The Stages Of Forgiveness: A Four-Step Model
by Tony Wildey MA, MFT
Forgiveness does not happen in a vacuum, and it is not a natural occurrence in a relationship, especially when the offender has done something truly heinous. Adultery is a perfect example wherein forgiveness is far from natural and is instead difficult. To some, the process of forgiving may seem completely unnatural. For instance, it is not natural for someone to admit their wrongdoing without adding their reasoning for their actions as a way of justifying what they have done. We human beings don't want to admit when we are wrong and want to point the finger at someone we consider worse than us and say, "at least I'm not as bad as him!" In a marriage, when one partner of the couple has committed adultery, he or she must take the full blame for adultery, whether or not they believe there were any extenuating circumstances. For instance, if you say, "Well, I had an affair because we were going through some difficult times and I needed someone who understood me", then your wife or husband whichever the case may be would be justified in saying, "then what happens next time you feel we are going through some difficult times?"
In all actuality, forgiveness is not natural! We just don't feel like letting someone who has hurt us off the hook, at least not easily. What follows is a four-step model which has been massaged and readdressed by many an author but which is the culmination and conglomeration of several of them. I just happen to think it is the best.
The first step in beginning the process of forgiveness is to identify the wrongdoing focus the blame on the person who is the perpetrator of that wrongdoing, and then express and identify how the wrongdoing has caused the victim to feel. For the victim to forgive the perpetrator, the person who would forgive must truly believe that the person who is inflicted their pain understands their wrongdoing, and truly understands how what they did made the victim feel. The victim needs to understand their partner knows how badly they are hurt and must not offer any partial excuses otherwise, there will be a nagging question residing in their mind, "What will keep them from doing it again?" So blame must be placed and accepted by the perpetrator so that the victim can truly believe that they feel bad about what happened and will not let it happen again.
Step two involves the victim being allowed to hate. The opposite of love is not hate, it is disinterest or indifference. So, if a person is hurt by another through adultery, hating that person for hurting them is natural. It is like throwing your arm up in the way if someone tries to hit you. It is a reaction to the hurt. It is okay to hate, it is okay to feel anger, but it is just not okay to let that hate consume you or to willfully remain in a state of perpetual hatred.
You must be allowed to feel your pain and place the blame justifiably on the perpetrator of that injustice so that you can rectify that injustice in your mind through the process of forgiveness. That process involves this simple second step which is often overlooked or even discouraged by those well-meaning friends and family around the victim.
So allow yourself to temporarily despise the wrongdoing and even the wrongdoer. You cannot be apathetic to this injustice or try to bury your feelings and expect to reach forgiveness.
Step three involves several ideas which must be considered and acted on to move forward with the forgiveness process. You must decide to let go of the hate in your mind and heart and allow peace to enter into your mind as you let it go. This process is not easy and is something that may only happen through the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. You cannot remain in victimhood or live out your life in resentment and anger. So, cancel the debt, let it go, and move forward into action.
If you are a Christian, you need to let God be God and not fall into the temptation of being the one who brings justice. Let God bring justice and you just decide whether or not you want to rebuild your trust or move on. This choice is up to you. If your spouse is the perpetrator of the crime (adultery) and you believe he/she is sincere in their desire to change, then I would respectfully request you remember what you have been forgiven through the power of Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
The last step in the forgiveness process requires time and effort. Again, if this involves adultery or some other betrayal by a loved one, you must reestablish trust to move forward. Trust is something that takes time to rebuild and the perpetrator is responsible for that process. He/she cannot hope to circumvent that process through apologies and manipulation. That person will need to do whatever it takes to cause their spouse, friend, or other victims to believe in them again. Rebuilding trust cannot be rushed, coerced, or manipulated. It just grows over time when the person earning that trust consistently shows themselves as being reliable. As trust is earned faith can be restored and the trust earned helps move that process forward.
The last word on this process is that when a person who has wronged you decides to make amends, reestablish the relationship, and move forward, you cannot keep bringing up their mistake as if it is a sword you can wield to cut them off emotionally any time you argue in the future. Forgiveness does not require forgetfulness, but it does require that the person who is forgiven not living with the crime hanging over their head the rest of their lives. Once you forgive that person, you must put their wrongdoing away. That is forgiveness... to let wrongdoing go and move on.
You may find this process impossible without God, and even then you may find it to be a difficult one. I encourage you to seek out His help through prayer and enlist the help of the author of forgiveness.
About the author
Tony Wildey MA, MFT is the author of several articles on marriage and the family. He is the founder of Hope4Family and Hope4Family.com and is a marriage and family therapist specializing in couples therapy in Reno Nevada. Through God’s direction Tony has helped several couples to complete the four steps to forgiveness and move on to a successful married relationship.