Scrabble tiles that read "Please forgive me."

How To Find Forgiveness After Infidelity When You’re The One Who Strayed

Getting over an affair can be as difficult for the partner who cheated as it is for the one who was betrayed. And, whether you’re the one seeking or the one bestowing, forgiveness after infidelity is the coveted key to moving forward.

If you are guilty of straying from your marriage vows, you know you have done something that can’t be undone. Your spouse may know or may not know yet; but you will always know.

And you know that, if you want to save your marriage, the road ahead is going to be long and full of potholes.

Will your spouse ever be able to forgive you? Will you ever be able to forgive you? What has to happen for you to find forgiveness after infidelity?

The frightening prospect is that, no matter what you do in the name of remorse, you can’t guarantee forgiveness from the spouse you betrayed.

Your efforts will have to be genuine and not conditional on a desired outcome.

Best case scenario? Your marriage survives. Your spouse forgives you, albeit after a long, painful healing process and a ton of humility on your part.

Worst case scenario? You do everything in your power to prove your remorse and commitment to fidelity going forward, but your marriage still doesn’t survive. Your spouse simply isn’t capable of forgiving this transgression.

And yet, forgiveness after an affair isn’t a choice that belongs only to the betrayed spouse. It’s also a process — and a gift — that belongs to the one who strayed.

If you’re seeking forgiveness after infidelity — from your spouse and from yourself — here’s what you’ll have to do:

  • End the affair completely, and make sure your spouse knows.

    Healing and reconciliation can’t even begin unless and until you have completely cut off association with your affair partner. And we know that’s not always simple or easy, especially if the affair was long and emotionally vested.

  • Make a sincere apology…as often as necessary.

    You may have to apologize until you’re blue in the face, so get comfortable with expressing genuine, heartfelt, unsolicited remorse.

    Consider each apology to be a gift of repentance you are bestowing on your marriage.

    Listen for where your spouse is emotionally and what s/he needs in the moment, and acknowledge that cry with a compassionate apology.

    Your sincerity needs to deliver the message that “I hear how much you are hurting. And I am so deeply sorry for causing you this pain. I am committed to helping you and our marriage heal.”

  • Be open to dealing with your spouse’s pain and anger.

    Long before you start looking for forgiveness after infidelity, you will need to meet your spouse’s pain and anger head-on. And trust me, there will be a lot of it. And it won’t necessarily follow a linear or logical path.

    Be prepared for this to be painful work. You may be tempted to counter the anger with your own anger, blame, and criticism.

    But your job is to stay contained, to listen, to validate feelings, to support, to comfort. It’s also to seek to understand with your heart what your spouse has suffered.

    To borrow a line on love, you want to be so present that you taste the salt of your spouse’s tears.

  • Be an open book.

    When it comes to surviving infidelity, why do some couples make it and others don’t? One of the big reasons is that the spouse who has strayed is willing to be an open book to help the betrayed spouse heal.

    This is hard, hard, hard work, usually best accomplished with the help of a balanced, husband-wife therapy team.

    You will be asked questions you don’t want to answer. Questions that will make you squirm. Questions that will require deeply personal, intimate answers. Questions that will bring your guilt to the surface time and time again.

    But, just like your apologies, your willingness to be an open book to your spouse is essential to healing and rebuilding trust. And that doesn’t mean only when your spouse asks. It means offering your spouse the opportunity to ask questions and express feelings.

  • Be completely accountable to your marriage.

    The time it takes to blow up a bridge is nothing compared to the time it takes to rebuild it. And so it is with infidelity.

    The breach of trust in your marriage is not an easy repair. You will have to become so transparent that you’ll wonder if you’re even wearing clothes at times. Phones, computers, mail — your spouse will need to have carte blanche with all of it.

    You may believe in your own mind that you can be trusted, but your spouse doesn’t. Keep in mind that you have to repair your trust in yourself, especially if having an affair was out of character for you.

  • Work to understand your reasons for having an affair.

    Your spouse may not care what reasons you have for straying. But you still need to do the reflective work of examining how you came to make the choice to cheat.

  • Make an honest evaluation of your marriage.

    No matter what your marriage looked like before your affair, the responsibility for choosing infidelity as a way of “dealing” belongs with you. Not your spouse.

    However, responsibility for the condition and dynamics of your marriage belongs to both of you.

    If you are both committed to surviving your infidelity, you will have to balance working on your marriage with healing it. Again, this is an essential part of surviving infidelity that is usually best accomplished with the help of professionals.

  • Be willing to get help, both individually and as a couple.

    It takes a lot of humility to say, “I have a lot to learn. I can’t do this alone.” And it shows great commitment to willingly avail yourself to the therapeutic process, both on your own and as a couple.

    Often one partner embraces the idea of therapy, while the other digs in with resistance. This is no time to put on an “I don’t need help” persona. Your marriage needs all the help it can get to survive. And there are therapists and marriage retreats devoted to providing just that.

  • Learn and evolve from the experience.

    Nothing says, “I am fully committed to this marriage” like the demonstration of what you have learned and how you have changed.

    Expecting your spouse to just “get past it and move on” after you’ve apologized is both unrealistic and cruel. Unforgivable choices are rendered forgivable when the offender is deeply repentant and commits to the process of learning and growth.

  • Be willing to forgive yourself.

    Forgiveness after infidelity may seem like the sole work of the betrayed spouse. But often the person who has the most difficult time forgiving is the spouse who strayed.

    Surviving the guilt of infidelity can be as difficult as surviving the betrayal of infidelity. You may not believe you deserve a happy marriage. You may punish yourself or passively allow your spouse to continue punishing you. But doing so doesn’t serve the marriage you’re trying to save.

    Forgiveness is liberation for the one who forgives. It removes the shackles of shame and the constant weight of dark reminders and desire for retribution.

By following the guidelines above, you will be prepared to receive the grace of forgiveness.

And, while you can’t predict or guarantee forgiveness from your spouse, you can do the work that guarantees forgiveness from yourself.

Mary Ellen Goggin

Mary Ellen is a highly skilled and intuitive relationship guide. She brings over 35 years’ experience with individuals and businesses as a lawyer, mediator, personal coach and educator. She received her J.D. at University of New Hampshire Law School and a Master’s Degree at Harvard University. Mary Ellen co-authored Relationship Transformation: How to Have Your Cake and Eat It Too with Jerry Duberstein — and they were married by chapter 3. Mary Ellen brings a unique blend of problem-solving, practicality, and warmth to her work. She’s a highly analytic person, with geeky and monkish tendencies. She’s a daredevil skydiver, a voracious seeker of knowledge, and an indulgent grandmother. Her revolution: helping people become the unapologetic rulers of their inner + outer realms. Read more about the retreats