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The Science of Forgiveness: Can You Really Move On After an Affair?


You've probably been aware of the importance of forgiveness. When the stakes are low, it can be relatively easy. But when the stakes are high, like in the case of infidelity, forgiveness can feel next to impossible.


Forgiveness can be a powerful, but true emotional healing is hard to achieve. As scientists and psychologists learn more about forgiveness, it's clear to see that there is science to it. For those who are truly able to forgive, their partners and/or themselves, there is hope for a healthier relationship that is stronger and better than ever.


The Science Of Forgiveness

If the term "the science of forgiveness" seems odd to you, hang in there for a minute. The APA (American Psychological Association) references frequently about how forgiveness improves both mental and physical health. Forgiveness reduces anxiety, depression, and even other major psychiatric disorders. This trickles down to an effect on physical health of lower mortality rates among those who are able to practice forgiveness. The overall impact of forgiveness is improved health—both body and mind.


An article by the APA explains forgiveness this way,

"Many people think of forgiveness as letting go or moving on. But there's more to it than that, says Bob Enright, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who pioneered the study of forgiveness three decades ago. True forgiveness goes a step further, he says, offering something positive—empathy, compassion, understanding—toward the person who hurt you. That element makes forgiveness both a virtue and a powerful construct in positive psychology."

You can certainly begin to see how this could be challenging and yet extremely helpful in moving forward with an unfaithful partner. And even if you decide at the end of the day the marriage cannot be saved, forgiveness will still be key to the process of healing and future well-being.


Another psychologist quoted in the article, Everett Worthington, PhD, explained how studying forgiveness empowered him to forgive the tragic murder of his own mother. Before studying forgiveness, he joked that he didn't forgive a college professor for 10 years just for giving him a B. Worthington explained that the process of forgiveness can be practiced, and this allowed him to be able to forgive his mother's murdered with ease.


Of course, some people are more naturally inclined towards forgiveness. People who are more agreeable and like to keep the peace are quicker to forgive. People who tend to ruminate on their thoughts are more likely to hold a grudge. Worthington noted that religious folks tend to be able to forgive more easily, as all the world's major religions value and teach forgiveness. But even if you're a ruminator who isn't religious, you CAN still forgive. Psychologists have identified a process you can duplicate.


Given that forgiveness can be so formulaic that anyone can repeat it effectively, what are the steps? Can you achieve true forgiveness your partner after they cheated on you?


Stages of Forgiveness

You'll find a few different methods of forgiveness models out there, but most involve the following steps. And, there is a lot of overlap among various lists you might find, so you'll see the common threads. These are for the hurt partner.

  • Acknowledge — In the case of an affair, this may be the easiest step of the forgiveness process. It involves the hurt partner simply acknowledging that that they were hurt. Where it might get more challenging is acknowledging the facts. You may be tempted to avoid, but forgiveness starts when the hurt partner acknowledges how they were hurt which includes the negative emotions associated with the affair.

  • Consider — Considering is an objective step, or as objective as you are able to be. Consider how these negative feelings have impacted you. Think about what it would mean to forgive your partner, and what would it mean to not forgive your partner. You don't have to make any decisions in this portion of the forgiveness process. You're just thinking about the impact the affair has had on you.

  • Accept — Accepting is a very challenging step of the healing process, but also a vital one. Authentic forgiveness has a root in accepting that you can't change the past. No matter how much you wish you could undo it, the damage is done. The hurt partner might not want to accept what happened because they still feel so betrayed. This is normal. Acceptance means you admit that no matter how much anger feel, it can never make it right. This radical acceptance means not wishing for a different past.

  • Determine — Up until this point, you may not have had to make any major decisions. But in this fourth step—determine—you will determine whether you will choose to forgive your partner. If you're not ready, you may choose to spend some more time thinking about the first three steps. If you want to forgive, determining that you will is an important step.

  • Repair — When you choose to repair, you start to take small steps to rebuilding your connection. This often means the hurt partner begins to offer kind words or gestures that show that they are open to moving forward with the relationship. Whether or not you choose to stay with your partner, forgiveness can be a part of your road forward together.

  • Learn — You've perhaps heard the saying that not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting it to hurt the other person. You have your notions about forgiveness, and you know you want to do it, but now you just need to learn what forgiveness looks like to you.

  • Forgive — The final step in this process is the actual forgiveness. If you're still in a relationship of some kind, this may look like something verbal, or maybe a letter. If you and your partner are now estranged and not in contact, it still is possible to forgive them. Forgiveness is something that happens in you that allows you to move on and heal. It is not dependent on the other person and their reaction.

What Happens After I Forgive My Partner?

While there may be a one-time event when you're able to verbalize, "I forgive you," forgiveness will continue to be an ongoing process. You'll find that real forgiveness leads to healing from infidelity. You still may have hurt feelings, but it means that you are letting go of blame. Seeing a marriage therapist could be a huge asset to you both as you continue to rebuild your relationship as there are sure to be things that trigger the pain and feelings of betrayal over time.

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In the wake of infidelity, it is common for the hurt partner to wonder if they will ever be able to love their partner again after forgiving them. There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. There are a lot of factors. Are you trying to rebuild the relationship? Did the cheating partner cut off the other relationship? Are they remorseful and do they want to make it right? Do you have children together, and how long have you been together? All these things play a role in whether or not the hurt partner can fall back in love with your partner. If you both put in the work and are committed to figuring it out, you can have a long-lasting, successful marriage. And couples that seek relationship counseling are more likely than ever to end up with a deeper relationship, one that is even closer and more fulfilling that before.


Seek Professional Help

Forgiving someone who has hurt you is not an easy thing to do, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Not only does forgiving release you from the anger and resentment you feel towards the person who wronged you, but it also allows you to move on with our lives in a more positive way. Certainly, when you're talking about a committed relationship you've been in with someone you love, it's valuable for both parties involved when you can forgive.


Divorce rates are falling in the U.S., largely in part to how successful couples counseling is, even in the case of infidelity. Some stats even report up to 98% success rate of marriage counseling. Of course, marriage counseling only works if both partners want there to be relationship after infidelity. But even in the marriage relationship doesn't continue, discernment or divorce counseling can help you end things on the best possible terms. It also helps you work through forgiveness and come up with good strategies for co-parenting.


Seeking professional help really is key to restoring a relationship after infidelity. Counseling is a big piece of that, and you may even find an affair recovery retreat that would be helpful.


Contact Evolve Therapy

If you are struggling to forgive your cheating partner, seeking professional help from a marriage and family therapist is a great way to move forward. At Evolve Therapy we have therapists who specialize in helping people work through their feelings of anger and betrayal after an affair. By talking about your experiences with a therapist, you can begin the process of forgiving and moving on. This can be a difficult journey, but it is possible to find peace and happiness again after an affair. Has forgiveness been elusive for you? Seek professional help today.

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