To Forgive: According to the Oxford College Dictionary, second edition, 2007, forgive is to: “stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw or mistake.” Stop is the operative word here. Stop The Feeling. How to “stop” a feeling of such magnitude, as if all that was required was a red sign at the intersection of the heart?
The Forgiveness Challenge: In the Coupledom, the domicile of the relationship, where the business of trust is the core of the “arrangement”, forgiveness for an offense, a flaw or a mistake is no small matter. The Daily News headline article of May 22, Sandra’s Creep Speaks, describes a fellow (Jesse James) who does not inspire trust nor an overwhelming desire to forgive, even after rehab. However, outside of the tabloids, in the more mundane circumstances of everyday living, the black and white of forgiveness fades, and the gray matter of establishing criteria for trust requires a much more complex understanding.
Wounding Actions: When I speak of forgiveness, I refer not only to infidelity, though that is often blamed for the emotional shipwreck of many marriages. Instead, I incorporate all wounding actions: harsh words and behaviors; insults and oversights; repeated forgetfulness and indifference; drunkenness and all compulsive behaviors that impact the relationship; betrayals not exclusively sexual. In a relationship of duration, prominent hurts, the ones that sustain beyond the moment, need a process of acknowledgment and empathy for forgiveness to take place.
Forgiveness as an Action Word: The essential ingredient in forgiving is the belief that the perpetrator/partner “gets” what they have done…..in other words, that empathy and sincere remorse for the pain inflicted has been demonstrated over time. How does that happen? First, the hurt party needs to describe their hurt: ” When I found out that you lied, I felt so humiliated and rejected. We had an understanding I thought, that we would never…….do this”, or “When you continually embarrassed me in front of friends, telling them private stuff, I knew you didn’t care a bit about my feelings”. “When you pretended to love me, while really loving someone else.” “When you repeatedly refused to help me with the kids/with my financial woes, despite my distress, I felt totally abandoned”. A description of pained feelings, expressed openly, without shame, without attack, makes it more likely that true compassion and regret can be engendered in the heart of the hurtful partner. This is a challenge for the “perpetrator” who may avoid these conversations because they can’t stand the guilt they trigger. Protestations along the lines of “we have gone over this so many times” are typical attempts to ward off the pain of guilt. And instead of healing and forgiveness, this response leads to further wounding and alienation.
Seize the Forgiving Opportunities: They may come in the middle of the night, when someone cannot sleep. The tap on the shoulder, “wake up, we need to talk” can provide an intimate moment to listen without distraction, to put your empathy cap on, and imagine what it is like to be the other person, the hurt one. Trying to “identify” with your partner’s experience, even drawing from your memories of similar hurts, can be the seeds for genuine empathy and remorse. And only when empathy is reached and remorse sincere, can there be belief that the hurt will not be inflicted again.
The Difference Between Guilt and Empathy: No one likes to feel guilty. Guilt is one of the most uncomfortable human emotions that we mortals experience. It is designed to be so. Just as the cry of the infant makes the parent uncomfortable enough to emerge from a deep and cozy sleep to stop it, similarly guilt plays a role in making humans treat each other decently. It acts as a curb on cruelty. It’s absence, at its most extreme, can lead to the horrors and atrocities that ravage mankind. In the Coupledom, a partner may strive to minimize the impact of their hurtful behavior on their spouse, even ridicule their partner for being “so sensitive”, to reduce their guilt. Unfortunately, these actions are the undoing of any road to forgiveness. The better course is to tolerate the guilt, view it as a sign of being a caring person and hang in there to hear the partner’s hurt feelings, actively trying to imagine what it feels like to be hurt so. Only then can the empathy necessary to build trust emerge and be conveyed in an authentic, i.e. believable way. Sandra’s Jesse James can confess to the tune of thousands of dollars on air, but whether he has gone through the process of developing authentic empathy, even after some rehab, is, in this clinician’s opinion, doubtful.
Active Forgiveness: The forgiveness process unfortunately, is not a one shot deal. Spouses often weary of their partner’s need to bring up past injuries after they have supposedly been put to rest, all kisses and made up. No such luck. Forgiveness is a human process, like any other, not static but something that may need to be revisited periodically. Life provides “triggers” to the memory bank of pain, and neither the body nor the mind easily sloughs off hurt as a snake does it’s skin. Of course, undue preoccupation with past hurts may require examination and/or psychotherapy to understand their underpinnings. And sensitivity for the blamed partner who has been patient, empathic and changed, means not regurgitating the experience unnecessarily or for some secondary or unspoken gain or manipulation.
In the Supermarket Aisles of Life: “Why does my friend stay with a man whom she cannot forgive for an infidelity of fifteen years past?” This question was raised in the pasta aisle of the local IGA. What purpose does this “unforgiveability factor” serve for this friend and her partner, keeps them unmarried yet together, in a strange holding pattern of committed non-commitment?
If I Forgive You Then What? What is the danger of forgiveness? Is it “trusting again”, being vulnerable to yet another hurt, twice burned. Perhaps withholding forgiveness provides the illusion of impenetrability or the striving for personal dignity after humiliation. Does it give power to the hurt party, a superior stance or ace in the hole, the moral high ground, thought necessary to prevent future exploitation. Being hurt can feel undignified and efforts to reestablish personal integrity can be confused with maintaining an unforgiving attitude. Or is there some effort to control the spouse who did you dirt: is someone already condemned less likely to repeat the crime if not forgiven? Am I valued more if I remain unforgiving? Perhaps steadfastly insisting that your partner is untrustworthy can explain a fundamental ambivalence in oneself that can not be understood in any other way? In other words, can some of this be explained by the past/family of origin.
The Role of The Therapist: Both the forgiver and the forgivee have many questions to ponder. If self inquiry does not lead to useful insight and satisfactory resolution to the forgiveness dilemma, seek out expert help. A couple who can be both forgiving and forgiven will find great reward in a kinder, deeper and more compassionate life long bond.
Postscript: The Coupledom in all posts refers both to same sex couples as well as heterosexual couples.
©jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2010