Can you ever forgive the betrayal by a sex addict partner? The addict has led a double life and lied to your face. The relationship you have with a spouse or partner is supposed to be the primary relationship in your life, your primary loyalty. The addict has done violence to the bond you held sacred.
In the long run, forgiveness will mean coming to a point of inner acceptance. This is akin to a state of grace in which we find ourselves finally freed from our resentment, anger and pain. But what happens to couples in the meanwhile as they grapple with the crisis?
Often we hear this issue talked about in terms of “regaining trust”. That makes it sound like the process of forgiveness depends on what the addict does or doesn’t do to change his ways. But the process of forgiveness really has nothing to do with whether the addict can convince us that he is trustworthy now.
Trust has primarily to do with being sure that we will be safe from being betrayed again. Forgiveness is an internal change in the person who has been harmed, regardless of what the other person does or doesn’t do. We can forgive without trusting and we can trust without forgiving. I have discussed how addicts can rebuild trust in a prior post.
For the recovering couple the first stage in rebuilding the bond may be one of reconciliation. I mean this in the sense that it is used in the literature on reconciliation between nations or ethnic groups after the end of a violent period in their history. Here we do not accept that the harm was in any way justified or understandable but we make a choice to relate in a different way to the other person or group. We decide to let go of our adversarial stance and adopt a policy of communication and cooperation. We choose to stop being enemies.
Another part of the whole process of coming to terms with a serious harm is that of understanding and accepting what has happened. This can be a step on the way to inner acceptance.
Understanding that sex addiction is akin to a brain disease, that it is a true addiction and that it has nothing to do with any failing in the spouse or partner; these can help the partner see the betrayal in a different light. It is merely a problem, one that relates to neurobiology and early attachment issues. We may be able to say “there but for the grace of God go I”. We can love the good parts of the partner in spite of the way their problems have harmed us and harmed the relationship.
But acceptance does not imply that we are at peace with what has happened. We may still feel guarded and distanced. “So I understand it but I’m still miserable” is sometimes the feeling.
Forgiveness and unconditional love
It is very important to distinguish between unconditional love and unconditional commitment. We can love unconditionally but that doesn’t mean we are committed to sticking around no matter what. Having our own boundaries about what we require to be happy will allow us to feel protected. We don’t need to trust someone else to never mess up. We only need to know that we can take care of ourselves if it happens.
True forgiveness is an internal process of acceptance. For myself I find that the key is accepting that I have been hurt. My resentment and anger may continue so long as I am fighting that simple fact. Someone can hurt me, especially someone I love. The relationship may be harmed in the process and it may never be the way it was. This is a loss that has to be grieved and accepted. On the other hand the process of recovery and coming to a deeper level of mutual understanding and forgiveness my lead to a much healthier, happier and more serene life. Find Dr. Hatch on Facebook at Sex Addictions Counseling or Twitter @SAResource