Betrayal … it’s an injury to a relationship that is excruciatingly painful. It is a rupture that keeps on hurting. It is caused by a severe violation of trust. It is impossible to forget.
It could be your parent who turned against you as a child, who looked out for themselves instead of comforting or being there for you. What keeps it fresh is that they continue to be oblivious to how they hurt you then as now. It could be a friend who breached your faith in them by telling others about something told them in confidence. Or it could be your spouse who had an extra-marital affair and turned your world upside down.
When another person we care about hurts us by betrayal, the pain can be unbearable. It can last a very long time. It is made more difficult when one cannot get distance from the person who hurt you.
In her book, How Can I Forgive You?, best selling author of After the Affair, Janis Abrahms Spring, provides a clear and helpful framework for understanding the complex inter-personal process for trying to forgive. What I find most helpful is the distinction she makes between acceptance and forgiveness.
Acceptance or Forgiveness?
Acceptance is a courageous life-affirming response to a violation based on a personal decision to take control of your pain, make sense of your injury and carve out a relationship with the offender that works for you.
Ten Steps to Acceptance:
- You honour the full sweep of your emotions.
- You give up your need for revenge but continue to seek a resolution.
- You stop obsessing about the injury and reengage with life.
- You protect yourself from further abuse.
- You frame the offender’s behaviour in terms of their own personal struggles.
- You look honestly at your own contribution to the injury.
- You challenge your false assumptions about what happened.
- You look at the offender apart from their offence, weighing the good against the bad.
- You carefully decide what kind of relationship you want with them.
- You forgive yourself for you own failings.
Most of us feel the moral imperative to forgive, but the pressure to do so can make us feel worse when the other person does not care. Often the offending person is oblivious to the consequences of their actions and therefore shows no remorse. By deciding to be content with acceptance we can liberate ourselves from a moral imperative or unrealistic or improbable expectation that the hurting person will see our forgiveness.
Acceptance does not mean excusing the person. By choosing acceptance, we try to understand the person and the circumstances more thoroughly. Then with time, we come to a greater sense of peace. With acceptance, the nature of the closeness of relationship may change permanently. Acceptance is easier with someone we do not see every day like a friend or family member.
Forgiveness is an inter-personal transaction which requires the heartfelt participation of both of us.
- Genuine forgiveness is an interpersonal transaction, a shared venture, an exchange between two people bound by an interpersonal violation.
- Genuine forgiveness must be earned. The offender must be willing to pay and in exchange the hurt party must allow them to settle the debt.
- With genuine forgiveness a profound shift from hyper-vigilance of the hurt person and repression, denial and minimization of the offender to determination of the offender who is fully conscious of his/her transgression to never repeat it again. The hurt party becomes less preoccupied with the injury and begins to let it go.
- Just as we cannot love alone, we cannot forgive alone.
Forgiveness, in contrast to acceptance, is a much more complicated inter-personal process which requires a great deal more from the person who hurt us. The forgiveness process applies to couples torn apart by the discovery of an extra-marital affair and who really want to try to mend their broken relationship. The unfaithful partner needs to accept responsibility for their behaviour, understand the consequences of their actions, have empathy for the hurt person’s pain, show remorse, and demonstrate new trustworthy actions that indicate what they have learned about themselves and the hurt person.
Forgiveness is accomplished when the hurt person no longer has to hold the betaying person responsible for the injustice because the betraying person holds themselves responsible.
The process of forgiveness takes plenty of time and energy. Many people cannot accomplish this and must be content with acceptance. Some couples can genuinely forgive. If they can, the process transforms their relationship. It takes courage, patience and perseverance and usually a skilled therapist to facilitate the forgiveness process after an affair.
Not Ready to Make Nice
Forgive…. sounds good… forget….. I’m not sure I could.
They say time heals everything. I’m still waiting.
I’m through with doubt. There’s nothing left for me to figure out.
I’ve paid a price and I’ll keep paying it.
I’m not ready to make nice. I’m not ready to back down.
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go round and round and round.
It’s too late to make it right. Probably wouldn’t if I could.
‘Cause I’m mad as hell and can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should.
Words & Music by Emily Robinson, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines and Dan Wilson of the Dixie Chicks.
The lyrics above captures beautifully the sentiment of how difficult it is to “make nice” or get through and let go of the pain of betrayal in any relationship. Accepting allows us greater freedom. Forgiveness takes great courage from both people.