About 20 years ago, I was involved in a couple of local and state preschool co-op preschool organizations. There were quite a few Christian fundamentalist women that were involved in these groups. At one of these board conferences, I got stuck having lunch with a group of these women.
These women started talking about a woman they knew but I did not. This woman had a husband that cheated on her. The general consensus was that cheating was something that men were prone to do, it was this woman’s job to forgive him and set the moral tone for their marriage, and that they should pray for her. I don’t mean pray privately. I’m talking about a full-blown public display of prayer, joining hands around our table in a banquet room of 300 people.
I had a few differing thoughts about this conversation, the first of which was the peer pressure to join in a public display of prayer. I’m all for people who want to do this, but I didn’t appreciate their assumption that I should join them. I also felt that it was wrong that the remedy and responsibility to save this marriage was mostly put upon this woman and that forgiveness and prayer was going to solve everything and help the cheating husband become “a better man”.
Neither I nor the women at this table knew the details of what led up to this particular incident of infidelity, and as an agnostic person at heart, I knew that forgiveness and prayer on their own was not going to solve anything.
To me, forgiveness is part of a process that comes after someone admits their guilt, sincerely apologizes to their spouse for what they did, shows that they can commit to the marriage, and actively tries to do that. In other words, forgiveness, as well as respect and trust, is something that has to be earned in order for it to work.
As far as prayer goes, all I can say that it never solved a problem for me, even when I had and recovered from a near-death illness several years ago. I can say all kinds of good things about the many nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals who went through some extraordinary work and effort to restore my life, but that’s another story, and I’m digressing.
In our culture, the concept of forgiveness is something that a person that has been wronged should do immediately and unconditionally, not just in cases of marriage infidelity, but regarding anything and in any way a person has been hurt, wronged or victimized. It’s an expectation that’s pretty universal through the whole spectrum or religious and spiritual beliefs.
But do people actually forgive in that way?
At the time of the prayer incident, I had no idea that I would be cheating on my husband less than a year later. After I did and was caught, I knew that restoring my husband’s trust was the first and most critical thing I would have to do in order to save our marriage and to be truly forgiven. I also knew that it would take time for that to happen.
My ex didn’t make that easy for me when I was trying to prove my worthiness to be trusted and to save our marriage. Everything I did was suspect, questioned, doubted and checked up upon. I understood that he was deeply hurt and that I had damaged our marriage in the worst way imaginable. But I also felt undermined, frustrated and thwarted that he was not open to my efforts to prove my apology. Even if our marriage lasted, I still felt that I needed to do the right thing for his sake and benefit. He deserved at least that much from me, but I gave up. I was sick and tired of being undermined at every turn.
My ex eventually forgave me, but it was too late to save our marriage. By then, we had already been divorced and he had married someone else.
Looking back, I see that our divorce was something that had to happen. Our needs, wants and expectations of a marriage couldn’t have been more different and divergent. That’s something that I learned through our time in couples counseling. It also took our divorce and his second marriage for him to be a better spouse.
Since my divorce, I had never been unfaithful to a partner, but I had been cheated on and lied to a few times. Apologies were never sincerely offered and attempts to do right by me or for the sake of maintaining those relationships were never made. I felt that I deserved at least that much. I never forgave either of these men. What was the point?
I don’t carry on this concept of non-forgiveness as a grudge or baggage. Instead, I recovered, moved on, and started each new relationship with a clean slate. Doing that is what freed my soul, not forgiveness … or prayer.
And did those women I lunched with ever forgive me, let alone speak to me after my affair? Oh, hell no!