When it comes to romantic relationships, I think of the forgiver as the adult in the room. Now this may seem unfair, but the act of forgiving a partner takes both courage and vulnerability. Regardless of whether the hurt was a lie or a selfish act, the relationship has been splintered and something, desperately, needs to happen.
To me, the best relationship metaphor for this grievance is a derailed train. The hurt has caused the train to jump the tracks and nothing can move forward. Somebody needs to do something fast. The simple solution is an accepted sincere apology. Once this occurs the wound can start to heal and trust can begin the process of being restored.
But we all know that’s easier said than done.
So why is the process of forgiving so difficult?
WILL MY PARTNER LEARN THEIR LESSON AND CHANGE THEIR BEHAVIOR?
Forgiveness is a struggle because we don’t want to feel foolish. Nobody wants to be the Charlie Brown, the guy who believes that this time Lucy won’t humiliate him and pull the football away. It’s hard because we don’t necessarily see evidence that our partner cares enough to learn the lesson and not repeat the behavior. It can be difficult to be the adult because sometimes it just doesn’t feel safe to be the vulnerable one.
Nevertheless in order to get that train back on the track somebody needs to take a risk. So let’s assume of the sake of this discussion that the partner’s apology was a sincere one (e.g. a deeply felt apology with tears or a heartfelt card with flowers) and also the hurt partner (you) wants to move on. The reality is that trust can’t be restored instantaneously. It takes time because usually the emotions of the hurt party are still quite raw.
So is it necessary to forgive? Am I really responsible for making my partner feel better? After all, THEY are the one who screwed up.
What about me? Will forgiving make ME feel better?
The surprising answer is Yes. The perpetrator solely caused the hurt and triggered the splintering within the couple. However, the disconnect is actually a team effort. Here’s a description of what is going on, during a grievance, for both parties both emotionally and behaviorally:
THE ANATOMY OF A GRIEVANCE
Typically, the hurt person feels strong emotions such as anger, hurt, sadness, and betrayal, maybe even humiliation. They tend to either put up a wall or start an argument. Most likely they feel either unsafe, unloved, or both. They wonder if their partner is taking the situation seriously enough so as to not repeat it.
The perpetrator, however, often feels differently. They are washed over by such feelings as fear, frustration, and shame. They tend to act sheepishly, guiltily, or defensively. They are also more distant and disconnected as they too don’t know what to say or how to proceed. If they react with defensiveness, they usually make the situation worse. Think of one of our recent presidents and his tendency to “double down” on misguided statements.
Both partners sit with uncomfortable feelings inside their chests, wishing this bad period would be over and that they could be close again. They each have unwanted emotional baggage and tension.
FORGIVENESS INTRODUCES AN “EMOTIONAL RELEASE VALVE”
What is required is some form of emotional release valve. This will allow the warm and loving feelings to return.
Forgiveness provides BOTH parties with relief and the experience of a release valve. When we are in the middle of a grievance, our bodies and unconscious minds are filled with tension. We hold on to this pain even while we sincerely want to put it aside or let it go. Like a muscle cramp, we are “locked up” when we desperately want to feel relief. The tension is palpable for BOTH parties.
BY MENDING OUR RELATIONSHIP THROUGH FORGIVENESS, WE ARE HEALING OURSELVES
Forgiveness is the natural course of action of the mind and heart. The forgiver is actually helped by forgiveness as much, maybe more, than the perpetrator.
The act of forgiving our partner unburdens us from unhelpful feelings such as resentment and bitterness. By mending our relationship, we are healing ourselves. We are not denying the pain and hurt that our partner has caused. Instead, we are being adults. Adults can rise above their worst instincts and be their better selves.
When we are adults, we recognize we have enough resilience to absorb and accept our partner’s mistakes and to forgive and move on. All humans make mistakes. By forgiving our partner, we recognize the next time WE might be the one who needs forgiveness.
Maybe we are better off forgiving our partners even when they don’t deserve it! By forgiving, you are being self-reliant and returning your life to a more peaceful and serene place. So if you have a partner who has made a sincere attempt at apology and reconciliation, don’t wait three days to forgive them. Punishing them won’t improve your relationship. Try something new—forgive them now. There is no time like the present to feel relief and start getting your relationship train back on the tracks.
If you have further questions or would like to talk with me about couple’s therapy, contact me on my website: addictioncouplestherapy.com
Good-bye for now.
Max Yusim, LCSW
Couples therapist and addiction expert