Forgiving is one way of letting go of your old baggage so that you can heal and move on with your life. It’s about giving yourself, your children, and perhaps even your partner or ex-partner, the kind of future you and they deserve – unhampered by hurt and recycled anger. It’s about choosing to live a life wherein others don’t have power over you and you’re not dominated by unresolved anger, bitterness, and resentment. But often forgiving your ex-spouse or partner is very difficult and seems impossible.
Many therapists consider forgiveness a critical aspect of divorce recovery and yet don’t really give any alternatives for people who are not ready to forgive. Others suggest that acceptance is a worthy option in these cases.
For instance, author Mark Banschick suggests that we show compassion for people that can’t or won’t forgive others. He writes, “It is not constructive for a patient to prematurely forgive as a way to feel that they have been a good patient.” Dr. Banschick elaborates, “Terrible things do happen to innocent – and not so innocent people. As therapists we are witnesses to the horror of history. Our job is to help those in our care to feel human despite their trauma. Our goal is to somehow metabolize their betrayal or wound without becoming a victim to their victimhood. It is a worthwhile project.”
Some authors and therapists explain that that acceptance is a good alternative to forgiveness when the person who injures you did something unforgiveable – or when you’re not ready to forgive. I agree with this perspective and have begun to dig deep into more research on the topic.
In her groundbreaking book How Can I Forgive You? Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D. explains that acceptance is a responsible, authentic choice to an interpersonal injury when the offender won’t engage in the healing process. While Dr. Abrahams encourages readers to muster up the courage to forgive others who have wronged them, she also says that forgiveness that’s not genuine is “cheap” so not worth much. She writes, “For those of you who have been wronged, I encourage you to take care of yourself, be fair, and seek life-serving ways to cleanse your wound.” She suggests that while genuine forgiveness is a worthy goal, acceptance is the middle ground between unforgivable hurt and cheap forgiveness.
There are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and reversing the painful consequences of their divorce explains Dr. Fred Luskin in his acclaimed book Forgive For Good. He posits that they may take on the pain of others mistakes because they take their offenses personally.
Subsequently, some people create a grievance story which focuses on their suffering and assigns blame. Dr. Luskin explains that individuals heal best when they are able to acknowledge the damage done and shift to an impersonal perspective.
The next step is crafting a new story by creating a positive intention – a way of transforming a grievance story into a positive goal. For instance, my positive intention is “I let go of the pain from my divorce and forgive myself and my ex.”
Luskin writes, “Forgiveness is not a focus on what happened in the past and neither is it remaining upset or holding onto grudges. You may have been hurt in the past, but you are upset today. Both forgiveness and grievances are experiences that you have in the present.”
The following are six steps to becoming a forgiving person adapted from Dr. Luskin’s model:
- Gain awareness of the emotions you experience about your past hurt. Talking to a close friend or therapist can help facilitate this process.
- Take steps to lessen the impact the grievance has on your relationship. Repair the damage by finding ways to soothe hurt feelings. This might include writing a letter or release to the person who injured you – even if you don’t mail it. Your release might read something like: “I release you from the pain you caused me when we used to argue.”
- Make a choice to feel hurt for a shorter period. Challenging your thinking and letting go of “unenforceable rules”— Luskin’s term for unrealistic expectations and standards that people hold for themselves and others that ultimately lead to feelings of disappointment or distress.
- Focus on those things that you can control. You can’t control the past but you can make better choices today – such as letting go of hurt feelings.
- Accept that people do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding. This does not mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others. You simply come to a more realistic view of your past. As you take stock, you will realize that all people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest.
- The final step is learning to think like a forgiving person each and every day. Avoid holding a grudge and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all flawed. For some people, genuine forgiveness is not possible, but accepting their divorce and the events surrounding it is.
In Choices: Taking Control of Your Life and Making it Better, Author Melody Beattie explains that people often let others choose for them so they don’t have to take responsibility for the results. She writes, “A lot of things happen to us over which we have no control. That includes people, their use of free will (or not), and acts of God and life.” Beattie’s words remind us that we can be so invested in playing the victim that forgiving someone may make us redefine ourselves. However, forgiveness signifies breaking the cycle of pain and giving up the belief that the other person should suffer as much as we do. It’s about crafting a new story for our lives based on acceptance of ourselves and others and focusing on taking responsibility for the choices we make each and every day!
Follow Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy A Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship was published in January of 2016 by Sourcebooks. Terry’s forthcoming book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around will be published by Sounds true in February of 2019.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry