How to Forgive in an Uncertain World


You want to forgive your spouse. You probably want it more than anything in the world. You want to take the steps necessary so you can move past the awful pain you have endured and toward a relationship that is happy and full of love once more.

Perhaps you’ve even done some work on your relationship so you can move to that point. Maybe you have started down the path of acceptance and you are ready to move on with your marriage, but there is one thing still holding you back.

You’re terrified that your spouse might betray you again.

How can you forgive your spouse when the horrifying possibility exists that he or she will do it again?

What if you forgive your spouse and your trust is violated again? Are you just supposed to act like a doormat and be walked on forever?

You want to know that your partner won’t ever betray you again before you are fully ready to forgive.

You don’t want to be hurt again. You don’t want to be made to feel like a fool again. And you definitely don’t want to compound your own grief by moving on in your relationship and then finding out your partner’s remorse was just a pretense.

What you want is some assurance that your partner will never, ever do what he or she did again. You want rock solid proof before you are willing to truly let go.

I’d like to be able to tell you I have a way to give that to you. I’d like to say there is a way you can be absolutely certain your spouse will never cheat on you again. But I won’t lie to you. There isn’t a way you can be 100% sure your spouse won’t cheat on you or otherwise betray you again.

Every human being is responsible for his or her own actions. Your spouse has to choose what he or she is going to do. You can’t make personal choices for another person, and, ultimately, you can’t control your spouse’s actions.

That means there is some chance your spouse will repeat the awful behaviors that lead you to this point in your marriage. You can’t control the outcome: only your spouse can, and there is already some evidence that he or she has a leaky character. You aren’t 100% safe from being betrayed again.

What’s more, most people aren’t very good lie detectors. I’m not a good lie detector myself. I never vouch for anyone else’s actions, authenticity, or truthfulness, because I can’t catch a good liar.

You probably can’t either. In fact, studies have shown that even people who are supposed to be excellent lie detectors, like judges, police officers, and even psychologists are generally no better at determining lies from truth than the flip of a coin. Chance is often better.

Unless you undertake very specialized and expensive training, it’s unlikely you will reliably detect lies your spouse tells. Almost no one can do it. I can’t do it either.

That being the case, how can you possibly forgive your spouse and move on with your marriage?

In my experience there is a way. I recommend you move toward forgiveness while accepting the reality that it is possible your spouse will cheat again.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, so let me explain what I mean.

It is possible you will be hurt. That’s a risk we all take when we choose to care about people. They might hurt us. That’s always possible.

The question is how probable it is that your spouse will hurt you again. That’s a very different issue.

If you want to make an educated guess on how likely it is that he or she will cheat on you again, observe the actions your spouse takes to reassure you.

In this article, I will share some of the specific observations to be aware of to help you make your best guess.

After all, it’s only natural that you want to know as much as you can about the reliability and trustworthiness of your spouse before you forgive.

Does Your Spouse Understand Your Pain?

One of the best indications you have that your spouse is re-committing to you is whether or not he or she understands the pain you suffered and are suffering.

When you communicate your pain to your partner, you will want to feel that your partner understands the full ramifications of what he or she did.

Your partner should accept full personal responsibility without hedging or excuses, carry an appropriate level of guilt, and seem committed to making the necessary changes to insure the behavior won’t be repeated. These factors make it less likely your spouse will betray you in the future.

If you don’t have these in place, you need to continue working on your communication skills together.

The level of commitment your spouse has to this emotionally painful process is also an indication, in itself, of the commitment your partner is making.

You probably won’t begin to rebuild confidence in your marriage and your spouse until you are satisfied that he or she understands you pain. If you haven’t gotten to a place where you feel your spouse really understands at a character level, keep working on it. An academic understanding will probably not feel satisfying.

Your spouse will continue engaging in this process with you if he or she is serious about helping you rebuild your confidence and trust.

Consider the Transgression

Another useful bit of information is in the nature of the transgression.

Some behaviors are more likely to happen again. For example, someone who has a record of being offensive in public will probably do it again. That’s not a 100% guarantee, but if there is a history, the probability increases that it will happen again.

Human beings are creatures of habit.

This means a “serial cheater” is more likely to cheat again in the future.

That doesn’t mean your situation is hopeless. It only means it will take that much more work on the part of your spouse to make lasting changes in behavior. Your spouse will have to improve his or her character, and that will take some work.

Responsibility for making these changes lies with the offending party. You can communicate how much pain you are in, but you can’t change your spouse’s beliefs, attitudes, and actions. Only your spouse can do that.

The amount of work your spouse puts into these changes is usually a good indicator for his or her commitment to the relationship.

If your spouse was a serial cheater or has a history of being offensive in public and you can see that he or she is making a real effort to change, it’s more likely he or she will continue, at least in the short run, to be committed to your relationship and to the change he or she is undergoing.

Work on Your Part of the Relationship

Most of what I have been discussing up to this point depends on your spouse. That’s because your spouse is the person who needs to prove he is trustworthy again.

However, there are some things you can do to help improve the likelihood that your spouse will continue to be loyal to you and your relationship.

In many cases the person who was betrayed might discover his or her actions or inactions from before the betrayal contributed to problems in the marriage.

Let’s look at infidelity as an example of this.

First, let me qualify what I am about to say by explaining that according to the wedding vow, you have great flexibility in what you do or don’t do, but the one thing you can’t do is cheat on your spouse.

The wedding vow is a statement of loyalty. Whoever breaks that vow has a leak in his or her character in my opinion, and that person needs to work on repairing this leak if the marriage is going to truly thrive.

Regardless of the wrong your partner did, when you get past the immediate pain from an affair you will look back and probably see things you could have done better in your marriage.

That doesn’t mean the affair was your fault. It wasn’t. The cheater broke the wedding vow. You didn’t. The onus for accepting the blame for that and making the necessary changes to insure it doesn’t happen again lies with the cheater.

It only takes one person to destroy a marriage, but it takes two people working hard to put it back together. When you take action to repair your part of the marriage, you make it more likely that your marriage will succeed and this is the only way you can achieve a relationship that is better than ever.

If you can see a commitment in word and action from your spouse, and you are both working actively to repair your marriage these are the best signs you have that your marriage is in recovery.

There are no guarantees in life and it won’t happen overnight. Building confidence takes time.

But it can happen.

This doesn’t mean “everything is okay and what your spouse did was justifiable.” It isn’t and it wasn’t.

What it means is that you are willing to accept what happened so you can move on with your life together in the hopes of creating a marriage that is better than it was before.

As you approach this point the pain you experience, the images that haunt you, and the memories of that awful time will move to the back of your mind. They won’t disappear entirely. After all, you can’t undo the past. You will always remember that your spouse betrayed you.

But if you are both working hard on your marriage, you will find a way to make this betrayal into an opportunity to repair the problems in your marriage and become closer to your spouse than you ever were before.