No matter how you look at it, divorce is painful. Your life (and the lives of your children) are changed forever. And for a time you must face challenge after challenge – a seemingly endless stream of them. Yet you know you must continue to move forward so you persevere and eventually ask yourself the question, “How can I forgive and let go of all the hurt?”
This question is important because it’s at the core of all the pain you’re experiencing over your divorce. It’s also one of the most difficult challenges of healing after divorce because divorce brings with it so many hurts, betrayals, and lost dreams.
So let me walk you through how I help my clients learn how to forgive and let go after divorce.
The first step is to truly understand what forgiveness is.
What is forgiveness?
Simply put, forgiveness is a conscious decision to release your feelings of resentment, hurt, anger, or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you.
What I like about this definition is that it’s all about you. It’s not about waiting for the person or people who harmed you to make amends.
There’s power in this. It means that letting go and moving on after your divorce is up to you. Sure there are probably circumstances that are dependent upon others, but your being able to forgive is completely within your control.
However, something being 100% in your control doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easy to achieve. I’ll bet if you’re like most of the people I’ve spoken with over the last nearly 20 years, that you have some resistance to forgiving.
Why do so many struggle with it?
Being able to forgive and let go after divorce is often problematic because of mistaken beliefs. It’s fairly common to erroneously believe that forgiveness has to do with the other person or group. This belief completely removes an individual’s ability to move forward.
Waiting for someone else to make you feel better about your divorce is a recipe for staying stuck.
You stay stuck when you continue to replay the harm you experienced and the resultant resentment, hurt, anger, and desire for vengeance again and again. You’re holding on to it and in a way nurturing it so that your pain never has a chance to dissipate. Instead, it remains and often grows.
This way of coping with being harmed makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Back in the days of living in caves, our ancestors needed to know who they could trust because their lives depended on it – literally.
However, today we don’t necessarily need to continually remind ourselves of the harm done to us.
The other reason so many struggle with forgiveness and letting go after divorce is that we mistakenly believe that to forgive means to forget and act as if the harm never happened.
So let’s revisit the definition of forgiveness from above and please pay close attention to what you’re reading…
…forgiveness is to consciously decide to release your feelings of resentment, hurt, anger, or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you.
Nowhere in this definition is there anything about forgetting or dismissing or even condoning. In fact, remembering the hurtful actions and learning how you can prevent or avoid or in some other way keep yourself from being hurt in the same way in the future is what you should be learning from the situation.
And I’ll bet that even with all of this discussion about what forgiveness is and why so many struggle with it that you might be thinking one of two things:
- I can’t forgive my ex.
- I can’t forgive myself for hurting my ex.
So let’s take a look at both of these thoughts.
I can’t forgive my ex.
If you’re struggling to forgive your ex for the end of your marriage, chances are that you’re blaming them for everything that’s happened. And you’re partially correct. They are to blame – for their part.
The uncomfortable truth is that you’re also culpable. You have some fault for the end of your marriage too.
It’s worth taking the time to look at how you contributed to your divorce. At a minimum, you are responsible for deciding to marry your ex. But, I’ll bet that if you let yourself really think about it, you’ll see that you played a little bit larger role than that.
I don’t say that to condemn you. I say it because I know it was true for me and it’s been true for each and every one of the hundreds of people I’ve worked with.
In my case, one of the ways I contributed to the end of my first marriage was the expectation that my husband would just know what I needed without my needing to tell him. It was easy to blame him for not caring about me. But the truth is that I didn’t tell him what I needed and how I wanted things to change.
And, yes, it did take me some time to be able to admit this to myself. Yet when I did, it was easy to forgive him because I knew that I wasn’t solely a victim of his actions. I was also a victim of mine.
This idea of being a victim of your actions brings us to the second struggle that so many people have with knowing how to forgive and let go after divorce.
I can’t forgive myself for hurting my ex.
If you’re struggling with forgiving yourself for hurting your ex with your decision to divorce, you’re not alone. Most people who initiate divorce blame themselves for the pain they caused.
I’ll bet making the decision to divorce was one of the most difficult decisions you’ve ever made. You probably weighed all kinds of considerations before finally deciding this was the best course for you and your family.
And it’s good that you still care for your ex and what they’re experiencing as a result. Yet, the truth is that you’re not responsible for how your former spouse feels (and you never were).
Another unfortunate fact is most people find forgiving someone else easier than forgiving themselves.
I believe there are 3 primary reasons for this:
- It’s easier to see how someone else has caused us harm (and it can be easier to feel like a victim) than it is to recognize how we may have caused ourselves or someone else harm.
- It can also be difficult to forgive ourselves because it takes effort and sometimes it can seem easier to wallow in guilt and regret.
- We can hold ourselves to a higher level and breadth of accountability than we do others.
Yet despite all the struggles that you may have with allowing yourself to forgive and let go after your divorce, it is possible to do. In fact, I believe you must do so before you can fully move on with your life.
Tips for reaching forgiveness
So far we’ve spent a lot of time talking about forgiveness and why it can be difficult to do. Let’s shift gears now and talk about some tips for how you might be able to finally forgive and let go.
To forgive someone else, you might try these tips:
Get distance from the event
For most of us, it’s nearly impossible to forgive someone while we’re feeling hurt.
If you can give yourself a little time so you can look at the situation from different angles, you’ll find that your perspective of the event and its meaning can change. It’s this change in perspective that can often provide the space to forgive – or at least begin being willing to forgive.
Be willing to do your part.
The key to being able to forgive and let go is making the choice to do so. Choosing to let go of the anger, hurt, and resentment is necessary. And sometimes the easiest place to start is to decide to be able to make this choice.
Work through your feelings.
As inconvenient as they may be, you must acknowledge and work through your feelings about the hurt. A couple of ways you may choose to work through them are journaling and talking to a trusted friend, family member, or helping professional. – journaling, talking
Find the silver lining of the hurt.
Yes, there really could be a silver lining to your divorce. It might allow you and your ex to be better parents. It might allow you to pursue passions you laid to the side when married your ex.
By being willing to look for the opportunity to grow from your divorce and/or recognizing your relationship wasn’t what you thought it was, you’ll quickly be able to find your silver lining.
Build your capacity to forgive.
Start with forgiving smaller things first to build up your forgiveness capacity. Then you can progressively build up to forgiving your ex for the divorce and all of its repercussions.
Acknowledge your forgiveness.
Take the time to recognize that you’ve been able to forgive and let go of any portion or part of the hurt you carry because of your divorce. When you do, you’re celebrating yourself, your growth, and taking a giant leap toward putting your divorce behind you.
To forgive yourself, in addition to the tips above, the following can be helpful:
Recognize if you’re holding yourself to a higher level of accountability than you do others.
Have you heard of an inner critic? Most of us have met our inner critic even if we don’t know it by that name. It’s the negative, nagging, judgemental voice that keeps replaying our faults and shortcomings.
Our inner critic is the part of us that unreasonably holds us to a higher level of accountability than others. Once you can separate the excessive condemnation from an appropriate level, it becomes easier to forgive yourself.
Change your negative thoughts.
We all have a negativity bias. We look for what’s wrong. And this can cause us to be hard on ourselves and makes it difficult to forgive and let go.
When you catch yourself allowing negative thoughts to control how you feel about yourself, it’s time to change them. One of the most straightforward ways to do that is to ask yourself if the thought is based on fear or love. If it’s fear, then you can change it by looking for a loving, kind way to reframe the thought.
Learning how to forgive and let go after divorce will take time and effort. Yet the investment you make in doing so will enable you to move on with your life and be more fully you as you build a meaningful and love-filled life after divorce for yourself (and your kids).
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I help people just like you with healing after a divorce or breakup. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. If you’re interested in taking the first step toward working with me, you can schedule an introductory private coaching session.
Looking for more information about getting over the end of your marriage? You’ll find what you’re looking for in Healing After Divorce.
There comes a time in every affair when truth can no longer hide between the sheets. It may come out right away. It may come out after months or even years. But, once your cheating is exposed, your life will never be the same.
So fasten your seatbelt.
The revelation of infidelity can happen in a number of ways:
If you’re married and cheating, you may have your duplicitous life neatly and conveniently compartmentalized. As long as you can keep your stories straight and your tracks covered, you can keep everyone in your fantasy bubble happy.
Until, of course, you leave a slipper on the staircase and your carriage turns into a pumpkin before curfew.
Or until your spouse starts adding up your one-off nights of working late.
Or your affair partner gets fed up with the double-standard of being alone when you’re with your family.
Or you get tired of keeping up the charade and feel the sudden moral urge to confess.
How your cheating is exposed is less important than the exposure itself…because exposure means decision-time.
Everyone involved — even the affair partner — has decisions to make.
Are you going to end the affair and work on your marriage? Are you going to get a divorce and start a new life with your affair partner? Are you going to break off both relationships and live on your own?
What can you count on in the aftermath of being outed for your affair?
There is no definitive script for the post-cheating-discovery drama that plays out. But you can count on several unpleasantries, especially in the early days, weeks, and months following the affair’s exposure.
One thing’s for sure: The sh*t is going to hit the fan.
Even if your spouse becomes reclusive and avoidant in the wake of pain and anger, you’re going to feel the repercussions of your betrayal.
And your “logical” compartmentalization — you know, that thing that convinced you you could keep this double-life going — is going to implode.
Here is a short-list of what to expect when your cheating is exposed:
You and your spouse will be polarized emotionally.Your spouse will be fuming from your betrayal — angry, devastated, hurting, confused, self-doubting, demanding details.
Your emotions will be equally complex and may even parallel some of your spouse’s emotions.
But you are likely to feel overwhelming contrition, shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing, even if you’re hurting and confused.
If your affair was long and emotionally involved, you may have a separate set of emotions surrounding your affair partner — responsibility, guilt, anger, sadness, longing.
If you and your betrayed spouse plan to work on saving your marriage, you’ll have to make peace with this polarity, especially in the beginning.
Your spouse will be flooded with negative emotions, which may come out as unpredictable rage and fury.
Hell hath no fury like a [spouse] scorned.”
Whether your betrayed spouse is female or male, the anger from betrayal is deep and consuming.
One way to add to that scorn and fury is to get defensive with a bunch of cheating excuses.
Your spouse may not be the only one who knows about and is affected by your infidelity.Depending on how your cheating is exposed, there may be others in your family and/or social circles who know about your infidelity.
And, if your betrayed spouse acts out in a moment of rage, you may find yourself in a social media fishbowl. Now you’re not only trying to save your marriage, you’re trying to save face everywhere you go.
Who knows? Does everyone know? Does everyone hate me? Can I show my face anywhere?
You may care for your affair partner, but don’t expect your spouse to.
Advice for getting past infidelity is almost always focused on the married couple, with little or no regard for the affair partner.
This “other person” is often objectified and treated as a disposal for blame and the unfettered ugly side of anger. Easy to “just give up,” with no concern for their feelings.
But you may have developed deep feelings for this person, especially if the affair began as an emotional connection and/or lasted a long time. You may even think of your affair relationship as another committed relationship.
The understandable requisite that you completely end the affair in order to work on your marriage may be more complicated than that.
For you, at least.
Your spouse, however, won’t share your concern for this other human being.
Again, the emotional polarity….
It’s going to be a long time before your spouse trusts you again. With anything.Just plan on it.
And don’t add insult to injury by making your spouse lay it out for you or defend the lack of trust.
You’re going to have to earn it back.
And not just a few times when you think the effort is worth making.
You will now need to earn trust on your spouse’s terms.
And that may include surrender in some very uncomfortable ways — passwords, cell phone-monitoring, curfews, and, of course, zero contact with your affair partner.
You’re going to face a firing squad of very uncomfortable questions. And your spouse is going to expect you to answer them.
As with the lack of trust, you should brace yourself for the barrage of questions about your affair.
Your spouse’s reality has been shattered in one revelation. Nothing makes sense.
And your spouse desperately needs something to make sense.
They will flounder under the weight of self-doubt, wondering why your transgression wasn’t obvious. How could I have not known? How can I ever trust again?
In an effort to put the pieces of sanity back together and decide how to move forward, your spouse is going to ask. A lot.
And, while you’re going to have to humbly, compassionately, contritely answer, you’re also going to have to exercise prudence.
Some answers may be too explicit to achieve any end but more harm.
And some answers may actually be necessary, despite the shame and discomfort you feel when delivering them.
Seeking qualified professional help during this time can remove some of that “burden of prudence” and give you both a safe place to heal.
Even if you want to save your marriage, you may not believe you can endure the punishment.
Affairs aren’t the scarlet letter of miserable marriages only. They happen in happy marriages, as well.
And those marriages that have (however ironic it sounds) a strong foundation of love and respect tend to fare better after an affair.
But, depending on the nature and length of the affair, you may believe the cost of repairing your marriage is just too steep.
You may, for example, doubt that your spouse will ever forgive you, let alone trust and desire you again. And no one can live with a prognosis of perpetual monitoring, blame, and reminding.
If your spouse expresses the desire and commitment to work on your marriage and that’s what you also want, know that the journey ahead is going to be long. It’s also going to be painfully, exhaustively, inconveniently reflective.
Infidelity changes everyone in its path – the betrayed, the betrayer, the affair partner, children, family, friends.
When cheating is exposed, the veil is lifted – on a lot more than just the infidelity.
Ironically, the exposure lays bare the very issues that made your marriage vulnerable to an affair in the first place.
It also reveals, with alarming clarity, the fragililty of the reasoning behind choices made to avoid them.
Perhaps your affair was a wake-up call to the supplications of a marriage you want to save.
Perhaps it was a sabotaging of a marriage you subconsciously want to end.
Whatever your motive for cheating, know that its exposure will be a turning point in a lot of lives.
I’m Dr. Karen Finn, a divorce and life coach. I work with individuals struggling with how to get over resentment after an affair. You can join my newsletter list for free weekly advice. Schedule an introductory private coaching session if you’d like to take the first step toward working with me.