Every week, Daniel Mallory Ortberg answers an additional question from readers, just for Slate Plus members.
Q. Forgiveness feels like a betrayal: A while ago, I found out that my husband had been unfaithful to me for years, having had a long-term affair with my closest friend. I was baffled and blindsided and spent months in therapy to deal with the devastation, shock, and fallout. After doing the hard, necessary work of processing all our issues and growing as individuals, we remained married and today our relationship feels stronger than ever. My problem is this: If I had found out that a friend’s partner had been unfaithful (especially in this way), I would have been the first to recommend divorce. I have always had a strict “no shenanigans” policy about these things, and value loyalty and honesty in all my relationships. People tend to see me as strong and principled, but here I am. I stayed. I broke my own rules and forgave him. And sometimes that feels like I betrayed myself in the process. I am not interested in forgiving her at all, only him—a ridiculous double standard, or just self-preservation? I don’t know. We have kids, and he’s a wonderful father; after putting in the effort to improve, he’s also (mostly) a wonderful partner. I love him. So why can’t I shake this strange mixed bag of guilt about forgiving him? I’ve always believed I deserve a loyal partner because I am loyal myself. Settling for this new script in my life story still feels incredibly wrong sometimes. Am I certifiable, or just overthinking it? I would truly appreciate some fresh perspective on this, please.
You are allowed to forgive your partner if that’s what you want. You are allowed to give him a second chance, and you are not required to think of your love for him as foolish or deluded. I can imagine that once you had decided (or realized) that you wanted to stay married, directing the majority of your anger at your former friend felt like the only option you had, finding the idea of living with your husband while being angry at him every day to be impossible to contemplate. You have not made an unprecedented choice; many people decide to stay with their partners after shocking discoveries of infidelity and are able to find real happiness. But you seem to be surprised at your own discomfort, and I don’t think you should be. Your husband didn’t just cheat once: He had an ongoing affair. It wasn’t with a stranger, it was with one of your closest friends, which means you were betrayed more than once, by multiple people, on various planes of intimacy. And he didn’t come clean about it to you, you found out about it.
Even though you’ve done “hard, necessary work” processing it together, and even after spending months discussing it in therapy, I don’t think you should be surprised that feelings of guilt, doubt, and bewilderment still arise in your relationship with him. He did something to you that you would never (and have never) done to him. Just because you have decided to forgive and stay in this relationship doesn’t mean the affair never happened, or that you ought to pretend it’s all in the past. It’s important to find ways to talk about the sudden, surprising ways resentment or pain or guilt or anger can bubble up with your husband, rather than either trying to squelch them out of existence or find ways to extract ongoing punishment from him.
You may also want to spend a little time in therapy or even in a journal processing your feelings about your former friend. It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time talking about your relationship with your husband because you decided to stay, but your residual feelings toward her are also important and deserve significant airtime, even if you don’t ever speak to her again.