Do I Have to Forgive my Unfaithful Spouse?

couple sitting on wall backs turned to us
Photo by Maddi Bazzocco on Unsplash

This article is the third in a series on infidelity in marriage and how to heal. Here are the links to Part I, Your Spouse Cheated, Now What? and Part II, The Two Sides of Marital Infidelity

In my experience working with marriages rocked by a partner’s adultery, I see patterns. Emotions, expectations, questions, and struggles that show up time after time. The most frequent pattern among Latter-day Saint couples in this circumstance involves a cheating spouse who confesses to priesthood authority, undergoes a disciplinary council, “faces the music” so to speak, and goes through (or is going through) the steps to have their blessings restored to them. In case after case, they feel they’ve done the work to be forgiven and can’t understand why their partner can’t “just let it go.” The Lord has forgiven me, they reason, so why can’t my spouse?

For the betrayed partner, the wrestle may be with themselves, seeing the logic of their spouse’s argument and not knowing why they struggle to forgive. Or it may be with their partner, who has not taken the time to address, empathize with, and make amends for the suffering they’ve caused. Forgiveness from the church is one thing, they reason, but forgiveness by me is something else.

Many couples get hung up at this point. Does the betrayed partner have a gospel duty to forgive the repentant spouse? If so, how? If not, why? Do the steps necessary for repentance in the Church line up with what is needed to repent in your marriage? I’ll address these here briefly, but will go into even more detail in my online “Healing from Infidelity” course, free of charge.

Does the Betrayed Partner Have a Gospel Duty to Forgive Their Repentant Spouse?

Christ forgivingThe short answer is yes, BUT that may not mean what you think it means. In a revelation to the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ spoke very clearly when he said that “Thou shalt not commit adultery; and he that committeth adultery, and repenteth not, shall be cast out. But he that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive; But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out” (Doctrine and Covenants 42:24-36).

Now, this revelation was arguably directed to the elders of the church, with the phrase “cast out” implying church discipline (though it may apply to spouses as well). But another revelation to the members of the church is very plain “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men” (Doctrine and Covenants 64:10). Many repentant adulterers cite this scripture when expecting their betrayed spouse to “let it go.” Many betrayed spouses feel guilty because they struggle to apply this scripture. But what does forgiveness mean?

Forgiveness is letting go of bitterness. It’s letting go of anger and hatred. It’s a daily choice, a process. It’s how we choose to deal every day with the anger and hurt that come up. It’s letting go of a quest for vengeance, retaliation, and retribution. But forgiving someone and trusting them are two different things. Forgiveness is freely given. Trust must be earned.

In the October 2018 general conference, Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland laid it on the line:

“‘Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,’ Christ taught in New Testament times. And in our day: ‘I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.’ It is, however, important for some of you living in real anguish to note what He did not say. He did not say, ‘You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.’ Nor did He say, ‘In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.’ But notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing. That path is the forgiving one walked by Jesus of Nazareth, who calls out to each of us, Come, follow me.’”

Christ commands us as individuals to forgive others, whether or not they repent. It is the path to personal peace. He commanded the church as an institution to forgive adulterers if they repent and don’t return to it. But he never commands us to stay in a toxic relationship. He never commands us to trust someone who’s not earned it. This is why the process of repentance in the church and repentance in a marriage do not look the same.

How Does Repentance in the Church Differ From Repentance in Your Marriage?

couple in lds bishop's officeRepentance in the Church requires confession to a priesthood authority, abandonment of the sin, usually a disciplinary council, the withdrawal of blessings, and in time the restoration of blessings as long as the offender stays on the straight and narrow path. Repentance in a marriage is different.

If you had an affair, your actions may have affected ward members, but they shattered your spouse. Do not underestimate the devastation your actions caused in the heart, mind, and soul of your partner. They have been traumatized. Literally traumatized. They believed their world, their marriage, was safe. Now it’s not. They don’t know if they ever can believe you again because of the betrayal. Trusting you before hurt them terribly, and they can’t bring themselves to simply trust you again.

Repentance in your marriage requires more than simple confession and abandonment. You need to help your family heal. No “slap on the wrist” will repair the damage. Of persons who were in your shoes, a prophet said “Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you. And because of the strictness of the word of God, which cometh down against you, many hearts died, pierced with deep wounds” (Jacob 2:35).

How can you make this right? You can start by being humble and accountable. Whatever problems there were in your marriage, your spouse didn’t make you cheat. You made a choice. Own it. Beg and plead for forgiveness. It’s not beneath you. It’s what’s required. It’s that serious. Allow your spouse to express their hurt without getting defensive. Be transparent, honest, loving, and faithful. Be understanding when the hurt resurfaces instead of impatient. Your remorse needs to equal the pain you caused in order for your spouse to believe this won’t happen again.

Whether you cheated or were cheated on, your marriage can heal. You can heal. Christ is that powerful. But we have to walk the specific path to healing. If you’d like extra support, I invite you to my online “Healing from Infidelity” course, free of charge. God bless you.

 Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Your Family Expert. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily Gospel-based relationship tips.

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO of Your Family Expert. He received a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University and a master's degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He has presented at BYU's Education Week. Jonathan moonlights as a film critic, author, and actor. He lives in St. George, Utah with his wife and children.