Cyber Affairs: My husband has been cheating on the internet. Can I forgive him?
Sample E-mail Answer by Jef Gazley, M.S., LMFT, DCC
I am sorry to hear that this happened to you. I cannot tell you how often I have heard this story from both men and women since the advent of chat forums. It makes it incredibly easy to have affairs without believing that it is really real or damaging to their partner. It is a lot easier to rationalize. Affairs happen most often when a relationship has gotten stale and partners have failed to put in enough energy to keep the love vital. In some ways it doesn't matter whether the affair was physical or only emotional. At those times they have still gotten an emotional divorce and have decided to get close to another instead of reaching out and resolving issues with their partner.
People who have emotional affairs or vacation affairs or internet affairs are involved in fantasy. They rationalize that it is not a real affair or that it would be damaging. They often view the affair as if it wasn't really cheating. Some people really do leave their partners or plan to leave, but more often they plan to stay with their marriage.
It takes a lot to forgive something like this and it never can truly be forgotten. A marriage is built on trust, honesty, the real action of love, and mutual respect. All of these things have been violated. There are some things that people do that cannot be forgiven by a given person. There is no hard and fast rule about this. It depends on a host of variables and there is no right or wrong in this area. Many marriages come back from an affair and many do not.
The requirements for forgiveness though are rather stable. The more tolerant a person is the more likely they are to forgive. The less typical the offence is for the perpetrator the easier it will be to forgive. The less severe the offense the easier it is to forgive. However, for forgiveness certain things are a must. First a true and sincere apology needs to be given and felt. Not I am sorry because I got caught. Secondly, the reason for the offence needs to be understood and it helps if it is a conflict that was exceedingly difficult for the offender. Third, there needs to be an epiphany, an overwhelming new bit of learning, which makes for a structural change in the offender. These are the only changes that can really be expected to last.
The fourth element is that the victim needs to be able to express ALL of their feelings about what has occurred several times over a series of a couple of months. Fifth, the perpetrator needs to listen carefully and empathetically without defensiveness or excuses and apologize several times. The sixth element is that enough time has to go by with no repeat of the behavior. This varies greatly. It often will take months or a year or two to really gain back what was lost. Lastly, the victim has to look deep inside of themselves over the course of this transition and ask themselves honestly if they really can forgive. Very often people either say they forgive way too early and hold onto the feelings or they stay in a relationship because of dependence and beat the perpetrator up on a semi-continual basis. Give both of yourselves time and discussion to make a rational decision for the long haul.
A further step though is to figure out why this occurred in the first place. Affairs are a symptom of something wrong in the relationship and also something wrong with the individual. If it is not fixed it will tend to recur.
At various times in our life emotional stress can become overwhelming. Whenever the stress of life becomes problematic our therapists are available to help.
Jef Gazley, M.S., LMFT, DCC