Forgiveness. It’s a simple concept, yet many couples who are dealing with betrayal and other serious breaches of trust, have significant misconceptions about what forgiveness really means. I wonder if part of that misconception doesn’t start in childhood.
Forgiveness through the eyes of a child
Chances are you first learned what it’s like to receive forgiveness from your parents. I know I did. When I acted out, my mom or dad would make me apologize and – depending on what it is I did – would gave me a consequence for my actions. Afterwards, things generally went quickly back to normal.
As I aged, my sibling and schoolmates gave me ample opportunity to practice giving and receiving forgiveness. We would offend, apologize, forgive, and get back to playing in a matter of minutes. Between adults though, things get more complicated. The act of forgiveness may still feel that simple when the offense is small. But in a marriage where deep wounding has occurred – for instance infidelity or abuse – the path to forgiveness isn’t quick or easy.
What forgiveness isn’t
Before I get to what forgiveness is, let me first tell you what it isn’t. Forgiveness doesn’t mean:
- The other person wins
- Letting anyone off the hook
- That what he/she did is okay
- The feelings of softness return
Forgiveness is for you
It is a gift you give yourself. Sounds cliche but it’s true. Daniell Koepke says “Forgiving someone means making peace with what happened. It means acknowledging your wound, giving yourself permission to feel the pain, and recognizing why that pain no longer serves you. It means letting go of the hurt and resentment so that you can heal and move on.”
Ending the payback
When we forgive and let go, we don’t make the other person continue to pay for hurting us. We don’t shame, beat up, or give them the silent treatment. You’ve probably heard the saying “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.” When you forgive, you release the grudge, resentment, hurt and bitterness that otherwise will slowly fester and make you sick.
Why we withhold forgiveness
The short answer is – relationships are risky and forgiveness can make us feel vulnerable. Here are some of the most common reasons we withhold forgiveness:
- Misconception that it means you have to reconcile – You can forgive without any intention of ever reconciling. Or, you can choose to reconcile. Forgiveness and reconciliation are two separate decisions.
- The anger is exhilarating – It can be more pleasant to feel angry than it is to have to process the hurt, depression, and grief required to get to a place of forgiveness.
- Grief avoidance – Imagine choosing to put your thumb underneath the path of a hammer. To forgive you must come to a place of resolution, which means choosing the painful process of grieving the betrayal.
- Punishment – You withhold forgiveness to punish the other person for what they did. It can feel empowering to be punitive. That sense of control is deceptive. The pain you dole out can never cover up the pain you were dealt. It can however prevent you from healing.
- Seeing forgiveness as a “one and done” – It’s not. Even after you make the initial decision to forgive, it is an ongoing process to release the feelings of hurt, grief, and resentment from the betrayal. To really forgive means choosing release each and every time those feelings come up. It’s hard work. But so is carrying that hurt, resentment around like a backpack. At least forgiveness is productive work.
- Unrealistic expectations for the relationship – We can’t reconcile our expectations with our reality. It’s the idea that “If he/she really loved me, they would never have done X and hurt me to that degree.” But the reality is yes, he/she could do X. And, it doesn’t have to mean what you had before wasn’t real or authentic…or that you can no longer be in the relationship. The truth is, we are all capable of inflicting great harm to each other. No one is immune from being betrayed, hurt or disappointed in a relationship.
Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Though reconciliation is never a required condition of forgiveness, it is a part of the process for a lot couples. To consider reconciling there must be a ‘reckoning’ – a weighing of the costs & benefits – to decide whether there is enough to merit the reconciliation. In other words, is it worth putting up with a hairy back to get the man who gives up boys night to spend time with his family? I’m over simplifying here but hopefully you get my point. You will need to decide if there are enough positives to offset his/her negative attributes and to justify the work it will take to rebuild the relationship. Two of the categories you’ll want to include in your reckoning process are 1) Is there real remorse; and 2) Have they shown they can be trustworthy & accountable. Keep in mind, whether you decide to reconcile or walk away, you will still have to choose to forgive to be released from the burden that the lack of forgiveness brings.
Healthy ways to release and forgive
For those struggling to forgive, there are several healthy ways to help you process and release the hurt.. For some praying and meditation are the go-to tools. For others, journaling helps. I’ve also had clients use various forms of art to give their feelings a final resting place. But for many, working with a trained therapist is a necessary part of the process. Whatever way or ways you choose, do choose! And if you’d like the assistance of one of our therapists or coaches who can help you along your journey, please contact us.