“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” – Paul Boese
Forgiveness is vital in relationships but it can be difficult to achieve, especially if you feel you’ve been wronged by your partner. Every relationship faces difficult hardships; some have bitter disagreements over family or money, while others try to heal after an act of infidelity.
Ultimately, it is our ability, or inability, to forgive that makes or breaks our relationships. Robert Muller, a former United Nation employee, famously said, “To forgive is the highest, most beautiful form of love. In return, you will receive untold peace and happiness.” This peace that Muller describes is the inner peace one feels when they truly forgive and let go of a transgression that otherwise may have eaten them up inside.
So what is forgiveness, and how does one achieve it?
Brandt Hansen, author and host of a national Christian radio show, explains in a Ted Talk his belief … forgiveness starts when we stop to question our anger and our perspective.
Hansen explains that anger should be examined from within. Ask yourself:
– Why am I so angry?
– Why am I so confident in my own side and perspective?
– Who’s to say if I’m truly in ‘the right?’
People only experience their own side of a transgression, and often they automatically feel they are the victim of a negative situation. But what does the other person think or feel? Probably that they’re also the victim, that their side is right.
Glenn Barron, a Marriage and Family Therapist and Mental Health Counselor Intern at Family and Child Development, explains that forgiveness cannot be achieved without empathy. It begins by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and considering that you may have done the same thing, or perhaps something worse, in a similar position. Having empathy for the transgressor will help alleviate your anger. But Barron warns this isn’t always an easy thing to do.
Barron explains that, humans tend to crave justice when they feel they’ve been wronged. They hope the offender will suffer for his/her wrongdoing. People may even reprimand the offender themselves, especially if it’s their partner, who they love and trust, but who they feel has betrayed them.
“People hold onto anger because they think if they forgive, then the offender is going to think what they did is ‘okay.’ That the action is somehow being excused. We all want justice, we want things to be fair and right. We want retribution, to see the offender suffer some consequence. We decide that maybe they don’t deserve forgiveness, so we want to withhold it from them until they’ve suffered enough. In the meantime, we are hurting ourselves by withholding forgiveness,” says Barron.
Barron explains that staying in a state of anger is not only emotionally draining, but physically harmful. Fixating on your partner’s transgression, holding onto anger and refusing forgiveness, keeps your body in a state of “fight or flight.” In this state, our immune systems are weakened, and we are more physically exhausted and susceptible to illness. So forgiveness is not only crucial to your relationship’s success, but it’s crucial to your physical health as well.
Barron counsels couples in a variety of situations – couples who deal with opposing views, who struggle with drug use, and who have committed infidelity. He admits that not all relationships can be saved, and maybe some shouldn’t be; however, when each partner sincerely wants to make amends and reconcile, they must find a way to forgive each other, and move past the hurt.
In seeking forgiveness Barron describes the first step: Name the pain, examine the hurt, and come to understand the circumstances that led up to the betrayal or fight with your partner. To come to peace with what happened, you must first face the truth.
Barron says, “You’ve got to be able to know the injury, to look at the scar and know how you got that scar. You can admit that you resent that it happened, feel they violated your trust, betrayed your marriage, but then allow the other person to express their own regrets.”
Once you’ve fully examined your pain and anger, and communicated it to your partner, then it’s time to allow them to express their own feelings and the situation from their perspective. If they want reconciliation, to make up for the wrongdoing, they will offer their apologies and regrets, or even ask what they can do to make it right again.
The next crucial step is to reaffirm your support and admiration for each other. These can be things such as remembering:
– Why you got together and why you stayed together,
– What you appreciate about one another, and
– What you respect about one another.
At this point you can still acknowledge the hurt, but remember what you love and treasure in your partner. Then you can start rebuilding the foundations of trust.
Forgiveness is hard work, and leaving anger behind takes discipline. You may forgive your partner and move on, but find yourself falling back into anger weeks later. Usually there is something that has reminded you of the past transgression, and you may find yourself in pain and anger all over again.
Barron explains that this does not mean you didn’t truly forgive your partner. It’s normal and expected, but you shouldn’t allow this to reopen a wound that was closed and forgiven.
In times like these, you should practice discipline with your thoughts. Stop and remember the reasons you forgave your partner, and remind yourself it’s not fair or helpful to start the fight all over again.
Do not let your angry thoughts control your emotions, instead, choose not to dwell on them. Acknowledge them, and let them go. As Barron says, “A thought can come into my mind, but I don’t have to let it park there.” With time, these triggers will occur less and less often, until the hurt and anger has faded.
To learn more about forgiveness, here are some additional resources and reading:
Dr. Everett Worthington, a psychology professor, has published a free workbook online titled: The Path to Forgiveness: Six Practical Sections for Becoming a More Forgiving Person.
He has also written book called Forgiving and Reconciling, which is highly praised by psychologists and therapists. You can check it out on his website, www.evworthington-forgiveness.com
If you would like to speak to a therapist about relationships and forgiveness, please contact us at Family & Child Development.