Q&A from “How To Forgive An Affair (He Won’t Admit)”

Wise Readers,  

 Our recent affair forgiveness article brought up questions:  Why is affair betrayal less acceptable to most of us than other betrayals?  Don’t cheaters cheat again?   What happens when parents tell kids about their affair(s)?  And why doesn’t forgiving mean forgetting?

Read on! 

Cheers, Duana


—What’s The Big Deal, Anyway?  Why Affair Betrayal Is *Different* 

(And Open Marriage Rarely Works)

 From Cynthia:

I feel like the odd gal out. I have never been able to stay mad about anything for more than about 3 minutes.
I can honestly say I would be more upset if my spouse took a lover on holiday then if he just satisfied an itch. I don’t get the big deal about affairs? Is it the betrayal or the affair we are talking about forgiving? It seems that more people are upset about being betrayed but if the spouse said, ” Hey honey I need more than you can give me I want a hooker or relationship on the side” how many people would say okay? I have never really understood why people expect one person to provide or meet all their needs.

Why does an affair have to endanger a marriage? It seems that some women have no problem with their man cheating as long as they continue to provide for them. I have found it strange that over the years I know of more women who have affairs than men?


                        Duana’s Response:

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you for contributing your voice here at Love Science.  You are the odd girl out, indeed, to be able to forgive so quickly (whether you’re odd-girl-out to know more unfaithful women than men, I can’t say—that could just depend on whom you know, and whether they will really Tell All). 


It’s enviable, really.  Most of us are pretty good at remaining angry about stuff our parents did decades ago, nevermind forgiving in a matter of moments. 

But you’re All Woman when it comes to being more upset about an ongoing emotional affair than a fling.  Not that women think our mate’s casual sex is neat, mind you—we’re just more threatened (in experiments and self-reports around the globe) by affairs that include emotions. 

It’s Evolutionary, My Dear Cynthia, dealing as it does with ancient survival needs our maternal ancestors battled.  Where men love, they invest all their resources—and in the ancient past, a man who left to invest all his resources in another spouse was a man who left behind a mate and children who could very well die. 

Meantime, men—who could hunt down a wildebeest just fine, thank you, but could also be bred out of future genetic existence by a philandering wife—continue to be far more enraged by sexual cheating in a spouse. 

And you can read more about it at this Love Science Q&A.   

As far as expecting one person to meet all one’s needs—you’re right, it’s impossible.  I, for instance, need to play Bananagrams, take daily hikes, eat lots of dark chocolate, read several books at once, and spend hours on the phone with girlfriends.  To expect my man to join me in all this would be plain-out ludicrous.  And he, for his part, does not hold it against me that I don’t spend each Sunday volunteering at the zoo with him, nor that I won’t dig holes in the dirt with him, nor that I can spend large amounts of time relaxing, and he…can’t.   

But whereas one’s need to play outstanding tennis can be matched (haha, a pun) elsewhere without ill consequence, meeting sexual and intimacy needs outside the marriage is a huge threat, and is *not* like other betrayals.   Most people, most of the time, are just not very good at sharing when it comes to sharing their mate’s body and emotions.  Why? 


For one thing, in the rosy glow of affairs (especially the on-going, lovey-dovey type), people seldom use condoms.  Or any protection.  Few of us, male or female, relish the option to unwittingly contract a sexual disease or pay for/raise the child-of-Spousie’s-lover. 

For another, the ideal in unions around the world continues to be Fidelity; even in polygamous societies, women try to be the wife who is married for love, women get hurt if their mate loves another, and men are sometimes even murderous if their wife has sex with anyone else. 

Yes, that ideal is often breached—about 50% of marriages sustain at least one emotional and/or sexual affair, globally, according to several reviews of research.  But it’s an ideal that runs so deep that it is in the marriage contract.  “Forsaking all others” is, for instance, part of many Christian wedding ceremonies; “sharing all my hobbies” is nowhere found in vows. 


Finally, your musing about open affairs, ala “You don’t meet all my needs, so what if I just hire a hooker?” is a question that couples have always wrestled with.  Today, variations on open affairs that range from just-sex to love affairs include polyamory, swinging, and open marriage.   

But the research is consistent on what happens next: A few of these marriages last—but most recommit to monogamy or else end in divorce.   



 —Don’t Cheaters Just Cheat Again?!  And How Can You Tell?

 From Z:

But isn’t a cheater likely to cheat again? What is the point in forgiving a cheater? How could you ever trust that person again? And what is a relationship without trust? Move on and find someone who treats you like you deserve to be treated!

Duana’s response:

Dear Z,   

When I first announced my intention to answer Katherine’s letter, some Facebook followers indicated that any article on forgiveness and affairs would be rather short.  As in, non-existent. 

And the Law Of Psychology states that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior in a similar situation.

Which means the answer to your question about whether a cheater will just cheat again is: Yes.  Right?


Like you, I would have thought so.  But it turns out that the answer depends on the kind of cheater we’re talking about. 


In the Yes, They’ll Likely Do It Again category

 The best predictor of male cheating—although many men never succumb— is simple opportunity In the presence of the Aggressively Willing, male Genes just don’t wanna say no to a shot at immortality.  Most men will *never* know what that feels like—and many will only be pursued once in a lifetime.  But rich, powerful, athletic, and/or famous men are often literally surrounded by such temptation nearly every waking hour.  And for some of them, it eventually goes to their heads (and other parts). 

And that’s how Tiger became a Cheetah, and Letterman endured more than a few not-so-funny moments.


Second, a relative few cheaters are willful philanderers (most often men) and/or narcissists (equivalent numbers of men and women) who require no prompting to nurse their sense of entitlement, often expressed as “What I’m doing isn’t hurting anyone else, and I deserve this.” 


Still others are folks with such an insecure attachment style, they feel they must have a ‘back-up’ in case their current mate ditches—ironically, making it more likely that their current mate *will* ditch. 


Yet others are people who cheat very early in the marriage , demonstrating low commitment even during the honeymoon. 

Once these types have been caught cheating, you can usually trust them—to cheat again.

In which case, you’re right: Unless you’re okay with your mate’s infidelity, if possible, “Move on and find someone who treats you like you deserve to be treated!” 


In the No, They Probably Won’t Do It Again category:

 *Most* people who have affairs say it “just happened”, and they aren’t lying—exactly. 

Copious research now shows that accidental cheating is the norm today , where mere friends become affair partners, through no plan or intent to harm.  As the spouse gets to know someone (typically a colleague at work, ala Henry and Anne) a bit too well emotionally, they gradually cease open communication with their mate.  And emotional and usually sexual cheating ensue.   

As Shirley Glass famously described it, these are the people who –without forethought or malice of any kind— reversed the walls and windows of their lives so that the windows that used to encourage open communication between spouses have now become brick walls; and the walls that used to keep “just friends” at arm’s length become windows so large, they may as well be sliding-glass doors.

(That’s why I posted two of Glass’ quizzes at a former Love Science—to help readers see if their relationship is in danger of experiencing a reversal of these walls and windows—and hence, affairs.) 


The trick is finding out which kind of mate one has.  To figure *that* out, Glass advises betrayed spouses to ask themselves:

—Is your partner’s infidelity “part of a larger picture of cheating and lying”? 

—“Is your partner understanding about your pain?”

—Does your mate willingly reduce your anxiety by accountability? 


If the errant spouse is a Liar In General, a past cheater, callous towards the betrayed spouse’s pain, or unwilling to be an Open Book going forward—telling you Where, When, How, With Whom, showing emails, etc.—then forgiveness is still necessary. 

But staying is just foolhardy. 


Or, as I like to quip, To err is human; to forgive is divine.  But to be a doormat is optional.  And it’s not an option I recommend. 

Thanks, Z, for a set of great questions.  Hope to see you back here again.



—Why *Not* To Tell Your Kids About Your Affair:

 From Brenda

It is hard enough to forgive an admitted affair, so I can see how it would be even more difficult to forgive one that wasn’t admitted to. One thing that is often overlooked is the impact an affair has on children. Having to forgive your cheating parent is beyond difficult and affects your future relationships. Been there, done that!


Duana’s Response:

Hi, Brenda, good to hear your voice added to Love Science.  Researching this article taught me a number of surprising things, two of which your experience reflects.


First, like most people, I had always thought a person really should not admit to an affair—or that if they did confess, then for their future marital stability, they ought to keep the details to themselves.  I believed, as Henry probably still does, that being a good, faithful spouse going *forward* was enough. 

But I was wrong, and you’re right.  Being a good mate going forward is not enough.  Cleaning up the past by willingly revealing the details the betrayed spouse asks for is needed if trust is really going to be repaired.  And as research shows, the betrayer needs to be genuinely sorry—*and express that regret to their mate*. 

Second, it’s awful that you knew of your parents’ breach of fidelity.  That does wreak havoc with parent-child relationships, and science indicates that this is one case where cheaters really *should* keep it to themselves. 

If at all possible, minor children, especially, should be protected from knowing about parental affairs, for these reasons:

—When kids know about a parents’ affair(s), that knowledge drives a wedge between them that may or may not be removed with time. 

—When the betrayed parent tells kids about the affair, now the kids have *two* people to forgive: the cheater, and the parent who told them.  It’s a huge psychological burden, and additionally, the kids cannot do anything about it but be caught in the middle.   

Upshot?  Kids who feel caught between warring parents (for any offense or reason) do worse in school, have more behavior problems, function more poorly psychologically, and in every way a parent wishes to avoid—just plain do worse than kids who are rightfully enjoying a parent-war-free childhood. 


—When kids know about a parent’s affair(s), it has the perverse consequence of often—though not always—shifting the risk upwards that the kids will later have affairs themselves , and it messes with their sense that a mate can be trusted.  Marriages are never the same after an affair as before, and the gut-wrench of an affair and its aftermath is something few of us would wish on our kids. 



—Why Forgiveness Is Mandatory—

Reconciliation, Optional—

Trusting, Gradual—

 and Forgetting, Just Plain Stupid:


From Patti:

I have gone through the same thing but had a hell of a time getting past it. I was so angry and even wanted to hurt him the way he hurt me. I learned from a wise woman that it takes a year to adapt to something bad that has been done. It has been a little over a year and I am over it. It easy to test yourself, just replay in your mind what was done to you and how you felt at the time it was done and when you feel peace and not angry anymore, you have forgiven! We are not together anymore but I don’t hate him like I did at one time and we get along for the sakes of our child. It will def get better. = )


Duana’s Response:

Dear Patti, sounds like you’ve found wisdom along with peace, and I congratulate you.  Your self-test is brilliant.  And your life’s example makes the Ultimate Point that whether or not one stays with the errant spouse –as you did not—it makes all the sense in the world to *forgive* that person…for oneself and one’s children (who need you to get along and be emotionally present, whether or not you remain with their other parent—something unforgiveness prevents). 

So kudos to you for achieving what many writers privately told me they thought impossible…but which the data and your story show to actually be the rule rather than the exception. 


And thank you for letting me address Z’s question about why it’s worthwhile to forgive (but not remain with!) someone who will only cheat again:

The point of forgiving anyone—cheater or not—is that peace and serenity are literally impossible for ourselves if we won’t. 


In his book Authentic Happiness , top positive psychology theorist and scientist Marty Seligman compellingly makes the point.  Many of us think forgiveness is something we do for the *other* person, and that since the other person doesn’t deserve forgiveness, we oughtn’t give it. 

In Seligman’s words, ““Here are some of the usual reasons for holding on to unforgiveness: Forgiving is unjust….Forgiving may be loving toward the perpetrator, but it shows a want of love toward the victim….Forgiving blocks revenge, and revenge is right and natural.” 

But feeling chronic bitterness, obsession, pain, avoidance, and vengeance (the hallmarks of unforgiveness) is plain-out Bad For *YOU* and your kids and anyone else who must deal with you. 

A raft of studies compellingly shows that the process of forgiving makes the forgiver happier, healthier, and better-off in almost every way (exception: I don’t think it’s been examined economically.).  These studies aren’t merely correlational, but experimental, meaning there is Cause.  Forgiveness Causes Good Stuff.  For You. 


So the reason to forgive even the worst, least-apologetic, heinous individual is that forgiveness is the only way out of the tyranny of others’ actions, the one road back towards happiness, and the sure path from victim to victor. 


Ironically, then, forgiveness is the ultimate selfish act.   But it’s one selfish act that truly makes your entire world a better place. 


 From Mocha’s Mom:

While some may be skeptical, I can say from my personal experience that forgiving people is empowering and amazingly helpful.

My field is Asperger’s Syndrome, and there are a LOT of adults with AS who carry a lot of anger at the people who bullied them in school, the teachers who punished them for behaviors they could not control, and parents who wanted them to be people they simply never could be. I can guarantee that growing up with AS is a great way to truly have people you trust and/or dearly love do things that seem unforgivable to you.

I found the path to forgiveness through REBT (a kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy). That’s how I came to understand that it is illogical and self-destructive to carry around rage or hate based on people acting out of ignorance, out of ineptitude, and/or out of their own “neuroses.” People do stupid things, people lack the ability to make good decisions, and people have their own mental issues that often neither I nor they can control.

Besides, the alternative to forgiveness is to spend one’s life with a bad digestion, tension headaches, late nights spent awake plotting revenge or raging at the unfairness of it all, and generally going around distracted, unable to enjoy either work or play fully, and significantly less healthy than one could be!

For my own health, I learned forgiveness. Does that mean I let the same people run roughshod over me? Of course not. It means I left the unhealthy rage behind and replaced it with feelings like a healthy frustration with others’ behavior, with regret (not guilt!) over having been unable to educate them or help them to do better, and with a determination to use what I had learned to help other people.

Is infidelity different? Well, it does involve someone you probably live with and need to forge some form of partnership with (if there are children involved, you still need to partner up for their upbringing to be sane). If you don’t forgive, then those hateful and rage-filled emotions will hurt you deeply every day every time you have contact or a reminder of your formerly cheating spouse. Just looking at little Junior from the right angle can remind you of how much he resembles your spouse, and then you can start worrying about Junior being a no-good cheater as well!

In fact, it is possible for a spouse to really make him/herself so miserable, hostile, and shrewish that the spouse will start thinking s/he was smart to cheat! S/he may even forget that the wounded spouse was nicer before the cheating and just remember how nice that other person was in comparison with the wronged spouse’s meanness.

There are some issues that require serious thought: if someone is a serial cheater, you do have to make a decision about whether you can continue to live with him or her, but rage won’t help you make a better decision.

If the LW’s husband doesn’t understand that “almost but not quite cheating” is really cheating, or if (like a lot of men) he doesn’t understand that an emotional affair IS an affair, then yes, it’s harder and more complicated and that sucks.

You can decide to forgive without forgetting, and you can continue to modify your own behavior in light of the cheating (for example, in the case of a serial cheater, you might insist on safer sex practices). But never forgiving someone because “he doesn’t deserve it” is a great way to punish yourself daily, even hourly, for someone else’s bad behavior.

It’s going to hurt the letter writer whether she forgives or not. It will hurt much more if she doesn’t. I say, she should do what is least painful — forgive him — and then she will be able to base her actions around what is healthy and works for her, her child(ren) and her husband.

Or she could just rage forever and make the whole family miserable while developing a drinking problem and a deep hatred of humanity. That’s a popular option too. But from what she wrote, she seems a lot smarter than that!

For those who feel the evil husband doesn’t deserve forgiveness, remember how Carrie Fisher put it: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”


Duana’s Response:

Dear Mocha’s Mom,

Welcome back, and thank you for your insightful contribution about why forgiveness is something we really do for ourselves.  I also appreciate your insights about the distinction between Forgiveness and Reconciliation.  A major deterrent to forgiveness of *anything* —being badly parented, being lied to by a friend, being used by colleagues, and yes, being cheated on by a spouse—is thinking we have to go right on having the same exact relationship as before.  No.  We have to forgive, for our own well-being.  But we do *not* have to Stay. 

That said, it turns out that every permutation of the Forgiveness-Reconciliation scenario can and does happen. 

Many couples stay together without forgiving (see under “Inadvisable” and “Hell” in dictionary). 

And many leave but forgive from a distance—which is the sane choice if the offender goes right on offending and you understandably desire peace in your heart *along with* safety from further betrayal. 

And best-case, of course, many stay together *and* forgive.

In fact, the best-case actually *is* the most common outcome in every study I found.  Which was perhaps the most surprising, and oddly heartening, part of writing this article. 


In other news:  The book I most want to marry (or at least run away with) right now is Committed by Liz Gilbert.  Although she’s a novelist, and the book is a personal exploration of her own hesitation to legally wed, it’s got a lot of research in it (she does a great job of explaining Shirley Glass and John Gottman, hence my falling in love with Liz.  In light of that, we will overlook her incorrect interpretation of the Do-Men-Or-Women-Benefit-More-From-Marriage question.). 


You may be wondering what my point is.  Fair enough:  Asperger’s is bound to give rise to a need to forgive the many blundering insensitives of the world.  But *all* long-term relationships give us abundant opportunities to forgive, and to need to be forgiven.  As Gilbert writes, “In the end, it seems to me that forgiveness may be the only realistic antidote we are offered in love, to combat the inescapable disappointments of intimacy.”

Or we could just stick with Carrie Fisher, lol. 


From Mark Morrow:

My experience is that I forgive a lot easier than the trust returns. Acknowledgement of any misdoing makes you feel like your partner respects you and can be honest about their mistakes. You can forgive someone and not let them back in your life or just be friends. If they can’t be honest about a problem like seeking intimacy outside a relationship then there is no reason for me to continue that relationship; I can forgive, we could be friends, but I do not want them as a lover. If they are honest, forthright, and state they want to make the relationship work then I see potential for growth in the relationship and potential for trust to be regained.


Duana’s Response:

Dear Mark,

You have a handle on the Forgiveness Thang that is unusual and which I frankly envy, since you seem to have learned core forgiveness concepts naturally that many people take a very long while to discover.  Or perhaps I am assuming too much, and it took you just as long as many people.

Either way, I include myself among those many people. 

It wasn’t until I researched what is known, scientifically, about forgiveness that it finally hit me that:

a)  Forgiving often happens sooner than trusting, and sometimes trust is never re-established—nor deserved— even though forgiveness happens. 

In fact, the Law Of Psychology shows that a whole lot of the time, depending on the factors I wrote down for Z (above), the offender is going to re-offend if in the same situation.  They can be trusted…to Do It Again. 

For those people who truly aren’t going to Do It Again (whatever It is they did), it’s going to take a long, long time before any reasonable person fully trusts that/them.  That’s the way it is—there’s no quick path back to trust once it’s shattered


b) Sometimes, the reason people don’t forgive is because they don’t want to subject themselves to further abuse (of whatever kind, not only cheating).  And they feel that forgiving = saying Yes to further contact. 


But it could be so helpful for those folks to know that they can have *both* peace and safety.  As you’ve found, forgiveness is *not* the same thing as letting someone back into your life.  You forgive for your own health at every level; you also shut the door on some folks to protect your own health at every level.  Both are appropriate. 


And whereas the science supports your statement that “If they are honest, forthright, and state they want to make the relationship work then I see potential for growth in the relationship and potential for trust to be regained”, you’re also correct that if dishonesty, hesitation to be an open book about the future (and hopefully about the past as well), or an inability to work through ambivalence about which lover to choose remains at issue—it’s time for the Heave Ho at some level that makes sense for *you* (not for the offender—for you). 


c) In addition to the type of forgiveness we usually think of—where we let the offender know they are forgiven—there is Silent Forgiveness.  This happens when we forgive others but don’t tell them so.  It is a perfectly legit option if you require or desire any kind of safety (emotional, physical, economic, etc.) from the offender. 

Since forgiveness is for the forgiver, whether or not to tell the other party is purely up to the forgiver’s judgment, and is not a requirement of forgiving. 


d) Forgiveness should never be accompanied by forgetting, nor by making light of the offense

As Glass wrote, “Forgiveness is about as far away from ‘not a big deal’ as you can get.” 

As the adage puts it, “Wise people forgive, but only a fool forgets.” 


And as I like to say, “Yes, turn the other cheek, but you’ve only got four.” 

Memory protects us from Doormatitis.  Never forget. 





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All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and Love Science Media, 2010

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