Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to: TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
“You have to forgive him,” the Women’s Bible Group leader emphatically told Susan, a client of mine, who was suffering from memories of her husband’s recent affair.
“But, how do I do that when he hurt me so badly?” she asked the woman.
“God has forgiven you,” the woman persisted, “and it is our obligation to forgive others. Think about how much God has forgiven you.”
The words penetrated Susan’s heart, causing her to feel overwhelming guilt at the resentment she felt toward her husband, Charles. How could she call herself a Christian if she wasn’t able to forgive both her husband and the married woman with whom he had an affair?
Susan sat across from me, her face appearing drawn and pale. I had counseled with her for several weeks about the anger and hurt she felt toward her husband for his infidelity. Beneath her anger, of course, was overwhelming pain. The kind of pain that stole her sleep, caused her to become easily sick to her stomach, and made her even consider harming herself, if only briefly.
While her husband’s affair had only lasted a few months, and he seemed genuinely repentant, still she felt rage toward him and “that other woman.”
“You can’t call her by name?” I asked her once.
“Oh yeah,” Susan said, bolting upright in her chair. “I can call her a lot of names. But, I don’t think you want to hear them.”
Susan contained her venomous anger most of the time, but on occasion she spewed forth hostile, derogatory names toward the woman with whom Charles had the affair. Usually remorseful after venting her anger, still Susan couldn’t seem to let go of the resentment she felt. Her Bible Study leader’s words stung even more. Not only was she not able to forgive her husband, but wasn’t able to forgive the other “woman” either.
Susan expected me to preach at her. She was ready for me to reiterate the importance of forgiveness, and chastise her for her feelings anger and resentment toward the woman who allegedly lured her husband into her bed.
“I’ve worked with too many women, and men,” I told Susan, “who have suffered from unfaithfulness. I’ve worked with people for months who struggle to make sense of infidelity. I’m not going to preach at you about forgiveness—at least not now!”
“What do you mean,” Susan said softly. “Aren’t I supposed to forgive?”
“Of course we’re called to forgive,” I told Susan. “But, we’re not robots. Let me share something about the healing process, and let’s see where you might be in that process.”
With that I shared with Susan the acronymn SARAH, which I’d like to share with you.
S—Shock. We’re often shocked and in disbelief with any overwhelming information. Kubler-Ross said we are immediately in denial when faced with something too catastrophic to accept. It’s true. We can’t simply digest horrific news—and an affair is horrific news!
A----Anger. When we finally grasp the magnitude of what has happened, that our mate has actually slept with another person, we’re understandably angry. We are often even more than angry—we wish harm on the person who has hurt us. These temporary feelings are a natural part of the healing process.
R----Resentment. After the initial shock, and waves of anger, we can slip into a brooding resentment toward the perpetrator of harm. We feel disgusted with their actions. We resent what they’ve done, and how they’re thoughtless actions have impacted our lives.
A----Acceptance. After feelings of disbelief, disgust, disappointment and resentment, which often occur in waves, cycling back and forth, we slowly settle into an acceptance of the reality of what has happened. This doesn’t mean we’re settled with it; it can mean we’re ready to allow the healing process to continue.
H----Healing. Allowing ourselves to feel our feelings is a huge part of allowing the healing process to occur. Recognizing that we’re very human, and have been created with feelings, allows us to “be with” our emotions. As we allow the grief to wash over us, we can begin the rebuilding process.
Susan appreciated hearing about this process. She felt relieved to know that feelings of anger and even resentment were part of normal healing. As the weeks went by, and she allowed herself to accept all of her feelings, she began to allow herself to look deeper into the situation. We invited her husband into the counseling process and explored what aspects of the marriage were broken before the affair, and sought to heal them. Susan allowed Charles to share his remorse, again and again, and together they set boundaries so something like this would never happen again.
The road to recovery for Susan and Charles was not smooth and easy. They would endure outbursts of anger and resentment from Susan. Charles struggled with feelings of defensiveness and had hurtful responses to Susan at times. Both learned, however, they would become stronger as they worked through the problems leading to the affair, recovering from feelings associated with the affair, and rebuilding to make their marriage stronger after the affair.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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