August 3rd 2016 will mark four years since D-day and five years since my husband made the choice to commit adultery.
I have full details of what the adultery entailed (basically 12 shags in a one year period and a few weeks where he went to live with her after I asked him to leave – not because I knew about the adultery but because his behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic) but to be honest, the details, after all this time really don’t traumatise me quite like they used to. The sorry and sordid story will always remain but somehow, time has reduced its capacity to paralyse me emotionally. It’s like I’ve got to ‘meh’ (apathetic, uninterested, and indifferent). It happened. Not my circus, not my clowns. I don’t doubt for one minute that much of my ‘meh’ is a direct result of my husband’s behaviour over the past four years; his remorse and his behaviour towards me in helping me to heal. I have also been resolute in my expectations of him to help my healing. But somehow this ‘meh’ which I see as acceptance is not enough.
We are close: closer than we have ever been. As I observe his behaviour and feel his genuine remorse, it’s like I’ve been woken up by a new version of my husband. We have not had a night apart since D-day and we have spent an incredible amount of time together. We have actively created fresh memories and over time, carved out a new identity for our marriage; one which is highly considerate of the other’s feelings and thoughts. But, for me, I sense a kind of barrier; one that is created by me, and I suspect I know what it is. It is my inability to forgive him for what he did.
Forgiveness, for me, has been the single most challenging aspect of healing from betrayal and I have previously blogged about my struggle with the entire concept. I know all the platitudes that get thrown about: ‘forgiveness is a gift you give yourself’; ‘forgiveness is the tool that helps you move on with your life’; ‘if you hold on to your anger it will stop you from healing’; ‘if you don’t forgive, you let them live rent free in your head’, but, quite frankly, I have been unable to buy into these simplistic notions because I have found forgiveness to be a very complex concept to get to grips with and it’s unlikely that one size could possibly fit all circumstances. However, just recently, I chose to revisit the concept to see if it might be possible for me to move from acceptance to forgiveness. Not simply as a ‘gift’ as in the Christian ethos but as a human process between people. In my case between the betrayed and the betrayer.
In my search for a greater understanding, I found a book by Charles L Griswold entitled Forgiveness; a philosophical exploration. As the title suggests, it is not a religious argument, but a philosophical one which offers an analysis of forgiveness as a secular virtue (a behaviour which shows high moral standards). It has helped me enormously to understand what might be happening and what needs to happen in my marriage if I seek a full reconciliation and a sense of peace. The backdrop to the book is what is considered to be the human aspiration for reconciliation in the face of an impossible to remedy, imperfect world. Sort of sums up my marriage. What proved insightful in this book was the focus on the relationship between forgiveness and reconciliation. So, although a very general and far reaching discussion of forgiveness which includes both personal and political forgiveness, I was able to draw many parallels with regard to forgiveness in marital recovery after betrayal. Following adultery we are confronted with the stark reality of a past that cannot be changed; what Hannah Arendt termed “the predicament of irreversibility”. As Griswold notes, there are only a small range of options open to us when this happens; “forgetfulness, avoidance, rationalisation or pragmatic acceptance” (He doesn’t mention murder!) I recognise that I have opted for pragmatic acceptance. However, forgiveness is quite a different response and for Griswold it is a concept that comes with conditions attached.
Historically, forgiveness was not always seen as a virtue. Ancient Greek philosophers viewed the wrong doer as inferior and simply not worthy of any sentiment other than contempt. But modern ideas routinely link resentment with forgiveness and this has shifted the discourse. Part of a theological framework, resentment became a moral hatred. It is deliberate response aroused by perception of unwarranted injury and embodies a judgement about the fairness of the action. It is aimed at the injurer and is reactive and fosters a retributive passion that seeks punishment. I imagine most betrayed spouses can identify with this feeling. However, as Griswold points out, what resentment also commonly suggests is a view “that it harbours something suspect, perhaps mean and belittling. Not a complimentary description.” So one can begin to see the contradictions we face in our response to adultery. On the one hand, resentment can be seen as the most appropriate response to our moral injury, but on the other hand it is deemed an unwanted or ‘difficult’ emotion that reflects badly upon us. I know that I have felt deep resentment towards my husband and it is this emotion that I am struggling with now. Up until now I have felt fully justified in my resentment, almost nurturing it, as Griswold notes “resentment can provide a certain satisfaction to its owner; it may contain an element of pride” but if this is what is creating a barrier for me between my husband and I and if I do want to explore the possibility of forgiveness it is clear that I will need to consider my resentment towards him and it might just be that the timing now is right. As resentment can be seen as my response to being lowered in value or diminished, it has impacted upon my self-esteem by lowering it. However, over the past years I have recovered a much stronger belief in my own rank and value so this may help me to overcome my resentment.
Resentment also embodies the demand that the wrongdoer show the proper respect and be accountable for not having done so. As my husband has constantly and diligently met my demands for respect and accountability I have become more and more aware of my reluctance or inability to change my perspective on his betrayal. For the first time I have now begun to look at our marriage from the perspective of what I might do to help our reconciliation as well as what he needs to do. Rather than constantly looking back at what he did wrong maybe I could look forward to a future that we might carve out for ourselves which really does transcend the adultery. Forswearing resentment doesn’t mean I have to give up all my negative feelings associated with his betrayal. I can still feel sorrow or disappointment towards him, however, I need to overcome my contempt and scorn for him, and I think I’d like to do this if I can. Griswold suggests that for the process of forgiveness to occur I need to only commit to giving up my resentment and this sounds realistic to me and definitely possible. Especially when I look at the six conditions that Griswold lists as must be met by the wrongdoer if they seek forgiveness. They are:
- Acceptance that he was the responsible agent for what happened. A failure to recognise this is a denial and adds insult to injury and undermines the possibility of trusting it won’t happen again.
- A repudiation of his deeds by acknowledging their wrongness and a disavowal of the idea that the deeds would occur again. This repudiation (if sincere) is a step towards not being the same person.
- He must experience and express regret at having caused the injury to me. Not just feel regret but communicate it to me.
- He commits to becoming the sort of person who does not inflict injury and this must be shown through deeds and words. Then, the repudiation of past self becomes credible but the burden of proof is his.
- He must show he understands from my perspective, the damage done by the injury. This entails listening to my account and grasping it with compassion. He must exercise sympathy in the sense of putting himself in my position and understanding what being in that situation meant for me.
- His regret needs to offer some sort of narrative accounting for how he came to do wrong, how that wrongdoing does not express the totality of his person and how he is becoming worthy.
For Griswold, anyone who satisfies even some of these conditions cannot be characterised as a moral monster. My husband satisfies each condition. So now the focus turns to me, the forgiver. What transformation needs to occur in order for me to forgive? Well something that I need to recognise is that if I have a commitment to forgive him it would be conceptually incompatible for me to exhibit behaviour that signals a failure to forgive such as hanging on to lingering resentment and reminding him of his misdeeds. In doing this I am using a form of manipulation, even humiliation. Regrettably, I know that I have been doing this so I need to consider the four steps that I need to take which are:
- The forswearing of revenge
- The moderation of resentment and the understanding that resentment does not simply respond to a revision of beliefs. It will require significant intellectual and affective effort.
- The commitment to let resentment go altogether
- Change my belief that he is a ‘bad person’ by reframing my perspective. Seeing him in a new light, distinguishing that ‘part’ of himself that is responsible for the injury from the ‘whole’ person, on the basis of trust in the future.
This reframing of my perspective towards him insists that I look forward rather than the alternative which is to look backwards and simply excuse his behaviour. There is no excuse but instead a credible narrative in which the offender takes the required steps and I, the injured grasp events from his perspective and have reason for trusting that his promise for change is real.
What is absolutely essential (and what has probably taken me this amount of time even to be open to the possibility of forgiveness) is that the nature of the injury is deemed forgivable by me. This is in contrast to the Christian notion of the one directional gifting of forgiveness. I will never be able to comprehend this view, derived from the New Testament, emphasising the moral necessity of responding to wrongdoing by accepting it, turning the other cheek, and re-embracing the offender in an act of love or compassion. I actually think it could create further problems where adultery is concerned. Again, citing Griswold, “To forgive someone undeserving of the honour, under the banner of a gift may condone the wrongdoer and even provide encouragement to more offences”. Equally, if I am to change my perspective towards my husband, I have to see myself in a new light. I need to drop my moral superiority and in its place recognise our shared humanity. I need to stop defining myself as the person injured by adultery by this person. In this light, “forgiveness is, so to speak, a vote for the victory of such values as respect, growth and renewal, harmony of self and reconciliation, affection and love”. There is also the alleviation of guilt that is likely to follow from my forgiveness which can have enormous consequences for my husband’s wellbeing.
It does seem a bit harsh to claim that because my husband has committed this terrible deed that he is reducible to those deeds and is thus absolutely unforgivable. This ignores what I believe is the human capacity for remorse, choice and moral transformation. No doubt, there will be some adulterers who turn out to be incapable of any remorse or moral transformation but in four years I have no reason to suspect that my husband is anything other than remorseful. He has convincingly depicted a change of ways that have unfolded over the past four years. He has shown that he is not just an adulterer; that adultery is not ‘all’ of him and indeed he is becoming ‘his better self’. This is the narrative of change.
Forgiveness in this style is fundamentally an interpersonal process whose success requires action from both the injured and the injurer. Running through Griswold’s philosophical account of forgiveness is the key theme of growth for both the forgiven and the forgiver. Working towards forgiveness is “not just a rupture with the past, let alone its obliteration, but its reinterpretation and integration into a larger narrative – that of a life as a whole”. A decision not to be determined by the past alone. There is both a reversal (a new perspective on injury) and a continuity (one remains the same subject of the various chapters).
“Forgiveness does not reiterate the past but promises renewal without forgetfulness, excuse or condemnation of past wrongs. It rejects the Platonic ‘narrative of nostalgia’ – a tale of yearning for another, better world accompanied by a determination to flee from this one” So, for Griswold, forgiveness is a process rather than an end result. It’s about adopting a different perspective and attaching a different meaning to it.
I have found Griswold’s discussion which suggests that forgiveness is a conditional process extremely helpful and it has helped to shift my thinking on how to respond going forward, four years post D-day. Of course, everyone’s experience of adultery and betrayal is different and every adulterer’s response will be different, but for me, identifying the conditions required for forgiveness has softened my approach to my husband because he has met all the conditions that Griswold suggests are required for me to make a commitment to forswearing resentment. And after four long years, it’s like I might be able to finally let go. At the least, I will commit to letting it go.