Forgiving the Unforgivable – Surviving an Affair
By Riley K. Smith, M.A., MFT
There are a few relationship issues that are often insurmountable. Drug and alcohol addiction is one. Spousal abuse is another, and infidelity. There are many others as well. Each has it’s own challenges and paths to resolution.
I’d like to share an approach to helping couples heal emotional betrayals, methods I have used successfully a number of times in my practice over the years. This material is part of the theory and practice of Integrative Body Psychotherapy created by Jack Lee Rosenberg, Ph.D., Beverly Kitaen-Morse, Ph.D. and others.1
Jason had an affair. It lasted six months; Marianne found out. It was ugly for both of them, as well as the other woman. Jason ended it and has recommitted to the marriage. He is sorry and miserable. Marianne is hurt and furious. She has lost her trust and feels hopeless. Jason has tried to make up for his mistake, but nothing helps. He feels like he’s serving a life sentence with no chance for parole. Marianne and Jason are desperate and sad about losing a marriage and a friendship they thought would be forever.
Misunderstandings and transgressions are inevitable in a committed relationship. A marriage is like dancing in a small closet. It is inevitable that partners will step on each other’s feet occasionally. Most of the mishaps, though upsetting, are ultimately forgivable. Sometimes, however, the misstep crosses the boundary into unforgivable. I want to describe that boundary and propose a way to heal that has worked for many couples.
THE CHILDHOOD WOUND
There is no such thing as perfect parenting. Many parents come close. A few parents are worse than no parents at all. Most parents are in-between. Think of a bell-curve graph with the peak skewed toward good parenting. Very few parents aren’t doing their best; even the worst parents are probably doing the best they are able.
No child gets all of his or her childhood needs met. As infants we experience the pain of Abandonment when Mom is not there for us enough – Mom was tired or she had to work; Mom was an addict; Mom was depressed; or Mom was simply busy with our siblings. We experience the pain of Inundation when there is too much chaos or too much control; too much smother-love, too much abuse, or too much fighting. That Abandonment or Inundation experience is carried in us unconsciously as a wound, a self-doubt, a yearning, and wariness about being close with someone. The earlier and more intense the Abandonment and Inundation, the bigger the wound and the stronger these feelings and needs are felt.
THE “UNFORGIVABLE” BOUNDARY
Let’s say Marianne’s childhood wound is big, a seven on a Betrayal Scale of 1 to 10. Her mother had an affair and her parents divorced when she was four years old. Marianne’s wound lives inside, hidden under her coping strategies and the business of everyday life. Every now and then something happens that reminds her of that wound and she gets upset. A friend cancels a date at the last minute or Jason forgets their anniversary, triggering her self-doubt and the old feeling of being unimportant and abandoned. These betrayals are small, a two on the Betrayal Scale.
But Jason has had an affair, like Mom did. That’s a big one, a nine on the Betrayal Scale. For Marianne the experience is like the big one when she was four, only it feels much, much worse. She experiences the seven from her childhood plus the current nine, which adds up to a 16 on a Betrayal Scale of 10. Her hope is destroyed. Her trust is destroyed. Her self-doubt is confirmed. She is way beyond the forgivable boundary of 10.
She might have come back from a nine, but not a 16. She might have been able to hear Jason’s regret and take in his love and recommitment. She might have been able to rebuild her self-confidence if it had been a nine. But his affair opened up the old seven-wound and that put her pain way over the top.
Jason and Marianne will need guidance in therapy to lay the groundwork that makes the forgiveness possible. All of the following criteria must be met in order to fully resolve the betrayal and to move on.
JASON. Jason must address his childhood wound and come to terms with it. He must see how it operated in the marriage and how it underlies his decision to have an affair. He must acknowledge his regret. He must sincerely apologize. He must recommit to the marriage. He must be willing to make amends and declare his love.
MARIANNE. Marianne must be willing to try to save the marriage. She must be willing to address her childhood wound and come to terms with it. She must see how it operates in the marriage, how it affected her reaction to the betrayal, and how it affected Jason’s decision to have an affair.
Since Marianne is the betrayed party, it is essential that she reduce the effect of her childhood seven-wound so that she can reduce the impact of Jason’s affair to a workable nine on the Betrayal Scale.
I won’t go into the details of dealing with the childhood wound except to say that there are ways that Marianne can learn to replace her self-doubt with a solid sense of confidence and aliveness. She can learn to soothe herself in the deep place of her four-year-old’s wound whenever it comes to the surface.1
Once Marianne can do that, once she can experience the betrayal as the nine that it is, the process of healing can proceed.
The process is virtually impossible to accomplish without a skilled therapist to guide them.
- Establish that there is a bond between Marianne and Jason. They are committed to the marriage and willing to do the work to heal it. The love between them is there, even if it’s fragile and hidden.
- Marianne understands that her childhood wound was triggered from past events, and reaffirms her ability to self-soothe when her childhood wound comes up. Jason, too, is aware of his childhood wound and has developed his ability to self- soothe.
- They both understanding how their wounds and their coping strategies work and how those wounds and strategies interact to create hurts and misunderstandings between them. They understand that the betrayal was an outgrowth of that dynamic. They are able to talk about the situation without accusing or defending.
- Then, if they agree that a betrayal has taken place and if they agree that Jason did, indeed, betray a trust, they can proceed to the penalty phase.
- Marianne searches herself and suggests a penalty that would allow her to lay the incident to rest, something that signifies an apology from Jason, an ending and a new beginning. It must be concrete and time-limited; open-ended penalties are oppressive and don’t work. “Always hear me and never hurt my feelings again” is too vague, abstract and impossible to fulfill. Penalties are very subjective and vary dramatically. It might be a trip, a date, a bouquet, a ring or necklace, or a ritual. It might be something the betrayer does or something they do together. Jason must agree that the penalty is fair and doable. Marianne must agree that once done, she can never bring the affair up again as an injury or betrayal. They also must recognize that if the penalty is not completed exactly per their agreement it can constitute a new and deeper injury that may not be repairable.
Marianne decided that she wanted a ceremony that she and Jason design together to renew their vows and that they would get new wedding bands to exchange at the ceremony. They would do it privately and it would be their secret forever. Jason was delighted and relieved.
1 Rosenberg, Rand and Asay, Body, Self and Soul, Humanics Limited, 1985
Rosenberg and Kitaen-Morse, The Intimate Couple, Turner Publ., 1996.
Also see IBPONLINE.COM and Integrative Body Psychotherapy at wikipedia.org
Riley K. Smith, MA, MFT, is semi-retired after 40 years as a marriage and family therapist. He still sees clients in West Los Angeles and leads a Study/Support Group for therapists interested in somatic psychotherapy. He is on the faculty of the Integrative Body Psychotherapy Central Institute in Venice, Ca and is co-author of “How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free,” New Page Books, 2002.