Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Marital Betrayal: Forgiveness 101

couple turned toward each other

Who is this person I thought I knew and what else are they lying about?

This is one of the most common questions a partner has after finding out they have been betrayed by someone in a committed relationship.  It is a disorienting experience that is regularly described as “having the rug pulled out from under me,” “having my entire world fall apart,” “having the wind knocked out of me,” “having my whole world collapse around me,” “falling into a dark pit,” and other catastrophic scenarios illustrating the subsequent emotional devastation.

One of the biggest challenges couples face is how to attain forgiveness in the relationship when a serious betrayal has occurred.  Finding out your partner has been hiding behavior from you feels dangerous, whether it is an affair, an addiction, or spending all the money in the 401K.  Suddenly, you are living with someone who is supposed to have your back, and you have the sense that you don’t even know who this person is or what else they might be hiding.  It is devastating and dark, and comes with a lot of emotion which is constantly shifting in intensity.  There are no hard and fast rules for how emotion is expressed after a betrayal has been uncovered.  Betrayed partners commonly swing between anxious clinging responses and angry detaching responses.  It is terrifying to be betrayed by someone previously thought to be trustworthy.  Emotional roller-coaster is not an understatement.

Studies show that forgiveness is a critical component to heal major transgressions, and that it is one of the most important things in a marriage contributing to marital stability and quality.  How then, does a spouse go about the work of forgiving with a partner who has betrayed trust and suddenly feels dangerous?

2 Parts of Forgiveness:

There are two facets of forgiveness: intrapsychic and interpersonal.  The intrapsychic part describes the inner peace a person can attain individually; it’s not uncommon to see clients who feel a sense of peace and calm, and an absence of malice towards a partner after exercising individual forgiveness.  However, they can feel forgiving and still not want to get close to the person who caused harm.

The interpersonal part of forgiveness can be more challenging because it requires trusting a partner enough to want to engage with them again.  When a spouse has been dangerous and unpredictable, it is necessary to have new trust-building experiences with the individual who caused the betrayal in order to feel safe enough to move forward again with that person.  The safe experiences also must happen over time.  A year after a betrayal is short in the life of a committed relationship, and many partners need longer than that to really feel like they can trust again.  Some partners take that long just to be able to even begin risking with an offending partner again.

Markers of Forgiveness

There are two main markers of forgiveness, which denote some kind of change: 1) a decrease in negative emotion toward the partner and 2) an increase in positive, conciliatory behavior.  Many people will take a while to decrease negative emotion toward a spouse, because they need time to make sure that the spouse really understands how painful the experience has been so the betrayal isn’t repeated.  Then, it usually takes quite a bit longer to start trusting the person enough to continue moving forward with any connection.

Some Important Things to Remember After a Betrayal has Happened:

  1. Offending partners should expect lots of unpredictable emotion and their partners can be triggered at any time.  Triggers happen unexpectedly and can cause explosive reactions.  It’s impossible to completely control triggering events but you can learn what to do with emotion when it happens.
  2. Transparency, transparency, transparency!
  3. Offending partners must seek to understand their spouse’s pain by asking questions about how hurt they are rather than becoming defensive or withdrawing.
  4. Healing is non-linear, so everything can seem okay one day and terrible the next.
  5. It’s normal for a wounded partner to feel ambivalent about continuing the marriage until they have had time to process emotion and make sense out of the betrayal.
  6. Repetition in discussing details helps wounded partners gain some kind of predictability over time—the couple can set boundaries for times the betrayal isn’t discussed, since it can fatigue the offending partner, but telling the wounded partner to just not ask questions isn’t fair. If they are going to move forward with someone, they need to know what they are dealing with to make sense out of it.  Repetition can actually help because if they get the same answers over time, they can start feeling safer because the person feels reliable in responding.
  7. Even though anger (and rage) are common, expressing the hurt and fear to a partner helps them understand the pain in a way that they can help heal it more effectively. Unfortunately, even though anger protects the person expressing it, it tends to push away the person at whom it is aimed, and that is why even though a person may be entitled to their anger and rage, it ends up impeding healing if the softer feelings aren’t expressed.
  8. Because of the unpredictable nature of healing, patience is more important than ever!

Questions for an offending partner to ask:

A huge problem with betrayal is that the offending partner can get defensive quickly because they don’t like to be reminded of their own treacherous behaviors, and in the face of overwhelming emotion from the hurt partner, they feel helpless about fixing it and want to withdraw.  Sometimes they end up reinjuring their partners in the process because by withdrawing from an emotional partner, that partner often ends up feeling abandoned.  Here are a few ideas for offending partners to ask:

  1. Can you tell me more about how hurt you are? (It seems counter-intuitive because you may not want to “stir the pot,” but if your spouse thinks you really want to know how much you hurt them, they are more likely to trust that you understand enough that they can start trusting again).
  2. What do you think I still might not understand about how you feel?
  3. What can I do in this moment—I wasn’t there for you then—I am here now so what can I do right now?
  4. Even though I don’t know what to do with all the emotion, I want to fix it—does it help for me to be here listening to you now?
  5. Is there anything else you need to know?

I’m not going to lie—this is very rough.  Words just don’t capture the pain.  I have had betraying husbands call me and ask me what to expect for a trajectory of healing after they revealed extra-marital affairs, and this is what I said in essence:

  1. Roller coaster emotion is the norm.
  2. Trying to heal can be disorienting for your spouse because she has to heal this with someone who created the pain—that is a confusing, dark place for a spouse to be, and yet, building trust with the person who caused the betrayal is the only way to move forward.
  3. You are going to be fatigued from talking about the betrayal WAY before she is done talking about the betrayal, and a year is not long in betrayal time.
  4. Asking questions from you and getting predictable responses over time is one of the ways she can start trusting again.
  5. In order to heal, the betrayed partner has to make sense out of how this could have happened and has to feel some kind of shift in the relationship to have reassurance that it won’t happen again—something has to feel better and more secure than it did before the betrayal.
  6. Transparency is one of the only ways she can start trusting again.

These aren’t gender specific.  Both genders betray partners, and both genders are similar in trajectories of healing.  I don’t think one blog post does this justice because it is so hard, so reading a book about healing betrayals may be indicated as well as seeking professional help in therapy.

On the bright side, some of my best cases have involved healing from serious betrayals.  Couples are forced to scrutinize their marriages and rebuild new foundations of trust.  They really can build up closer, better marriage than before.  They figure out where they went wrong and they fix it and appreciate each other more in the process.  It’s important to know that the last sentence usually describes years of rebuilding.

Lastly, if you have been betrayed by your partner, please know that you are not alone, and that marriages do recover from this tragedy.


Fincham, F. D., Hall, J. & Beach, S. R. H. (2006).  Forgiveness in marriage: Current status and future directions. Family Relations, 55(4), 415-427.

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