The walls of compartmentalization came crashing down and guilt ran roughshod over her. She cried everyday while cleaning houses. This went on for the next six months. I became worried she might drown in it. I tried to reassure her that I'd forgiven her, and God had forgiven her, but she said she had trouble forgiving herself. So she kept punishing herself. She felt like she couldn't just "let herself off the hook" for the horrible thing she'd done to me.

Yes, what she had done to me was horrible. She owed me a debt, so to speak. I forgave that debt both for my own sanity and because I didn't want to hinder her from healing and rebuilding our marriage. What happened was done and could not be changed. As long as we were building toward a secure future, I didn't want to add my own "punishment" onto the difficult consequences she would be facing.

But once the magnitude of the damage she'd done to me, herself, our marriage, and our family hit home, she struggled with self-forgiveness. What is self-forgiveness and how does one accomplish that?

First, let's remind ourselves what forgiveness is. Webster defines it: "To pardon; to remit, as an offense or debt; to overlook an offense, and treat the offender as not guilty." Note, assumed here are two parties: the offended and the offender. Also assumed is that the offender has committed a real wrong to the offended. Both elements are needed for forgiveness to be needed and effective. As noted in my article, forgiveness is the treating of the offender as not guilty by the offended.

However, it doesn't negate the real consequences of the wrong. Those must still be addressed and healed. Forgiveness doesn't mean the hurt spouse won't be forced to deal with triggers, go through depression, grieve his losses. That is part of the hurt spouse's healing process and isn't necessarily his attempt to throw what you did in your face. He's been through a trauma, expect healing to take years, not weeks or days.

How does this apply to self-forgiveness? For starters, in most cases, what someone means by those words is not what they think it means. Literally, it takes two people for forgiveness to be a real remedy. To speak of self-forgiveness, literally, is like owing yourself money, and not able to pay yourself off. Does that make sense? If you owe yourself a debt, where's the need to pay yourself back? There is none. It is when you owe someone else a debt that you have need to pay it back.

What the unfaithful spouse is really experiencing is not being able to receive offered forgiveness, and incorporate that as a reality into his life. Instead, having pronounced himself as guilty, he punishes himself in behalf of the hurt spouse because he feels he deserves it. Because he hasn't accepted his spouse's forgiveness.

There are three basic reasons an unfaithful spouse may do this.

1) Like the hurt spouse, the unfaithful spouse must go through the stages of grief. They have experienced a loss as well. Maybe of their own making, but a real loss once guilt hits. They recognize they have destroyed something precious that they can't get back. So they will experience denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. It may not be until the unfaithful spouse reaches acceptance that he is emotionally in a position to accept forgiveness for his guilt and stop punishing himself.

2) The hurt spouse has not offered forgiveness. Often because the hurt spouse is not finished healing and still going through the stages of grief. If a hurt spouse has not forgiven the unfaithful spouse, there is no forgiveness to receive. It is necessary for that to happen at some point for a successful rebuilding, but some hurt spouses get stuck in the grieving process and never reach acceptance and the ability to forgive.

3) The hurt spouse doesn't know there is anything to forgive. If he has not discovered the affair(s) on his own, or you have not told him, he cannot offer forgiveness when he is not aware of the wrongs committed against him. On top of that, an unfaithful spouse in that situation adds to the guilt by keeping such a critical secret and potential long-term deception. Until he knows, there is no opportunity for him to offer forgiveness that only he, as the offended, can offer.

Is there any sense where true self-forgiveness happens? Can't a person offend themselves? Yes, they can. My wife, in the midst of her affairs, referred to her "good girl" and "bad girl" personalities. In part, she experienced anger at herself (bad girl), for hurting me, herself (good girl), her marriage, and family. One could say that she was punishing herself for what she did.

However, the basis of her self-punishment and anger still resided in the fact she had hurt others. If her actions had only hurt herself, it is doubtful she'd experience much guilt over that or feel a need to punish herself. It is only because her actions hurt others that she experienced any guilt and "unforgiveness" toward herself. So the healing of that guilt and self-punishing still resides in getting and receiving the forgiveness of the ones she hurt.

To recap, one finds "self-forgiveness" by owning up to the wrong, confessing the wrong, receiving and accepting forgiveness for the wrong, and thereby discontinue any self-punishment which is a sign one hasn't accepted any offered forgiveness.

So what does one do if the hurt spouse refuses to forgive or cannot be told? The unfaithful spouse must work through the stages of grief to acceptance. That won't totally deal with the guilt, but can bring you to a point of learning to live with it.

One other avenue in dealing with the guilt is a spiritual consideration. Those of faith usually have an avenue of seeking forgiveness from God. While that won't be forgiveness from the offended one, it can help relieve and deal with the burden.

The last remedy can also greatly aid in accepting forgiveness. My wife finally felt release from guilt and acceptance of my forgiveness when our priest gave her absolution. The concreteness of hearing those words made real to her the forgiveness already offered by me and God.

Do you have other ways to deal with the guilt caused by having an affair? May you find forgiveness in dealing with your guilt, whatever that might be.

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