Forgiving Others

We have often heard that forgiving someone for their past acts which have harmed us is a prescription for better mental health.  We have heard that forgiveness is cleansing, that it helps drive away anger and hatred toward our ex-spouse or the one who has harmed us either physically, emotionally or both. We have heard what a panacea forgiveness can be … so why is it so difficult to forgive?

One reason is that many of us are still so close to the pain and anger the loved one has caused.  We close our eyes and it seems like only yesterday that the ex-spouse was putting us down,  undermining our authority with the children, having an affair, disrespecting us in so many other ways.  The pain is so present and the anger so fresh in our minds. You ask yourself: how can I forgive someone who put my life on hold for so many years and was so selfish, thoughtless and cruel?

And you are right.  In the beginning, when the pain of the divorce or the loss is so great in our minds, it may not be possible to forgive.  In fact, your anger may be keeping you more alert to negative actions your ex-spouse might take in the divorce process which might not be good for you.  But you need to look at this stage of anger as part of the forgiveness process.  Treat anger like the flu and think about it as having to run its course.

Because eventually, anger will turn into resentment. The divorce may be over, but the resentment toward the ex lingers. This could be full-blown resentment where you are still undermining his/her visitation days with the children.  Or it might be minor resentment, like when you continue to discuss your ex’s faults with your girl friends. Whatever, resentment will continue to linger and only begin to lighten as time  passes.  And then at some point you will notice that resentment is starting to interfere with your peace and attainment of relief.

And you start to think.  If I make forgiveness dependent on my ex-spouse’s deserving it, then you may have to wait a long time for his or her behavior to change.  I mean, you couldn’t change his behavior in the marriage.  What makes you think it will change now, after the fact?  And remember all those apologies and assertions that he would change and didn’t?  You see now that you are the one who will have to change, have to accept his/her imperfections and  forgive her/him.  You decide to diffuse your spouse’s power over you and reframe your story.  There is no rule about when it is time to forgive, and there is no objective stand.  It might take years.

“Holding on to resentment has been known to create ulcers and increase anxiety, blood pressure and body pain.  In the act of forgiveness we can accept what was done is done; we do not approve of it, we believe it was hurtful, perhaps intentional, but we have chosen to not let the pain remain in our heart or body.  We can condemn the act while forgiving the person.”*

With forgiveness – for ourselves (which I will discuss later) and the one we believe has hurt us, we release ourselves from the status of victim.*  “Seeing yourself as a victim means, ‘They did something to me.  I couldn’t stop them.  I had no power over them.’ That soon becomes confused with: ‘ I have no power.’ ” But when you forgive, you are no longer vulnerable to them; forgiveness gives you back your power.

“Forgiveness does not mean you should protect yourself against unfairness, abuse or injustice.  You should always take action against unfairness and protect yourself with dignity and calm as soon as you can claim them.  You can be forceful and strong without using anger for fuel.”

*Lowrance, Michele, The Good Karma Divorce (New York:Harper Collins, 2010)