Release. "Release" comes closest to what we think of as the core of forgiveness. Release involves freeing both yourself and your partner from further punishment and domination by hurt or anger that lingers after the affair. Release doesn't mean approval; it doesn't require forgetting or no longer hurting. Rather, committing to release involves an explicit decision to work toward a process of moving on.
Trent and Lila had worked together for almost a year to rebuild their marriage following Lila's affair. They had worked at examining and changing aspects of their relationship and themselves that had placed their marriage at risk. Both partners were clear about wanting to do whatever it took to save their marriage, but Trent continued to wrestle with memories of Lila's affair and the hurt and resentment toward Lila that these memories stirred up.
"I can't just wipe the slate clean," he said in an individual therapy session. "It just doesn't feel right to me somehow, as if the affair never happened." Trent struggled with conflicting beliefs about forgiveness that were rooted in part in his religious upbringing. "I know we're supposed to forgive," he said. "But I also believe that on some level, even after we make confession and pledge to be different, we still carry the marks of our sins with us." Then he added, "I think I also relate wiping the slate clean' to forgetting it happened,' and I'm afraid that forgetting what happened could make us each more likely to slip back into the ways we interacted before Lila's affair that didn't work for us."
Lila's remorse was evident to Trent, as were numerous ways in which she had worked to improve their marriage. Trent wrestled with his attitudes about forgiveness and read some books that helped him reflect more deeply on his religious beliefs. In a subsequent session he declared, "I think I've come to a decision about how to do this better. I can't wipe the slate clean; the affair happened and it can't be undone. But I can set that slate aside and start a new slate. The old slate won't just disappear, but I don't have to keep it out in the middle of our home anymore. I want us to write a new slate together; that's what a fresh beginning means to me. Setting the old slate aside means we're removing it from being at the center of our lives and making the new slate our center."
Reconciliation. Recovery from an affair doesn't necessarily mean reconciling or staying in your marriage. Forgiveness doesn't require staying in an unhealthy relationship. In the next chapter, we're going to help you draw on everything you've learned and worked on to reach an explicit decision about how to move forward ? either in this relationship or separately. But for some couples who work through the recovery process together, particularly those who follow a process similar to the one we've outlined in this book, reconciliation results from going through the previous steps we've described for moving on.
When Jeremy returned from an assignment overseas with his engineering firm, Marlene sensed that something was wrong. He was more quiet than usual and pulled back when she tried to cuddle with him. Their attempts at lovemaking during the first week after his return were brief and passionless, and Jeremy seemed distressed. After first denying that anything was wrong, he tearfully confessed that he had been sexually intimate with a consultant to their project whose home was abroad. He had no wish to continue his relationship with that woman at any level, but described feeling deeply confused about his feelings for Marlene. Jeremy felt tremendous remorse for his affair, but also wondered whether he could truly still love Marlene given what he had done. His affair didn't make sense to either one of them.
Jeremy and Marlene spent several months examining the emotional distance that had grown between them in recent years. Both partners worked outside the home, and any free time had been devoted to their two daughters. Both also had substantial caretaking responsibilities for aging parents. Jeremy had never been good at recognizing or talking about his feelings with anyone, and this contributed to the gulf that had developed between him and Marlene.
Although clear from the beginning that they wanted to save their marriage, it was six months before Marlene was able to move beyond her deep hurt and Jeremy beyond his own equally deep guilt to become comfortable with each other and re create an intimacy between them that had been missing for several years. They decided to go away for a weekend without their daughters to one of their favorite places in the mountains, where they renewed their vows of commitment to one another. The ritual that Jeremy and Marlene created symbolized their reconciliation and the promise of their new beginning.