By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Forgiving others and yourself is infinitely terrifying yet necessary for achieving healthy relationships. It’s about being willing to acknowledge that you are capable of being wounded and able to risk exposing yourself. It also means that you’re stepping out of the role of a victim and taking charge of your life.
Forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood concepts, yet people often express clichés such as “forgive and forget” as if it’s an easy process. However, the importance of forgiveness takes on a new meaning after divorce because no one marries with the intent of divorcing so hurt and shame can run deep.
At times people equate forgiveness with weakness and it’s also widely believed that if you forgive someone you’re condoning their behavior. In my case, I held a grudge against my ex for many years and was unable to forgive him for his part in our divorce because it made me feel vulnerable to being hurt again.
But once I understood that it takes courage to forgive someone who you believe wronged you, and that it’s not about accepting, condoning, or excusing someone’s behavior, I was free to forgive my ex and myself for the pain we caused each other during our marriage and divorce.
What does forgiveness mean?
What does forgiveness really mean? Forgiving is one way of letting go of your baggage so that you can heal and move forward with your life. It’s about giving yourself, your children, and perhaps even your new 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.
According to author Deborah Moskovitch, forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook. She writes: “Forgiveness is NOT the same as forgetting what happened, or condoning your ex-spouses actions, giving up claims to a fair settlement or reconciliation. While forgiveness may help others, it first and foremost can help you.”
What if I can’t forgive?
Many experts believe that forgiveness is a critical aspect of divorce recovery but that acceptance is a worthy option in cases where you’re not ready to forgive. 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 by apologizing.
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 worthwhile 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 past, writes Dr. Fred Luskin in his acclaimed book Forgive For Good. He points out that people may take on the pain of others’ mistakes because they take their offenses personally.
Dr. Luskin believes that individuals heal best when they react as if the injury happened to a close friend. He posits that when people create a grievance story which focuses on their suffering and assigns blame, their suffering is magnified.
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.”
One of the biggest problems with ongoing resentment in post-divorce relationships is that it often leads to withdrawal and poor communication. And if you’re bottling up feelings of anger, sadness, or disappointment often, this can lead to feelings of resentment.
If your feelings of resentment toward your ex are persistent, it can cause you to hold a grudge which is usually deep seated and often the result of an injury or insult that has occurred. People hold grudges due to both real and fancied wrong doing. Either way, the bitterness that comes with a grudge – even if understandable – comes with a price. Studies show that letting hostility fester can lead to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular issues, immune system problems, and higher risk of stroke.
7 steps to forgiving your ex:
- Write down three ways your hurt feelings have impacted (or are still impacting) your life. Gain awareness of the emotions you experience about your past hurt. Talking to a close friend or therapist can help facilitate this process.
- Find a way to dislodge yourself from negative emotions. Examples include therapy, yoga, improving your physical health, and practicing expressing thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when people sweep things under the rug, so be vulnerable and don’t bury negative feelings.
- Take small steps to let go of grudges or grievances. 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 letter might read something like: “I release you from the pain you caused me when we used to argue.”
- Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Dr.’s Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to the other person when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
- Don’t let wounds fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding on to hurt feelings. Processing what happened briefly will allow you to let resentments go so you can move on to a healthier relationship. Keep the big picture in mind.
- 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.
- Practice forgiveness by thinking like a forgiving person. Avoid holding a grudge and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect. For some people, genuine forgiveness is not possible, but acceptance is a worthy goal.
Practicing forgiveness allows you to turn the corner from feeling like a victim to becoming a more empowered person. Experts believe that forgiving an ex can allow you to break the cycle of pain, move on with your life, and to embrace healthier relationships after divorce. However, forgiveness takes time and has a lot to do with letting go of those things you have no control over.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available at many outlets and bookstores.
Terry’s new book “The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around” was published by Sounds True in February of 2010 and you can order here.