Apology and subsequent forgiveness are stress-releasing, and healthy for the relationship, which turns out to be healthy for the participants in the relationship. Relationships which include a healthy apology and forgiveness are less stressful, more supportive, and therefore healthier for the individuals within them.
Forgiveness is not easy. When you have truly forgiven, there is no lingering resentment, because the problem is solved. You have learned how to heal the hurt and prevent its recurrence, so you can forgive and wipe the slate clean. Knowing how to express feelings and figuring out a way to prevent a similar hurt from happening again makes it possible to forgive each other.
The dictionary defines to forgive as “to give up resentment of” but my definition of forgiving is a bit different. Giving up resentment is nearly impossible when there are too many real injuries to forgive. It can also be unwise because resentment is a reminder to be careful around this person or in this situation. Letting go of resentment without fixing the problem makes you vulnerable to being hurt or mistreated over and over again.
Of course, hanging on to resentment will not protect you or allow you to let go of the past and move on. As long as you hold onto resentment, you will feel like a helpless, hopeless, dependent victim of your past history. You do need to learn to forgive, but just “giving up resentment” is not sufficient. You need a new model of forgiving.
Steps to Forgiving
To forgive effectively, follow these main steps:
1. Understand why you’re hurt. It’s common to have hurt feelings and be disappointed but not know exactly what it’s all about. What are you feeling? Are you angry at someone? What did he or she do? Are you sad? Why? Taking the time to get clear about your disappointment and hurt feelings will make it easier for you to be clear with your partner, and easier for your partner to figure out what to do. If your partner did something wrong, just blaming still doesn’t make it clear exactly how you were hurt, or what exactly you need to forgive your partner for.
2. Know how to take care of yourself. It seems very logical that if someone else hurt you, then that person should fix it. But it doesn’t always work that way. If someone who loves you has hurt you, he or she either doesn’t understand how you feel, isn’t thinking clearly, or isn’t in control of his or her own actions. This can be true in minor hurts and major ones. If your husband forgets your birthday, or your wife makes an important social date on the day of the big game, there may be several causes. If the error was due to faulty communication or poor memory, you can take care of yourself by placing a calendar in a prominent location in your home and marking each important date, perhaps with different colored pencils to indicate whose memo it is. Technophiles can put in on their PDAs. If a date is on the calendar, there are no ‘forgetting’ excuses.
3. Get help. If it’s a very serious problem, get help. When is clearly more than can be fixed by talking with each other, and you believe your partner is out of control (she burns dinner when she drinks too much, he gambles away a lot of money every payday, one of you has a drug addiction, You will need more than this book can provide, and I strongly recommend couples counseling and therapy or rehabilitation targeted to the problem. Go with or without your partner, and you will learn how to take care of yourself until he or she has better self-control. Until you know how to prevent yourself from being hurt again, forgiveness does not make sense.
4. Let your partner know how you feel. Once you are clear about how you were hurt or disappointed, you can be clear with your partner. Don’t accuse- just speak in terms of your feelings. “My feelings were hurt when I didn’t know where you were at the party.” Or, “I’m disappointed because I wanted you to remember my birthday.” Or, “When I found out you cheated, I felt unloved and worthless in your eyes.”
5. Tell your partner what you think would fix the problem. When you offer a possible solution, your partner will have a clear idea of what you want. You can say, “When we go to parties, I’d like you to let me know where you are, and I want you to understand why I feel bad if you don’t.” Or, “I want you to keep me informed of where you are and what you’re doing, and to allow me to call you at random times until I’m reassured that you’re keeping your promises.”
6. Listen to your partner’s version of what happened. Sometimes neither you nor your partner has really broken trust, and the problems are caused mainly by a difference in perception, so it’s important to understand how your partner saw the situation. This also keeps the discussion on a more even level, with both partners discussing the problem rather than one accusing and the other defending. You may learn that your partner even thought he or she was doing something you wanted. “You kept saying you didn’t want to celebrate this birthday, and I thought you meant it.” Or, “You never wanted to have sex with me, so I thought you’d be OK with me going somewhere else.” Whether you like what you hear or not, the only chance you have to solve the problem is to listen and seek to understand.
7. Reach a mutual solution to the problem. If someone is very hurt, or very defensive, it may take a few discussions to resolve this problem. Remember that it is worth the time it takes because it will prevent this from becoming a recurring problem. If you can’t solve it together after a few tries, see a counselor. Forgiveness skills are so important that you really need to learn them if you don’t have them already.
8. Have a forgiving ceremony. This can be as simple as looking into your partner’s eyes and saying “I forgive you;” or as complicated as renewing your vows after the problem is solved. What’s important is that you communicate that the air is cleared, the hurt forgiven, and the problem is over. You won’t be able to do that honestly if you haven’t done the previous steps.
You don’t have to condemn your partner to be wary of his or her out-of-control or thoughtless behavior. Instead, you can recognize that both of you are fallible human beings, do what is necessary to fix the problems, and then forgive each other. When both of you take responsibility for fixing these mistakes in the relationship, your trust in each other will grow, and where trust grows, so does love.
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. (www.tinatessina.com) is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 40 years of experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 15 books in 17 languages, including Dr. Romance’s Guide to Finding Love Today; It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, The Real 13th Step, How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together and How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog (drromance.typepad.com), and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” and offers courses at GenerousMarriage.com. Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina.