Betrayal can be very painful and difficult to overcome. When the resentment builds, it is important not to let it have its way. Otherwise, it could live within you for a very long time, chipping away at your happiness, making you mistrustful of those who may be worthy of trust, and spilling over to your loved ones. This is why betrayal is such a challenge, particularly the effects of such betrayal that can take the form of excessive anger, anxiety, and depression.
Here are six suggestions that may be helpful to you as you consider forgiving:
First, you need not have forgiveness wrapped up in a day or a week. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you begin to consider forgiving.
Second, to experience some emotional relief in forgiving, you do not have to be a perfect forgiver. Even if you have some anger left over, as long as the anger is not dominating your life, you can experience considerable emotional relief. For example, in a study of incest survivors, all of the participants started the forgiveness therapy with very low scores on forgiving. After about 14 months of working on forgiveness, as the study ended, most of the participants were only at the mid-point of the forgiveness scale. In other words, they began to forgive, accomplished it to some degree, but certainly had not completely forgiven. Yet, their depression left and their self-esteem rose. Forgiving to a degree, but not perfectly, made all the difference in their emotional health (see Freedman and Enright, 1996).
Third, as you forgive, try to see the humanity in your boyfriend. Is he more than the cheating behavior? If so, in what ways? Does he possess what we call “inherent worth,” or unconditional value as a person, not because of what he did, but in spite of this? Do you share a common humanity with him in that both of you are special, unique, and irreplaceable because you are human? This is not done to excuse his behavior. Instead, it is a thought-exercise to see both his humanity and yours.
Fourth, are you willing to bear the pain of the cheating so that you do not pass it on to your brother or sister, to your classmates or co-workers, or even to your boyfriend himself? Bearing the pain shows you that you are strong, in fact, stronger than the cheating and its effects on you.
Fifth, as you forgive, bring justice alongside the forgiving. In other words, ask something of him. What is his view of fidelity? Does he need some counseling help to deal with a weakness of commitment? Does he show remorse and a willingness to change? If so, what is your evidence for this? You need not unconditionally trust him right away. Trust can be earned a little at a time, but be sure not to use this issue of “earned trust” as a weapon or punishment against him. Allow him to redeem himself as he shows you he can be trusted.
Sixth, and finally, know that there is a difference between forgiving and reconciling. If he does not deeply value you as a person, if his actions show self-centeredness, and if this seems like a pattern that he is not willing to change, then you can forgive and not reconcile. Forgiving, in this case, may not give you this relationship that you had desired, but it will free you of deep resentment and allow you to be ready for a more genuine relationship in which you are open to the true affection and care of another.
Forgiveness is hard work. It takes time because it occurs in the face of great pain. If you choose to try it, then forgiving is worth the effort to do the important rehabilitation of your heart.
Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996). Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.