How could they do this to you? After everything you’ve been through together, after everything you’ve promised each other, they just set that aside and betrayed you, the one they claimed to love the most. When your spouse has hurt you deeply, it’s natural to feel incredible grief, anger, and pain because of what they did.
It can be difficult to talk about forgiveness after the most painful of betrayals. But at some point, you do need to address it because, in order to heal, you also need to forgive. Maybe you’re not ready right now. That’s okay. Come back to this article when you are.
But right now, let’s look at what it means to forgive after a betrayal, and what it will take to get there from here.
Forgiving a Betrayal
Forgiveness is more than just a single decision, particularly when dealing with deep hurt. It’s a journey of many steps, a process filled with difficult, sometimes painful decisions. The process of forgiveness is what brings you from feelings of ill-will or malicious intentions (i.e. revenge, punishment, avoidance, or hatred) to having a sense of “benevolent emotion”.
You know that you have forgiven when you are able to have warm, kind thoughts about the person who has wronged you. When you make the shift from negative feelings about your spouse to positive ones. That won’t happen all at once; as you forgive, you will still be angry and hurt even as you start to build that benevolent emotion towards them. Again, this is a process.
And this forgiveness is something that you need, your marriage needs. In order for you and your marriage to be healthy, you need to forgive. Not the day after a betrayal. You need a chance to vent your anger, to grieve, to understand what’s happened before starting this journey. Depending on the betrayal, this might take weeks or even months. And that’s okay!
But when you are in a place where you’re ready to forgive, and when you are in a safer place where betrayal in marriage is no longer likely, you’ll find it’s time to take that first step towards forgiveness.
How To Forgive Betrayal in Marriage
One of the reasons that forgiveness of a grave offense is so difficult is that it involves reframing. That is to say, you will need to take a close look at the betrayal, your betrayer, yourself, and then your relationship from a more positive perspective. It will take a lot of time and effort, but it will be worth it!
1. Reframe the Action
The first difficult step in the process is reframing what your spouse did to you. You will have to see what they did from a point of empathy, which will help you towards forgiveness by lessening the anger and blame you feel. And boy, is that tough!
Empathy means seeing the world through some else’s perspective. And when you have been betrayed, it means changing how you view the betrayal. In order to better understand it, you need to retrace how and why it happened.
This is not about excusing your spouse for what happened because ultimately it was their decision to do it. Empathy means taking in the bigger picture of what was happening to them in the larger trajectory of their life that contributed to their terrible decision.
When you are able to understand the how and the why of the betrayal, you are able to gain a more objective perspective of it. And as a result of reframing their action, you will start to feel relief from your feelings of anger against your spouse and what they did to you.
2. Reframe How You Feel
When you’ve been betrayed in marriage, you will naturally focus your attention on the hurt and the pain of it all. This is why it’s important to reframe the action by empathizing with your spouse. It will also help you to reframe how you feel about them.
By reframing, you begin to restore the balance of your feelings about your spouse. After all, there is far more to who your spouse is then the wrong that they did to you. And by seeing the bigger picture, you can start to look past the hurt and see the whole.
Once you’ve processed your grief and start to reframe your feelings, you can start to remember and reflect on the good things about your spouse. And by taking those into account, you will start to renew the pleasant feelings of admiration and affection for them again.
You might be afraid to do this because opening yourself up to those good feelings can make you feel vulnerable to betrayal again. Or maybe you feel reframing this could communicate to your spouse that what they did was okay. Sometimes choosing to not forgive (and to not reframe) can be a safety mechanism to try to protect yourself from being hurt again. But there are healthier ways of protecting yourself.
So when you are ready, it’s important to take this step in the process and journey of forgiveness.
3. Reframe How You See Yourself
When you are hurt, the voice in your head that screams, “how could s/he do this to me?” drowns out everything with its cries of indignation. Surely no one else has suffered as much as you! You can begin to move into this place of self-righteousness where you could never imagine hurting another person like your spouse has hurt you.
I want to be gentle here, but as you start the healing process of forgiveness, remember that even you, the offended spouse, have done things in the past that have required forgiveness from others. When you remember that you have wanted and needed forgiveness also, you begin to reframe how you view yourself. You start to see yourself as more than just a victim.
This is not to say that all wrongs are the same. They aren’t, which is exactly why it can take so long to process, forgive, and heal after being hurt after a betrayal in marriage.
But if you can turn down the volume on that indignant voice in your head long enough to remember the grievous things that you have done that needed forgiveness, you can begin to have a realistic perspective of yourself. You see, you and your spouse are not so different. You have both hurt and been hurt, both forgiven and needed forgiveness.
Forgiveness, by the Book
Here is a detailed addendum to this topic of forgiveness. In it, we take a look at what the Bible has to say about the issue. If you’d like to go through this and learn some important principles of forgiveness, head over to Patreon. By becoming a patron, you can help support our ministry and get access to guides like this one.
4. Reframe the Dynamic Of Your Marriage
The final act of reframing is the hardest of them all. It requires you to have gone through the previous three reframes because you will build on what you’ve learned from them.
In taking stock of the situation after a betrayal, you will need to examine the behavior and attitude changes your marriage must undergo in order to prevent this from happening again. Of course, your spouse will need to see how and why they came to a place where they would betray you. But (and this is extremely difficult) you will also need to take stock of the ways that you yourself contributed to a marriage dynamic where this offense became a possibility.
Once again, this is in no way saying that the betrayal was your fault. This is why it’s important to go through the first three reframes. But in order to grow, both you and your offending spouse must recognize that the dynamic of your marriage cannot remain the same way it did before it led to the betrayal. It has to change.
A large part of this is reminding yourself that the two of you are a team in rebuilding and restructuring your marriage. By seeing that the one who hurt you is actually on your side, you will find it easier to forgive them than by continuing to see them as an outsider in your marriage.
Start small. Go for groceries together. Plan a family outing with your kids. Find a way to serve together in your local church. As you take baby steps as a team, you will start to build a new sense of togetherness and union that you may not have even had before.
And yes, it may feel awkward. You will feel like you are just going through the motions. But as you work at this, as you practice this, you are both able to settle into the rhythm of working together again. Not in a superficial way to appear okay to others, but as a way to work together and rebuild what has been broken.
What If The Betrayal Seems Unforgivable?
Betrayals, particularly from your significant other, can be severe enough that they inflict symptoms of trauma. As a result, the already difficult process of forgiveness gets harder because that betrayal has quite literally changed your life. It may have affected you to the point where the way you see the world and everything in it (including yourself) has been changed.
When you have been hurt this badly, you can lose the sense of security you had in your marriage, in yourself, in your self-worth, in the trustworthiness of everyone around you. It becomes all the more important to change the way you tell your story through these experiences. Reframing becomes the tool that you can use to make that story less tragic, hopeless, and pessimistic.
And with the catastrophe of betrayal, it was so easy for you to begin to believe that life is cruel and meaningless. But today, you can take the small, brave step of recognizing this is not the whole story. You can take a look and recognize that one thing that you can love about your spouse and your life together, today. Just one is enough! Because that’s one more thing then you saw yesterday.
Each day, take another small, incremental step towards a healthy understanding of you and the world in which you live. And every day, you will see that your life, while still recovering from your betrayal, is not defined by it.
You can take this incremental approach and apply it towards forgiving your spouse’s betrayal as well. You can break down the betrayal into smaller pieces and work through the reframing steps above on the parts that are relatively smaller. Committing to forgiving the whole betrayal may seem impossible, but by forgiving it piece by piece, you will see that it is possible.
Maybe you’re not ready to forgive the final act of betrayal, but maybe you can show empathy and forgive your spouse for feeling too ashamed to say anything to you. And perhaps tomorrow you will be ready to forgive them for withdrawing from you emotionally. With each step, you continue on the long and difficult road of forgiveness, building momentum until one day, you find that you have a settled peace that your forgiveness is complete.
Bono, G. “Commonplace Forgiveness: From Healthy Relationships to Healthy Society.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 29, no. 2 (2005): 82–110.
Worthington, Everett. “If You Want to Forgive… A Psychologist Outlines Five Steps to Forgiveness.” Spiritual. Beliefnet, 2001. https://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Faith-Tools/Meditation/2001/10/If-You-Want-To-Forgive.aspx.