Forgiving Yourself After You Had An Affair? Is It Self Indulgent Or Selfish?

By: Katie Lersch:  People often assume that when a marriage is harmed by an affair, the person who is hurt the worst is the faithful spouse.  And while I know firsthand that it is extremely painful when your spouse cheats on you, the spouse who cheated can be deeply hurt as well.  They can struggle with intense guilt and feelings of extremely low self worth.

There is sometimes a lot of support for the faithful spouse.  It is understandable why the faithful spouse might need support while healing and while trying to move on.  But what about the cheating spouse?  Should they get this support?  Should they be encouraged to forgive themselves and move on?

Not everyone thinks so.  I sometimes hear from spouses who have cheated in the past and who want to be able to forgive themselves to that they can move forward, but they are told that this is self centered.

Someone might explain: “It stinks that I even have to say this.  But I cheated on my husband.  I feel like I’m a felon or something.  Like I can never do anything without identifying myself as a horrible person.  I know that in many ways I deserve it, but I feel like the description of cheater is going to follow me around for the rest of my life.  I haven’t really started counseling, but this wonderful woman from my church, who I see as sort of my mentor, told me that I have to forgive myself.  She said that I’m not going to be able to be the best wife or the best mother I can be while I’m going through life feeling like a person who doesn’t matter.  She said that of course I will need to make things right with my husband, but I also need to make things right with myself.  I was telling a friend about this wish to forgive myself.  This woman’s husband is my husband’s best friend.  She was not very receptive.  She said that this idea seems a little selfish.  She said that cheating is an awful thing and that I should not even think about forgiving myself until my husband can forgive me.  Frankly, I don’t know if my husband will ever forgive me.  But when I told my husband about this conversation, he agreed with my friend.  He said that self forgiveness for someone who had an affair seems a little self indulgent, considering all of the damage that I’ve done.  Is this correct? Should I just give up on the idea of forgiving myself?”

I’m not a counselor.  But as a wife who has been cheated on, I do understand why people might discourage you.  I think the fear is that, by focusing on your own forgiveness, you might be placing the focus away from making things right with your marriage and with your husband. And of course, you want to make sure your attention is on all of these things.

However, I can also tell you that my husband’s serious struggle with guilt and shame after his affair hurt our marriage almost as much as the affair itself.  Clearly, that was something he was going to have to deal with if he was ever going to be able to be an involved and enthusiastic husband to me.  As long as he felt undeserving and unworthy, then our relationship was always going to struggle.  As long as he also focused on other important things, I had no problem at all with him working on letting go of the guilt.  It wasn’t serving either of us.  What I ultimately wanted was to have a healthy marriage again.  And that wasn’t going to happen if we were both damaged and struggling individuals.

I think that people sometimes mistake what forgiveness in this situation really is.  It doesn’t mean that you are not accountable for the affair.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t have to work to rebuild the trust.  It doesn’t mean that the slate is wiped clean.  It just means that you are going to accept that you are not an evil person so that you can be a worthy participant in your marriage and your life again.  It means that you are trying to be as healthy and as whole as you can possibly be.  It means you’re trying to be effective for your family and you can’t do that if you are full of self hatred.

If you are getting resistance from the word “forgiveness” than perhaps it’s best to use different wording like: “trying to get to a better place within myself” or “trying to become the best person I can be for my family.”  Sometimes, it’s not what you are trying to do that is objectionable, it is just the word ‘forgiveness’ because people do not really understand what this means.

But I don’t think that wanting to move past the guilt and the shame so that you can be more effective is selfish or indulgent.  Because I know first hand that it is often necessary in order to truly move on.  And frankly, both parties usually want the same thing.  Your spouse may not realize that this is necessary for you.  Or, they may worry that what you really want is to hide from your responsibilities.  But once they see that this isn’t true, they may calm down with the resistance.  In the meantime, you may want to change the wording that you use while continuing to work on yourself.

Perhaps I was receptive to my husband working on himself because it was very obvious to me that he was also serious about working on our marriage.  Try to make this clear to your spouse – that working on your marriage and your family is every bit as important to you as working on yourself.  Because honestly, the two go hand in hand.  If it helps, you can read more about our own struggles with infidelity on my blog at http://surviving-the-affair.com

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