Forgiving an Affair that Occurred Decades Ago

coupleTwice in the last year, I have been asked by someone how to overcome the recent disclosure that their spouse had an affair many years ago. In one case, about 20 years ago. In another case, 30 years ago (yes, during the first Reagan Administration!).  I guess I was initially puzzled as what to advise.  So I throw this one out to my readers as well.

This was a hard question to answer.  The passage of time doesn’t make an affair less wrong or irrelevant, but how does one “heal” from something that occurred decades earlier?  How does one ask forgiveness for something that occurred a half a lifetime ago when you, your partner were much younger and likely different?  How does one “make amends” for something so long ago?  How does one restore a trust that was breached so long ago?  To me, the time factor made it really different.

In the 30 year case, she was putting her husband in a position where he can’t really explain why he did it, and really restore trust.  I told her simply:  You have to let it go.  You really should consider how your marriage has been SINCE that time. Have you been happy?  Are you connected? Do you have a happy, content marriage? Isn’t that what’s important?  I also told her that while they should discuss it openly as adults (and maybe with a counselor), that she would be foolish to push it too far because she could lose her marriage over it.  A marriage otherwise fine and solid for 30 years.  Over this.  Over a mistake in the deep, deep past.  Did she want to do that?

I never got a response on that part.  I guess I was too blunt, but blunt is my nature.  I don’t mean to be unkind, but I try to cut to the heart of the matter.  When people write me, I’m not trying to be their BFF. I’m answering the question as logically as I can with the information they give me and based on my experiences.  I don’t seek them out. They seek ME out.  I do the best I can for everyone that writes me.

Because she never responded to my followup message, I gave it more thought.  I don’t think I gave the wrong advice, but I have additional thoughts now:

1.  It’s still a hurt.  It’s still infidelity, even if it happened 20-30 years ago.  They just learned of it. To them, it’s ALMOST like it just happened.  Even though these infidelities were 20 and 30 years ago, they were a “blow” to the wives who recently found it.  It would be to anyone. I would never suggest otherwise.

2.  To respond as if it were an affair that was still going on, or recently happened, would be inappropriate.  It didn’t. It is different because of the passage of so much time.   I think it’s a mistake to respond to it in the same way you would if you found out they were currently having an affair.

3.  To the husbands, this is ancient history.  A lot of change since them in them and their lives. A lot of water under the bridge.  I’m nothing like I was in 1984. Are any of you?  I can’t even REMEMBER what it was like to be me back then and what the times were like.  So much has changed in my life.  Like them, I would struggle to even explain my thought processes back then.  It would be an unfair fight.  It would be like me defending a semi-stranger.  I hardly remember “1984 me”.  The husbands yes they were and are responsible for what they did. No doubt.  But how on earth does one explain it now??  It’s almost impossible. It’s frankly irrelevant.

4.  Unlike where infidelity just occurred, you don’t have to worry about the Other Woman/Other Man any longer (assuming that it never happened again. In these cases, it was claimed it had not).  They aren’t an issue. Current behavior is not an issue.  Technology is not an issue (there was no internet back then and cell phones really didn’t yet exist either).

5.  I did not and will not every tell someone they “must” forgive an infidelity. Ever. Even if it happened 30 years ago. That decision is up to them as it is to anyone who is betrayed.   I merely said, if your marriage has been solid and largely great since then,  why would you throw it away over something that happened so long ago? You CAN if you choose, but why WOULD you?  Nevertheless, if the marriage is to be saved, you must forgive. Otherwise, this ancient piece of history will undo your present.  Resentment is a cancer. If you cannot forgive and move past it, your marriage will likely collapse anyway.

6. The distance between the cheating and the disclosure didn’t mean that there shouldn’t be repercussions. The fall out from infidelity doesn’t lessen just because it isn’t discovered right away. Time doesn’t erase or excuse what happened. But a person’s behavior in a marriage over time says a lot about that person also. And the wife was probably going to have to weigh all of these concerns before she could make a decision. So to answer the question posed, a wife certainly can chose to forgive an affair – no matter when the affair happened. But whether she should or not is her own decision and this decision usually depends upon the husband’s track record as a husband, how the infidelity comes to light, and how much rehabilitation occurs.

7.  So to me, there’s something to be discussed here. Something to be forgiven.  But it’s a long, long time ago.  I think there is a danger of putting too much emphasis on it.  You have to think of yourselves as two different people then and now.  And you likely are.  Are you going to hold him responsible for actions he took when was in his 20s  now that he’s probably in his mid to late 50’s? Context to me is everything.  I did stupid stuff when I was younger too.  I would have no idea how to make amends for it now to people like my parents. Or friends. Or some previous GF.  It just doesn’t make any sense. Nor would I expect it from others who wronged me in my life back then.  Life is short. Sometimes you just gotta let stuff go.

Keep in mind that for him, the affair is ancient history. For you, however, it just happened, and you are re-evaluating your married life as if it contains false memories. It likely does not. Your husband valued his wife and marriage more than the transient thrill of an affair. It is natural for you to need some time to forgive him and let it go.  Get started on it before it undoes everything unnecessarily.  If you want your marriage, you must put down your ego and hurt feelings aside and give this betrayal it’s proper context.  You can divorce if you wish over it, but why would you?

The older I get, the more I realize how short life is. And how we must let a LOT of things go. That we waste so much of our lives and mental energy worrying about a lot of shit.  To me, to waste too much time on some ancient wrong would be a mistake. Let it go!!  Forgive! And go forward. I would!

Oh and to those of you who DID cheat many years ago and never again?  Don’t confess to it. There is no point. You are doing it merely to relieve your own guilt. Well that’s part of your punishment. You should be taking this secret to your graves.  You should have been doing all you can to make your spouse feel happy, safe and loved.  But don’t blurt this out 30 years later to relieve your own guilt, or worse, to try and hurt your spouse with this ancient information during a fight. It’s stupid.  You can cause a lot of unnecessary upset.

Readers?  And please, be civil and be fair, or I won’t allow the comments (which is a standing rule here).
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9 thoughts on “Forgiving an Affair that Occurred Decades Ago

  1. Well, first of all (and you knew I’d have something to say here, right?), you can’t assume the reasons why he confessed. It could be a little more noble than you think. If they’re getting on in years, maybe he just didn’t want them to go to their graves with this lie between them. Maybe they finally started communicating and growing intimate again after many years of just so-so, and he wanted to be completely open and honest about every aspect of his life – about who he really is. We all have an innate human desire to be that closely connected to someone else, and who better than your spouse? If my husband came to me after that many years and confessed something like that, I’d be more inclined to think he was doing it in some kind of attempt to be closer to me – even if it didn’t make me feel like being very close to him when I heard it. But, I think I’d try to work past the pain, and appreciate the spirit in which he did it. To confess a wrong you have done to someone is never wrong in and of itself. But you do have the obligation to hang around and explain yourself after. You can’t just blurt that out and expect instant forgiveness & understanding, and let’s move on and let everything be rosy – because after all, it’s in the past and I barely remember it anyway.

    I’d say definitely get some professional help with working through it. Because the pain and confusion is going to be just as real and difficult to deal with, no matter when it happened. And lastly, when you’re working through marital problems, everyone has to explain/answer for the damaging things they’ve done in the past. I have had to answer for the mistakes I made in my marriage 18-20 years ago, in the process of recovering from his affair and repairing our marriage. We both have. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time all that well either. But it was still me doing those things, and I still have to answer for them, even if the best I can do is say I’m sorry. That’s just how it works. I say sweep ALL of the bs out from under the carpet, deal with it, and move on, knowing there’s nothing else hiding under there that can hurt you. And that’s my take.

    • Yes, you prolific, if nothing else.

      As far as the two people I referred to. In neither case did they tell me exactly why their spouse confessed (or if they found out in some other way). I didn’t ask either. So I really don’t know how they came about this information, or if it was confessed, the reason for the confession. I have no idea.

      • Lol. What do you mean “if nothing else”?

        Anyway – in the 30 year case… You know that she’s questioning everything that transpired in their marriage, during the affair and since, and to be fair, she really can’t help it. He may have come to the decision that he loved his wife too much to leave or continue the affair, but it’s a decision he made on his own, without her input. And likely she’s feeling a little like he’s been “playing God” with her life all these years. It’s not a good feeling to know that you were hovering on the edge of a crisis, and you never knew it. Major life-altering decisions for myself and my family were being made completely behind my back, and I never knew it. I don’t think it’s too terribly different to find that out after 30 years than right away. And like I said, we all want to be that closely connected to another person. To feel like we know the real them & they know us, and still we love & accept, and are loved and accepted. That’s part of the illusion in an affair – as you well know. Everyone is looking for their “soulmate”, not realizing that you have to first be a soulmate to someone else. So if he confessed, that’s probably part of it, and it’s also probably part of why she feels so deeply betrayed. He’s not the person she knew and accepted, and loved anyway.

      • I didn’t say he confessed. She didn’t say how she found out.

        I go back to the original thing. Put it in it’s proper context. it’s a shock. But it’s THIRTY YEARS AGO!!

        You can stress out over this old news. You can even lose your marriage over it. And apparently according to her, a really good marriage. It’s up to the person. But to me, her email sounded like a vast over-reaction. Just my take on it.

  2. I think that’s pretty solid advice for the most part. I, too, wonder why dig up ancient history decades later. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point. But once the cat is out of the bag there does need to be a balance between feeling the hurt, dealing with the repercussions, and finding a way to move forward (or not).

    It is a fresh wound for the spouse that learns of the old affair years later, so I have a hard time saying that it should take less time for them to move on. At the same time, they have had years of their spouse’s behavior after the affair to see what kind of partner he or she can be. I agree that you would have to evaluate the whole of the marriage and the cheating spouse’s behavior to determine what is to be done (if anything) besides heal.

    I do disagree with a small point you made. “…you are re-evaluating your married life as if it contains false memories. It likely does not.” I don’t think that statement is true. Their married life likely did contain false memories. There is almost no way that an affair can occur without deceit and lies and a spouse who pretends that things are one way when they are really another. Maybe the affair was short, even a one-night stand, or maybe it went on for months or years. No matter the duration, there were likely some false memories, and maybe a lot. On the other hand, I certainly don’t think that means all of the time after was “false” except for the big secret of the affair hanging out in the background (which I agree likely didn’t affect the day to day marriage except for during and soon after the affair).

    The real question is how to deal with those feelings decades later. I think that varies from person to person, but again it most likely depends on the quality of the relationship in the time between the affair and now. A period of days, weeks, or months of lies decades ago might pale in comparison to all of the other good times spent since. In that case, the newer, more positive memories should be the focus.

    • I think what I was getting at is that the spouse might be wrong in assuming that ALL memories from that point on were false. I don’t mean just the memory of that time period. That to say, “well, it must ALL be a lie then!” is an emotional reaction that is likely untrue, and a dangerous mindset that could have someone’s thought processes spinning out of control and chuck away what has been a very good marriage based on something in ancient history. That’s what I’m getting at. People DO change. People DO learn from these things, even if the spouse never knew. I get letters from people all the time who never got caught and are doing all they can to save their marriages nevertheless. People carry these things. Its been my experience that most affairs are fairly short term (a few months or less) and are never disclosed, if I’m to believe my readers.

      Lots of people carry terrible secrets. Lots of people hide their past and maybe their current thoughts from their spouse.

      Do any of us tell our spouses everything we think? That we’ve lusted after someone else? That we cheated on some past BF/GF? That we might even be thinking of someone else sometime in bed? No of course we don’t. We all have a “secret garden.” Some sins are bigger than others, that’s all. But NONE of us have “clean hands.” Nobody is THAT honest. Everybody lies to one degree or another. Based on that, we need to give the lie a context. And view the liar with at least some compassion from our “Holier Than Thou” soapbox at times.

      I think that’s my point. There’s a context here. There’s an appropriate response.

  3. Sorry – you said in #6, “the distance between the cheating and the confession…”, and I’m sure that was why I assumed her husband had confessed. And I don’t necessarily agree with what you said later about not confessing. Secrets & lies have as much power to eat at & destroy a relationship as resentment. The only help for resentment is through understanding & empathy, and how do you get to that without honesty? But I agree, it is old news, and should be dealt with in the proper context of an otherwise healthy & happy relationship of long standing. That needs to be a major consideration in whatever she decides to do as well.

    • I should have said “Disclosure”. Again, in these two emails, I don’t recall how it happened. So I went ahead and edited that sentence.

      Yes, she (they) can do what she wishes. I never suggested otherwise. But I think sometimes we cut off our nose to spite our face. Making this a bigger deal than it should be, given the passage of time, could result in a divorce. Is this a divorceable action? Not to me. You CAN if you wish, but I think there is a proper context to be considered here. How has the marriage been these last 30 years? To me, that’s what is critical. I wouldn’t divorce my wife over such a disclosure. That to me would be silly. Immature. That would be my ego talking and talking too loud. I think I would be able to get past this pretty quickly. I’d be hurt too, but it wouldn’t be like this happened recently. Totally different circumstance to me. If I was the husband, and she bludgeoned me over this too long or too harshly, I’d be tempted to walk.

      Anyway, enough debate. I don’t want to distract from the message. I’d like to hear from other people (who can be civil).

  4. I disagree. There are some things that happened so long ago that they serve no purpose in disclosure merely to relieve oneself of guilt. The time to have disclosed was near the time it happened. I think the 30 year old case is a prime example. This thing that’s ancient history is recently exposed, and this woman’s world is now thrown into chaos, despite apparently a good marriage ever since. I don’t see the point so many years later. The time to have confessed was during the Reagan Administration.

    And I agree about being the perpetual “affair bitch”. It always astonishes me why some refuse to separate but think the path to forgiveness and reconciliation is to pound and pummel their spouse’s indefinitely.

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