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Do You Have to Forgive a Cheater?

Betrayed people get caught up a lot on the notion of forgiveness. Taking the high road. Turning the other cheek. Being the bigger person. Let’s face it, after you’ve been cheated on — it’s all a big shit sandwich.

Generally, you only have to eat that particular “I forgive you” shit sandwich if you reconcile with your cheater, and those people tend not to be the readers of Chump Lady.

The rest of us wonder post-infidelity — how do I let go? And if I let go, does that mean I am some how condoning what the cheater did? Did I let them get away with it? Even if I get my happily ever after, does the cheater get to feel smug in the knowledge that what they did to me, to my kids, to my family — Wasn’t That Bad? 

If I don’t forgive them, does that mean I’m still hung up on them? Will I be an object of ridicule — one of those pathetic souls who prattles on incessantly to their dates about their evil ex? Does not forgiving make me a bad Christian, Jew, Zoroastrian? Would it be better for my children if I forgave their other parent?

Chump Lady has chewed on the forgiveness conundrum and concluded:

1. It is perfectly okay not to forgive. I think you can move on with your life, not let the injustice consume you, and still not forgive a cheater. A reason for not forgiving is maintaining vigilance. Cheaters dupe you so completely, you may not trust yourself being around them — to not get sucked back into their alternative reality of lies and spin. Remembering — oh that’s right, I remember what you did to me and I don’t FORGIVE you for it — can be a way to feel safe. Shields up!

Generally forgiveness requires some participation from the offending party in acknowledging that they harmed you. Most of us never get this, and those that do are often not that impressed. A thin veneer of “sorry” cannot shellac that shit.  Why should you hold yourself to the higher plane of forgiveness in the absence of remorse? Like the song above says, God may forgive you, but I don’t.

2. If you’re capable of forgiving, it might only possible from a great distance. If you can find it within yourself to not harbor ill will toward the cheater, I think that can only be achieved with a lot of time and distance from the infidelity. Eventually your new life crowds out your old life and the pain fades, and your new life improves, and it gets harder to work yourself into much of a lather about what the cheater did, or is still doing. I think it is much harder (if not impossible) to achieve a blissful state of “meh” if you have to live with or still interact with the cheater. That means at some level you’re still invested and vulnerable. Scabbed over wounds can break open. But if the person is a non-entity, I think it’s easier to reach that higher plane of forgiveness. I’m several years out, forgiving my ex would be like forgiving my horrible 9th grade algebra teacher. Algebra doesn’t have a lot of relevance in my life right now…  so consider yourself forgiven, Mr. Cieliski.

3. Consider redefining forgiveness. Maybe it’s enough that you didn’t kill them. Maybe indifference is the best you can do and that IS forgiveness. I like this take on forgiveness from Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.

However, when I talk of forgiveness I mean the belief that you can come out the other side a better person. A better person than the one being consumed by anger and hatred. Remaining in that state locks you in a state of victimhood, making you almost dependent on the perpetrator. If you can find it in yourself to forgive then you are no longer chained to the perpetrator. You can move on, and you can even help the perpetrator to become a better person too.

But the process of forgiveness also requires acknowledgement on the part of the perpetrator that they have committed an offence.

Whether or not the cheater acknowledges the offense, by all means UNCHAIN yourself from victimhood. I like how Archbishop Tutu includes righteous hate and anger with forgiveness. That is the shadow side of love — you feel the injustice deeply because you loved deeply. But you do not have to let the pain consume you, and letting it go is for you. It is self interest AND forgiveness. I like that. I don’t hold out a lot of hope that letting go will make the cheater a “better person.” But who knows, maybe it will.



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  • For me , the key to getting past this has been seperating myself as completely as possible(we have kids together , so there is some interaction). I talk only about the logistics of co-parenting, paying med bills, getting the kids to practice etc.
    Once the kids are grown, I imagine my anger will dissipate even more. Even now, I , mainly , feel pity and some contempt, but that is about it.
    Another key is realizing that I was trying to understand my XW using my value system, my sense of fair paly etc. Once I accepted that this person , simply, operates by a completely different set of values and that she was beyond my comprehension in terms of how she operates, I was less frustrated.
    I mean, how could I really expect any remorse from someone who , rally9no lie), sees nothinfg wrong with lying and cheating? It is a way of life for my XW, as natural as breathing.
    I still am working on figuring out why I failed to discern this before marriage.

    • I think it’s huge to understand that they don’t see the world from your value system. Thinking that way gets us tripped up all the time. It’s a big blind spot.

    • Arnold- I completely understand your comment. I can safely say in a non-spiteful sense with my hand on a stack of bibles…..that I do not know my ex. She shut down from me years ago…put walls up and shared nothing of her soul with me. And we lived separate lives under the same roof. Shame on me for tolerating that. Then her secret world of cheating started. All that clearly showed 1) she didn’t get (appreciate)me and 2) huge point she did not share the same value system. Another thing I say and feel is that I am a widow. They say divorce is a death. The gal that I once knew is long gone….dead….maybe she buried deep in this new 4.0 lady….but I couldn’t find her. I know that I changed too….but having my self dignity is real nice. No way I let her back into my life in a meaningful way.

  • Steve: I had a similar experience in dealing with my ex, then realized that she had NEVER been the person I’d supposed. It was a facade, which I’d assisted with plenty of spackle. My shrink told me that serial cheating often arises from issues in childhood or early adulthood, and it was unlikely that my 40-something ex-wife was ever much different during the entire 22 years of our marriage. All that really changed was my ability to see the facade for what it was. What I never really learned? Who she really was/is. Three years later now and I couldn’t care less. Also, I suspect there’s not good answer about that. So it’s fitting that, upon marrying her last affair partner, they moved to Oakland, that place about which Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.”

  • I feel the same way, my XW was never, ever who she appeared to me to be. My X’s sister came to me after I had been married to her sister for 11 years. She , basically, implored me to divorce my wife, after observing all the abuse. She told me ” Arnold, when you walked down the aisle with my sister, I turned to my husband and said “””” I hope this poor guy knows what he is getting into””””.
    Well, I did not, as the mask only came off after marriage. But, in retrospect, I had glimpses and with what I now know about PD’s, I would run.
    Serial infidelity is just so common in the disordered. I would say that it is fairly diagnostic of a disorder.

  • Yeah, mine was wearing a mask for years as well. Ho hum. Old news at this point. Interesting, in a sick sort of way, to see who he really was/is underneath that mask: a nasty, cold, mean-spirited person who blames everyone but himself for his problems.

  • According to Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of The English Language, the word “forgive” comes from the following sources—
    Saxon–forgivan. Gothic–fragiban. German–vergeben.Netherlands–vergeeven. Danish–forgiver.

    The sense is to give from, that is, away, as we see by the Gothic fra, from. The term in Latin would be remitto. So the meaning of forgive is to pardon or overlook as an offense or a debt, and treat the offender as not guilty. The original and proper phrase is to forgive the offense, to send it away, to reject it, that is, not to impute it to the offender. But by an easy transition we also use the phrase to forgive the offending person.

    I don’t forgive a cheater in this original sense. I don’t “overlook [it] as an offense” or “treat the offender as not guilty.” But in the sense of “send it away? Hell-to-the-yes.

  • Aren’t there any nice, neat sounding quotes extolling the virtues of holding a grudge?
    I mean , can’t we find some well respected historical figure or great thinker or philanthropist who said something like”the greatest gift one can give to oneself, is retribution. It frees one’s soul” or ” He who seeks revenge should, seeks truth”.
    What i mean is , does the fact that their are some nice cliche/phrases about the benefits of forgiving, necessarily mean that they are true?
    How about “he who forgives ,eats a shit sandwich”? If we promote this enough, and start putting it on T-Shirts or writing books about the benefits of revenge etc. would it catch on?

  • “He who forgives, eats a shit sandwich.” Funny that there were times with my serial cheating ex-husband rocky that an image of a sandwich the top pulled up revealing a thick mass of black rotted filling. I’d push the image away and try not to think about what it meant. Later, when all the cheating came out and I was raging at him, he said this image was not far from the truth.
    After he left, I had a dream where I was awoken by a loud noise downstairs. I discovered two men who had defused a large bomb that was hidden under our house. They said if they hadn’t discovered it, the entire house would have blown up destroying everything. In the dream, my husband came down with a shit-eating grin on his face and shrugged and giggled bizarrely in a way that told me I knew he had hidden the bomb.
    Shit sandwich is right.

  • Forgiveness does not’s not humanly possible to’s best not to tie up ourselves in knots over this non existent”virtue”.

    For me “forgiveness” is filling up my life with wonderful things because of which I don’t think of the cheater for 23 hours 59 minutes and 30 seconds of the day and in the 30 seconds that he does cross my mind I give him a hard kick in his balls and then go my merry way.

    It puts a smile on my face and a spring in my step.

    I am sure I hear a loud “OUCHH”.

    • I agree. I am going with my new favorite: To forget is to forgive!
      I intend to forget 30 years of knowing her (married 28).

  • If you read DT’s statement, he contradicts himself. It says that forgiveness DOESN’T exclude hatred. Then, he says to let go of the hatred to achieve a state of forgiveness? Which is it? Maybe its semantics, but I totally believe that one can move on with their lives and still not forgive their husbands for what they did. Forgiveness implies condoning and I absolutely will never condone, approve, capitulate… to what he did to me and our family!

    I want to hurl when I hear people say that forgiveness is for YOU. Really? Fine, let’s just add to the mindfuck of reasons that I’m a sorry excuse for a human being. I don’t have the capacity to forgive fucktard, even for MYSELF! wtf?

    I don’t forgive him— for myself and if that makes me a hardened bitch in the eyes, of others… so be it.

    • I have a rule; I only forgive people who ask to be forgiven. And they have to be able to tell my what exactly they’ve done that was wrong, what was wrong about it, what damage it caused, and what they are doing or intend to do to fix it, and to avoid ever doing anything like it again.

      Let go, accept, move on, sure, because those are for me. Forgiveness is for the other person. My ex has said some short and pathetic version of ‘sorry’ to me and the kids a few times, but he can’t even tell you what he is sorry about, or, when we’ve insisted on knowing what he’s referring to, it’s some vague thing like ‘I’m sorry you were hurt by what happened’ (to my daughter). Yeah, whatever.

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