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When Loren Ekroth, a former marriage and family therapist, and his first wife divorced in 1985, he knew he had to forgive her actions, which led to their demise. “A big part of it was that we shared a child,” Ekroth says. “But I also felt and feel strongly that the extent to which I was unforgiving was harming me. It is always the person who nurses the grudge or hatred who suffers and it would have made it difficult to live with equanimity.”
So Ekroth did what some may think impossible: he forgave. In fact, more than 20 years later, he is now an “uncle” to his ex-wife’s son by her second marriage. And while they are not “a big happy family,” Ekroth says, they found a way to co-parent and even be close despite a divorce that was at times “very painful” for Ekroth.
To be sure, forgiveness after an affair is no easy task. “When an affair leads to divorce, the person who’s been cheated on usually feels humiliated, bitter and enraged,” says Mira Kirshenbaum, a marriage and family therapist as well as the author of many books on the topic, including the most recent, “When Good People Have Affairs.” “This is not a favorable setting for the two people to remain friends. And in fact the evidence is that divorces caused by infidelity are one of the least favorable settings for people to remain friends,” Kirshenbaum says.
Despite the difficulties, Kirshenbaum does believe forgiveness after an affair is possible. But several factors, including a deep understanding on the part of that cheater that what he or she did was painful to the other party, must be present.
“What’s often not understood is that forgiveness is a process that requires the best efforts of two people,” Kirshenbaum says. “The person seeking forgiveness has to work hard to earn it. That usually means going through a very long period of eating crow listening at length to how his partner has been hurt, living with her anger, facing the enormous cost of the affair. And he or she has to take specific and often hard measures to earn back her trust. But even if he does the utmost to earn forgiveness, his partner has to have a talent for forgiveness. This includes the ability to regain trust when it’s been hurt.”
For Donald of Walla-Walla, Wash., forgiveness was not an option when it comes to his ex. “I hope the best for her in a theoretical way,” Donald says. “But I am not sure I could ever trust her given that she kept a secret of that magnitude from me.”
While the two are hardly still at each other’s throats, they have barely spoken since their divorce was finalized after six months of marriage more than five years ago. He agrees with Kirshenbaum that a strong mea culpa might have helped him toward forgiveness. “I think she felt bad,” he said. “But she was not sorry.”
The two are so estranged that at a recent dinner _ in which both were invited _ both were uncomfortable, but he has no regrets. In part because he says their friendship would be pointless. “We had many great times,” he says. “But that is over.”
Couples without children have fewer ties to their ex-spouse and less reason to try to remain friends, she says. If there had been children, Donald says, “We would have found a way to make it work.”
Kirshenbaum provides a checklist of questions for people going through a divorce who may want to ascertain whether a friendship is possible or even worth it. They are:
1. Would you want to be friends with this person if he hadn’t cheated?
2. Is he or she really sorry: so sorry that they are willing to pay a price?
3. Does he or she truly understand how hurtful and damaging what they did is?
4. Is he or she willing to work on improving the issues you have in your friendship?
5. Putting the affair aside for the moment, is the former spouse an open, honest and trustworthy person?
Unless a person can answer yes to all of these questions, a friendship may be out of the question, Kirshenbaum says. Of course, if there are children, things are different. “If you have kids, you have to be friends,” she says.
In that case, Kirshenbaum would recommend therapy and family counseling until two people can at least pretend to be friends for their shared child. And there are benefits to a friendship for every formerly married couple, Kirshenbaum says. But they are different for every relationship.
“Asking what are the benefits of staying friends with a spouse who’s had an affair _ and what are some of the drawbacks _ is like asking what are the benefits and drawbacks of taking in a stray dog on a rainy night. It depends on you and it depends on the dog,” Kirshenbaum says. “In the same way, if someone has had a great relationship with a spouse and they have many things they share and if the spouse is truly sorry and is otherwise a trustworthy person, then the benefits of staying friends can be enormous. But if someone has a very difficult time forgiving a betrayal of this magnitude and if the spouse can’t admit how wrong what he did is and isn’t willing to work on the friendship and if the friendship wasn’t that strong to begin with, then staying friends with the spouse will usually end up not feeling worthwhile.”
That was the case for Sherrie, a twice-divorced public relations professional in Mobile, Ala. In both cases, her marriages ended due to infidelity and in both cases, she saw no point in remaining friends. “I chose two men of the same type,” Sherrie says, who does not think that either man respected women enough to deserve her friendship. “I respected my marriage vows. They didn’t. Their infidelity was just part of their behavior patterns. It would not have been worth it to try to maintain a friendship.”
After her first marriage, Sherrie went so far as to move 50 miles away from the town where she had lived with her ex-husband. “I had lost so many friends in the divorce,” she says. “I had to leave the community. It was just too small.”
The physical distance helped her to break ties with her ex and she had little interest in rekindling them. Sherrie says she is grateful that in both cases, she was able to leave the marriages without children. But in the second marriage, she did have a stepson with whom she had become very close. Losing him was one of the hardest parts of the divorce, she says. “I left him and because of that, he would not let me see the children,” she says.
Although she still has a distant relationship with the younger of her two stepsons, she is grateful that she does not have to maintain a relationship with their father. “I wish both of my ex-husbands well, but I do not choose to have them in my life,” Sherrie says.
The friendships that do survive are rare, but they do exist, Kirshenbaum says. “Asking whether a relationship can survive an affair is like asking whether a car can survive a crash. It depends on the car and the crash,” she says. “In the case of an affair, it depends on who the people are in the marriage and on the marriage itself.
“For things to get better you need the following ingredients: The cheated-on person needs to have a talent for forgiveness. Some people have this talent; some don’t,” Kirshenbaum says. “There need to be real strengths in the marriage, whatever the weaknesses. And the cheater has to have a real desire to stay in the marriage and a willingness to do what it takes to heal the hurts. Healing the hurts is an ordeal. But if the cheater is willing to go through it and his partner has a capacity to forgive, then the friendship can not only survive but thrive.”
For Ekroth, his profession may have helped him move toward forgiveness. He was able to recognize his ex-wife’s actions were “nothing personal,” he says. And that his ex-wife was merely acting out in the only way she could at the time. Additionally, she understood his pain. “My former wife took responsibility for the actions that were very hurtful over the years,” he says. “That was a crucial part of forgiveness.
Still, Ekroth knows he is in the minority. In his practice, he saw hundreds of unhappy couples and estimates that he may only have helped roughly 50 percent reach forgiveness. But for him, forgiveness was part of what has ultimately helped him heal. “Forgiveness is ultimately a self-helping act,” Ekroth says. “We are bigger than just being angry forever.”
_ Sasha Brown-Worsham
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(c) 2009, Divorce360.com
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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