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Forgiving after a betrayal

Part of a series of short Bodhisattva's Breakfast Corner talks on the topic of trust.

  • When we’ve been betrayed it’s very easy to create an identification out of it
  • Forgiveness is not saying what the other person did is okay, it is letting go of our negative emotions

After betrayal (download)

As we continue to talk about trust, I got an email from another person, who said,

If I were in a marriage or a committed relationship, and my partner had an affair, in time, I would be able to forgive the person due to mind-training practices, but I would not personally want to continue that relationship. My question is, once trust is betrayed, can it be restored to its original form? Maybe that’s possible for bodhisattvas and buddhas, but what about us ordinary beings? We can forgive, but we’ll never forget, and so that relationship has radically changed.

True, isn’t it?

This talk is meant more for the side of the person whose trust has been betrayed. We’ve all been on that side of this whole situation too, where we feel quite hurt and angry, we might have some ill will towards the other person, we might have a lot of resentment. It may have triggered other similar memories of other times in the past where we felt our trust was betrayed, and so a whole lot of stuff from the past may all of a sudden come rising up and land on top of our head, in addition to what’s coming up with this situation, and often we can’t tell the difference. It’s all just one big emotional mess inside of us.


In that kind of situation, I think forgiveness is really the antidote that we need. We experience pain and resentment and anger and ill will, maybe even the wish for revenge, but the thing is, the more we hold on to those feelings, the more unhappy we’re going to be. So whether you decide to stay together, whether the couple splits up, still, releasing those negative emotions is beneficial, isn’t it? The more you sit and hang on to them, and get to the point where you make an identity of, “I’m the person who was betrayed by so-and-so,” and then your whole life you spend telling people about how that person betrayed your trust, and that becomes your story, that becomes the way you look at yourself, the way you look at your life, then you become really really stuck, don’t you? You’re stuck in hurt, stuck in anger, stuck in an identity that’s about something that’s in the past that’s not happening now.

Forgiveness is not forgetting

I think forgiveness—what I define as forgiveness is releasing those negative emotions—doesn’t mean you forget the situation. You release those negative emotions, so that when you approach life, you can approach it freshly, without dragging that whole backpack of bricks along with you, of, “He did this to me, and before they did that, and before they did that, and the whole world….” You know how we are. We can really ham it up. That’s exactly what happens, and who wants to live their whole life like that? It’s torture to ourselves. The other person did what they did one time that broke our trust, but we remind ourselves everyday that they did that. We do it to ourselves everyday. They did it once, we remember it everyday, we reinforce it, we do it to ourselves.

Antidotes to anger

I think the regular antidotes to anger are something really good to apply here. To be able to look at the other person and see that yes, I trusted them, maybe I gave them more trust in a particular area than they could bear. Maybe that was a misjudgment on my part, that I didn’t see them so clearly, so I trusted them in an area that maybe they weren’t able to bear that trust. Or, it could be that maybe they were able to bear that trust in general, but they’re imperfect human beings, so of course they’re going to crash. It may have been a reasonable expectation of somebody to behave in a certain way, but it’s unreasonable for us to expect someone to always do whatever we want. People are imperfect and they make mistakes. By seeing this, it can help us replace the anger, and that unrealistic expectation of a perfect person, with a more nuanced perspective that also is based on compassion. Like, “Here’s a suffering sentient being, who promised to do this, and his or her afflictions completely overwhelmed them, they got taken away by their attachment, by their anger, just like I too sometimes get taken away by attachment and anger.” To have compassion for someone whose mind sometimes is uncontrolled.

That doesn’t mean we say that what they did is okay. We have to be very clear, like what they did was not okay, but we don’t have to hate them and hold a grudge for it, we can have some compassion for them. Then of course we have to decide, to what extent we’re going to trust them in what areas in the future. Now we have more information about this person, can we trust them in the same area where we trusted them before? Maybe before we trusted them here, now we have to lower it a little bit. Or maybe we see that through their making purification and changing themselves, maybe we see, no, they are worthy of the same kind of trust before. It may take you some time to assess that, because the other person is now saying, like in this one, “I’m so terribly sorry, and I really hurt you, and I’m not going to do it again.” The wife is saying, “Well, you said that before. How do I know this time that you’re really going to do it?” Well, the only way she’s going to know is over time, and there’s no way to rush that process. It just has to be time spent together to build the trust back up, and then to decide, to what level you trust that person.

How we trust people

We trust people in different areas of our life too. There’s some areas where it’s more important to us to trust people, and other areas where it’s less important to trust people. If you’re married to somebody, probably an area where you want to trust them more is in terms of being faithful. You don’t need to trust them so much in terms of, “Can they fly a jet plane?” unless they’re a pilot and you’re planning to go up with them. Then you want to trust them in that area. There’s going to be different areas in somebody’s life. You don’t have to trust them in every area to maintain the relationship, but you have to be able to trust them in the areas that are really important to you. That trust takes time to build up again.


I think in these kinds of situations, for the person whose trust has been betrayed, it’s very tempting to just blame the other person, and even do a whole big guilt trip on them, like, “You betrayed this, you’re so awful, you owe me something, I want blood in repayment for what you’ve done to me!” In one of the relationships I told you—a few people are writing me about this problem—it seems that the betrayed partner, they’re holding it over their spouse and wanting something back, and that kind of behavior is only going to ruin the relationship. As soon as you want blood, and you’re expecting them to do something incredible to show how repentant they are, and you’re demanding it, and you’re not going to be satisfied until you get it, then that’s putting so much pressure on the other person that they’re probably going to turn away from you. Even if they try and please you, it’s never going to be good enough.

I think in these kinds of situations, the chief thing you have to do is heal yourself, and learn to recover from your own hurt, learn to recover from and release your own anger. Then as you do that, and your mind gets clear and your mind gets more balanced, then I think you’re going to see, “Do I want to remain in a marriage, in a relationship with this person or not?” Whereas if you approach it the other way, of “I’ve gotta figure out right now, whether I want to stay with them or not,” it might be more difficult because your mind is so like this, because there are so many strong afflicted emotions going on.

Releasing the hurt

Like I said, this takes some time, but the chief work is to use the Dharma practice on yourself, and to release the hurt, release the anger, generate some compassion and some empathy for yourself, and also for the other sentient being. Realize we are all stuck in samsara together, which is precisely why we want to practice the Dharma, so we can all get out! Until we get out, this same whole process is going to keep going on and on and on and on in future lives. As long as we’re in samsara as individuals with afflictions, we’re either going to betray others’ trust, or they’re going to betray our trust. There’s no way around it. It’s a given in samsara. To really use that to strengthen our renunciation of samsara, and strengthen our Bodhicitta, so that we want to become a Buddha to help others get out of samsara as well.

Response to audience comments

Audience: I’ve been thinking about the people I know who’ve been married for a long, long time, and I can’t think of a single marriage that hasn’t dealt with this in one way or another. And there’s also some point when this person says, “Even if I can forgive them I wouldn’t want a relationship with them.” I think there’s also something that comes in that moment where you evaluate, what is this worth to me? What about the investment of time, what about everything that we have? I think that also comes in with our trust. We have 20 years where there’s a certain amount of knowledge that says that this person is reliable up to this point, this is an aberration; or for the last 20 years, this person has been doing this many times. You can’t just say, even though I can forgive them, I wouldn’t be in a relationship with them. There are many more factors than that.

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): What she’s saying is, you hardly know any marriages where people haven’t dealt with this kind of issue in one way or another. That when this happens, there’s many many factors to consider, not just this one incident, but what’s been the general flavor and practice of the marriage. For example, have they been faithful for twenty years, and this is an aberration, or has there been something each year, where they’ve been going off, and this is just part of the whole pattern. That kind of thing is going to definitely influence in what way you want to continue the relationship. One thing that’s very interesting is that, although we talk of ending relationships, you never actually end any relationship, because we always exist in relationship to everybody, don’t we? When we say, end a relationship, what we really mean is, we’re changing it from, let’s say, a marriage relationship, to an ex-relationship, or something like that, but you still have to create a new relationship with the person, because we’re always in relationship to every single sentient being. You never end any relationship.

There’s going to be lots of things that come into mind when you’re deciding what kind of relationship you want to have with this person in the future. It could be that you’ve invested a lot of time and energy and this was one aberration, they seem repentant enough, you’re happy to go on. There could be financial concerns, there could be children involved, there could be so many other things. Each person is going to look at this kind of thing and make a different decision about, do they want to stay in the marriage, what kind of relationship do they want to have with this person in the future? Even if you break up as a married couple, you still have to relate to each other. You have property in common, maybe you have kids in common, so there’s still some relationship. You still have to learn to talk decently to each other. You still have to let go of your anger and resentment and your hurt. Breaking up the relationship doesn’t mean you end your bad feelings. You really have to see what you want to do, and everybody’s going to come to a very different conclusion about this. People are really, really different. What one person says is acceptable, another person would say is unacceptable, so there’s no cookie cutter pattern for any of this.

Audience: Maybe it’s also in relationship to how it influences our behavior towards others, like if you are not able to deal with the situation and we put it out to others, in our relationships with our colleagues, friends, whatever. Then maybe if we can’t solve the problem in our relationship, if we are not able to change, if we are not able to accept and forgive, in my sense maybe then it’s a good step to part. To find peace within yourself, so that you will not influence others with your emotions and your afflictions.

VTC: You’re saying that if you have a lot of strong negative emotions in response to what happened, that it can be good to separate, at least for some time, to work on yourself, so that the person you have all these emotions towards isn’t in your face every single day. To separate out, take a little bit of time away. Come on retreat! So you can spend that time working on yourself, instead of having things triggered constantly.

Being a “good Buddhist”

Audience: I was just thinking, your response is really fantastic. I was just imagining someone who might think, well, “I’m a Buddhist, I should get back in the saddle and I’ll work hard and I’ll forgive this person, but actually, I don’t really want to, but I should. In the whole name of being a good Buddhist, I should embrace this relationship again in the same way, but this new information has really made [inaudible].

VTC: You’re saying, somebody may have the idea, if I’m a good Buddhist, I should stay in the relationship and work it out. I don’t see the logic in that. Somebody could think that, but there’s nothing saying that if you are a Buddhist, you have to stay in a bad relationship. There’s nothing that says that. Somebody could think that, but then they need to step back, and they need to look at the relationship to start with. Is it basically a good relationship and it’s had this bomb, or is it a relationship that’s never really been a very good relationship, in which case it would be better to separate. There shouldn’t be any of this thing of, “If I’m a good Buddhist, I should do XYZ.” There’s no reason to put that on top of your head. “If I were a good Buddhist, I should do XYZ in the external situation….” Buddhism is not about what you do in a situation, it’s about what you do in your own mind. You could say, “If I’m a good Buddhist, I should work on myself and pacify my own mind,” but in terms of what you should do with the other person, you’re going to make your own decision according to what conclusions you come to as you work on your own mind.

Expectations and fault-finding

Another thing to look at in this kind of situation too, for the person who feels betrayed, the temptation when you feel betrayed is, it’s always the other person’s fault. We had a promise, I’m doing everything right; they broke the promise and they’re wrong. I think it might be good to consider, too, that if one spouse is wandering from the relationship, that maybe the relationship had been getting neglected. It can very easily happen when you’ve been married to somebody for a while, especially if you have kids, that you begin to neglect the other partner because there’s so many other things going on in your life. Very often, a couple’s very close when they first get married, and then when the kids come, they get so involved with the kids, because you have to be on duty 25/8 with kids! You don’t have any time for your spouse anymore, so it’s very easy for people to grow apart in those years of raising kids. First of all, when you’re raising the kids, to say, “My relationship with my spouse is very important, so I need to take care of that, and not just give all the attention to the children.” If you see that you’re giving too much to the children, to remind yourself, actually, what I think is more important for kids, is for them to know their parents care about each other. Even if the parents don’t spend quite as much time individually with the children, the children will feel very secure if they know that the parents care about each other.

It might be that a couple has been married and they don’t have kids, so they don’t have that distraction, but maybe something else has come up, and their energy has been going in another direction—one spouse has been focusing on this, one spouse has been focusing on that. Somehow they haven’t realized that they’ve been not coming together and sharing their ideas and their thoughts and their lives together as much as they could be. It could be a time when this happens that you realize, “Actually, we had grown apart a little bit without realizing it, so now’s the opportunity to try and renew the relationship, but in a better way than it was before.

The thing is, you can never go back to the way the relationship was before, but I don’t know that people want to go back to the way it was before. Usually, if something’s happened, something wasn’t satisfactory in the way it was before. If you decide to come back together, then you want to really spend some time and get to know each other again, and do things together that you haven’t done before, talk about things you haven’t talked about before. Really spend time working on the relationship, instead of thinking, “We’ll patch up this thing and then we’ll just go back to the way it was.” That’s not going to work. It’s not going to be satisfactory for either of the parties.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.