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Can Forgiveness Save Tiger Woods?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

How do you save a relationship after countless betrayals? Can trust ever return? Should you forgive when forgiveness may simply encourage further bad behaviour?

These may well be some of the many questions that Elin Nordegren, the long-suffering wife of Tiger Woods, is contemplating having discovered her husband's multiple infidelities, and watched his squeaky clean image collapse under the weight of further disclosures.

Yet, as Tiger Woods knows - judging from his recent website announcement - forgiveness is the only thing that will save his marriage, as well as a realisation on Nordegren's part that monogamy for some is an almost impossible ideal - not least when worldly temptations are so tantalizing plenty, or the compulsion for sex greater than the knowledge that what you are doing is wrong.

And yet the word 'wrong' may be part of the problem here.

The reality is that love is only half a step away from hate, and once someone has been hurt in a relationship they will probably do everything in their power to get even. I have witnessed many errant spouses punished so heavily and relentlessly by their deceived partners that it is these vengeful impulses which in the end destroy the marriage more than the infidelity itself. The hurt feelings of the betrayed are usually so all-consuming that any stab at empathy is lost even when the accused does everything in his/her power to make amends.

The ancient Sufi poet Rumi once wrote:

'Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I'll meet you there'.

If Tiger Woods and his wife could only meet in that field out beyond wrong-doing - away from the gaze of the press and the verdict of mob morality - there might be some hope for reconciliation. But is there any chance of privacy for a man whose public persona was created almost from the moment he could walk and who may even be persuaded by his image builders to make a public confession on The Oprah Winfrey Show?

Just the other day Woods announced on his website:

"I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness".

These words are presumably aimed at his wife as much as his fans and the hard truth is that Elin Nordegren does need to forgive him if she wants their marriage to survive. Forgiveness in this sense is perhaps best seen as a struggle for understanding.

I don't want to minimize the hurt that betrayal causes, the chasm of pain that you fall into, the shattering of a world that once seemed so safe and secure. Yet, anyone who has lived a few decades will know that life is full of unwelcome surprises, very little remains the same, people are often unpredictable.

In my experience of working for six years in the field of forgiveness and reconciliation, as founder and director of The Forgiveness Project, I have noticed how those who find it difficult to forgive tend to see life as black and white. They build their principles around them like a shield and if crossed find no room for clemency. Those who find it easier to forgive tend to see life as a murky grey, believe rules are bound to be broken, and possess an innate understanding that good people do bad things and bad things happen to good people.

According to consultant psychotherapist and teacher of conflict resolution, Ben Fuchs:

"We grow up with the myths about life: of romance, dreams of how relationships should be but...reality is very different, bringing a betrayal of the myth."

He states that forgiveness and healing can only come when we cease to react to the events, and reconcile with the betrayal - though not always with the person who has hurt us. According to Fuchs, although there are no formulae for letting go, there are several understandings which help the process. These include a willingness to understand our betrayers by exploring those parts of our ourselves which are also capable of betrayal.

Fuchs concludes,

"Letting go can be very unattractive because it means giving up a hard-won sense of power, including the power of being morally superior. It means giving up a feeling of control, giving up what has perhaps been a survival pattern. ..It also means giving up the moral high ground that comes from identifying myself as the person betrayed and you as the betrayer. It means giving up the payoffs that go with being in the victim position."

Ultimately if we look at betrayal from an archetypal perspective, as a rite of passage into understanding that we don't live in a perfect world, then it can be our teacher. But it may be far too early - and appear far too glib - to say to Erin Nordegren now that part of the inner work of forgiveness is recognising that the person who has betrayed you may be expressing their deep pain and that to work with them through this is the only way to heal a broken relationship.