An article by a marriage expert I was reading the other day said: “Forgiving is not the same as forgetting.” True enough, but I wanted to know what the author thought forgiveness WAS. I never really did get a clear definition. This is not uncommon, actually. A lot of writers find it easier to say what forgiveness is not.
Then I asked myself: What about this me?
Did I have a crystal-clear definition of forgiveness?
In fact, No, not nearly clear enough for someone who spends so much time helping people with it! I realized I had some work to do. After all, if you’re trying to get somewhere, you’d better be able to describe your destination.
I thought about my own life. How did I feel differently after I had forgiven someone? I thought about my clients. What did they tell me about their own journeys of letting go of resentment and betrayal? And I read what experts on the subject have to say.
Just to be clear, I’m concerned here with a close relationship that you have power to affect. Marriage is my focus, but most of these ideas can apply to any close relationship. Sometimes people need to forgive someone who they don’t know personally, will never talk to again, or who has passed away, and that requires an entirely different process.
Here’s what I came up with.
You are in a state of forgiveness when:
You have crossed the watershed to believing your partner is on your side again.
I think experts start out talking about what forgiveness is not, in order to lower your expectations. If you hope to erase the pain of a severe disappointment or betrayal 100%, then it’s true, you may never get there.
This doesn’t have to do with how sincere your intentions are, or how hard you work at it. It’s because of your brain chemistry. According to the anthropologist Helen Fisher, an event you experience as a rejection will stimulate the same neurotransmitters in your brain as when an animal is abandoned by its mother. It will also stimulate your rage circuits.
This is the kind of experience you remember! Especially, at times when you’re faced with other stresses, either in your relationship or your life, and your emotional resilience is low.
But there is point where your sense of your relationship shifts from “I” and “you” back to “we.”
“When Don was in his workaholic phase, I started to feel like I didn’t matter to him at all,” said Alicia. “Even after he woke up, and realized what he was doing, and threw himself into turning things around, it took a long time for me to trust him again. But now I finally feel like we’re a team again, thank goodness.”
You believe that your partner has done his best to understand your resentful feelings and to express genuine empathy.
And you have worked to understand your contribution to the situation. If your partner has actually harmed you as opposed to disappointed you, he has apologized, made amends, and if necessary sought help for a personal problem, such as an addiction.
You once again trust your partner to take your own needs as seriously as she takes her own.
You can drop your defensive posture of caring only for yourself, because you could not count on your partner to care for you, and return to caring for both of you again.
Dale says finances became a huge bone of contention when the kids came. “Kathy’s the greatest mom ever, but in her desire to give the kids everything, I felt like she lost her sense of proportion with money. It was like we were each in our own bunker. We still have a ways to go, but now we’re listening to what’s important to the other, and starting to really care about that again. It’s such a relief.”
You’re able to turn moments of resentment into moments of connection.
You still feel resentful feelings sometimes. But they come up less often. You don’t feel controlled by them and they don’t define your relationship. With a renewed sense of “we,” you draw closer at these moments (more often than not!) instead of pushing each other away. Each time you do this, you strengthen your relationship, and weaken the old grudges, at both the emotional and brain chemistry levels.
You have greater compassion for your partner, even more than you did before the problem occurred.
After all, our marriage vows didn’t say, “I promise to be perfect for you.” You see his weakness, or the weakness in the relationship, as a part of all human weaknesses, in which you, also, share.
That’s my definition so far. Maybe more of a picture or process than a definition. What do you think? Does this make sense in terms of your own experience? If you have a couple of minutes and you feel like weighing in, I’d love to hear from you.