(from a piece on “forgiving” that ran in Psychology Today, 10/3/11 — just around Yom Kippur)
The Intelligent Divorce
And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting
by Mark Banschick, M.D. 
Can you forgive? From Jews preparing for Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish day, to Catholics going to confession before Easter, all religions understand the healing power of forgiveness. Everyone can relate to carrying a grudge that’s gone on for too long or feeling guilty for a wrongdoing that needs to be atoned. This is how we are built. As long as there are relationships, there will be a need for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a powerful and affirmative part of our humanity. It should be differentiated from its close cousin, acceptance, which while important, is essentially, passive. For many, the healing power of forgiveness allows us to truly move on. It’s a topic that is relevant to your life, whether you are religious or not, Jewish or not, guilty or not. A life lived without forgiveness is a life of real pain.
Forgiveness is essential in overcoming a divorce, but it has a place for everyone, regardless of age or level of hurt. The topic is timely, because, today, there is a lot of hurt in the world. People are out of work. Families are struggling to keep everything going, and many of our politicians and institutions seem to have let us down.
Everyone has something that they can be forgiven for and that they must forgive. This is a good time of the year to look at our own actions, how we rationalize dubious behavior and how we can step forward, even when injured, to take charge of our lives to the extent that it is possible. So, with this in mind, let’s take a look at the many permutations of forgiveness.
The past becomes the future. The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill said it best in Long Day’s Journey into Night: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future too.” Here he was referring to an Irish American family that was struggling with the scourge of alcoholism, which seems to infect generation to generation. The truth is that past wounds, from any source, can infect our present. If you were hurt by someone, you may carry a grudge or be so wounded that you are psychologically ready to be hurt by her again.
She says something innocuous, but you can’t help but interpret it as another slight. You are the walking wounded and the past becomes your present. Yes, you are wounded, but that wound stays alive by its effect on the present. If she asks for forgiveness of the slight, it may be easier to let it go. This can be a gift. She acknowledges the slight, tries to make it up to you and you feel better. It’s easier to let go because she’s done half of the healing work. But, what if she doesn’t even know that she hurt you? Still, it may be in your interest to find a way to forgive her – and let it go. You may approach her and let her know that a wrong was done (at least from your point of view). You may get satisfaction from this exchange or defensiveness – or something in the middle. But you still will need to find a way to let it go and move on.
What if you discover that she is purposely trying to hurt you, and won’t stop? You don’t have to forgive her, but you may need to forgive yourself for letting her get under your skin so badly. There are tried and true ways to handle a bully, but it is difficult to be effective if you are so raw yourself.
We are all wounded. You will be surprised to hear of all the wounds that normal people carry with them. It may be hard to believe, but many of these wounds can determine how people feel about themselves for an entire lifetime. And everyone’s been hurt in one way or another…
People live lifetimes feeling second best, easily rejected or angry, at least in part, because of the hurts they experienced as youngsters.
You must forgive.
So, who is forgiven? How do you break free? Your parents did the best they could. They were flawed, as is everyone. Your brother or sister are just who they are. They have their own demons to deal with. Your job is to let go. You forgive your mother, your father, your brother or sister. You forgive God, if necessary. You realize that holding on serves no good purpose.
This is not an easy process but it can save your life. Who wants to be anchored by the past? Psychotherapy’s great power is in its ability to help a person free themselves from the negative influences of the past. When insight oriented psychotherapy is done well, it resembles a technology of forgiveness.
Forgiveness, like grieving, has its stages. It is well known that grieving has its stages. You loved someone, or you lost something dear to you. You go through denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally you come to acceptance. These are the stages of grief that were so well described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Forgiveness is a lot like grieving. The important things that we need to forgive don’t come easily.
First, you have to acknowledge that you have to forgive. It is important to your psychological health. Carrying old wounds is simply a burden that steals the pleasure from the life that you have now. We are not on this earth forever, and sitting in victimhood can be such a loss.
Acknowledging a wound that needs healing is only a first step. You also have to deal with real feelings of anger and at times, betrayal. I often think that the word – FAIR – is a four letter word that should sit unhappily with its other, less decent, brothers. Too many people can’t get over just how unfair life is. Such pain, for what? Life is unfair, but it is also filled with potential for beauty, love and grace. The anger over things having been unfair is a product of our immature minds needing to have a balance in nature. Yes, there may be a balance, supervised by God or by nature, but it often has little to do with the narrative that we want to write!
Forgiveness is ultimately a gift to yourself. It allows the wounds to heal. You can forgive God for the hurts that you had nothing to do with, your parents for their blindness, and your siblings for their own deprivations (kids are hurt in so many ways because they are so vulnerable – it is an endless list). But ultimately you have to forgive yourself for holding on for so long. You will be free to better enjoy this life when you accept what happened, vow to not let it happen again, forgive if possible, and move on.
True forgiveness is a process, more than a destination. We learn from our need to forgive. Even if you were hurt terribly, like with a rape or a financial scandal, there may be a place for forgiveness, if not to the one who hurt you, than to a God that may have watched while it happened, or to a situation in which there was nobody there to protect you. There’s always a place for healing and forgiveness can help you heal. Make a difference in the present and the future. If you had been abused, you may wish to protect the world and others from such a fate. This is the next step in forgiving a terrible wrong.
You acknowledge that terrible things happen in this world, but commit yourself to making a difference. This is a healing every day. Think about people committed to causes, be it protecting children or raising money for cancer research. Taking action can be part of the process of forgiveness, which is founded on the sobriety that bad things do happen to good people.
Another, deeply human method of righting the wrongs of the past is in your actions as a parent yourself. How many times have I heard parents tell me about their determination to raise a healthier family than one they had growing up? This can be a form of forgiveness; a distancing from victimhood and an embrace of life’s vitality.
There is an art to making amends. In America today, you hear of so many people doing bad things and then apologizing. Sometimes it stops right there. “Can’t you just forgive me, I am really sorry?”
Asking for forgiveness is a noble act. It is an acknowledgement that you hurt someone and it makes it easier for the forgiver to forgive. It takes a burden away, but this is only the first step. If you really want to be forgiven by the person that you hurt, just apologizing is not enough. You have to try to right the wrong. This is not a perfect science, but a little effort can go a long way. While nothing can undo an unfortunate experience, making amends counts.
Yet, sometimes you can right a wrong. Let’s say you said something on the internet that was disparaging and false. You can apologize for being a complete jerk and make amends by correcting your bad behavior online. But, even if you can’t completely take back what happened, trying to make amends makes the injured party feel like you are doing something. When you have been hurt, you carry a burden of injury, anger and a sense of not being taken seriously. The art of amends making can go a long way to helping a person get over the wound, forgive and move on.
How does hurt and forgiveness affect ongoing relationships? Relationships are by nature filled with moments of hurt and disappointment. He shows up late when you made a great dinner. She second guesses you time and again because of her anxiety. He comments on your weight and makes you more self conscious. These things happen every day. Throw in the hard work of making a living, sustaining the household and raising kids and you get endless opportunities to judge each other, become angered or just not be there. These hurts can accumulate like layers on a cake – and a very bad cake at that. Soon, you no longer giving the benefit of the doubt and just expect the worst. Soon, you stop wanting to be touched or you carry resentment that eats away at your love.
Resentment, in my mind, is the poison pill of romance. It is pernicious and takes over a little a time. Who wants to be touched or make love when you feel hurt or dismissed? Who wants to come home on time when you feel judged and scolded, time and again? Some people take the fight to each other. At least they know that something is wrong. Others just take it underground, letting resentment breed a distancing that is hard to stop once it gets going.
Divorce (or a breakup) very often results from an accumulation of these hurts over a long period of time, when the relationship is not tempered by forgiveness or amends making. You are in a relationship with a person and not an idealized man or woman. He or she comes with a past, including wounds, habits and expectations that may rub you the wrong way. Sorry. This is the challenge and great opportunity of love.
Even a successful couple will hurt each other now and then. They acknowledge, forgive and let go. And the hurts they do hold on to are not game changers. Their love is a living field of trust that can deal with disappointment or hurt, like our immune systems can handle minor illnesses.
Some people come with baggage from their family of origin or with psychological injuries from past relationships. Be aware that in reacting to what she is doing, you may really be overreacting because of wounds inflicted well before she came into your life. Ask for forgiveness if you are injuring her for no good reason and do the work to heal yourself. She (or he) deserves your best. I have seen good psychotherapy or couples counseling straighten out many injured relationships.
Forgiving is important even if you break up. When you break up there is still a need for forgiveness. He may not ask for it or she may be blaming you for everything that went wrong. For sure, a break up may be what’s required when hurt or betrayal has destroyed your love. Remember, that forgiving is often more for your benefit than for him or her.
Even if you were the victim in your marriage, work hard to disabuse yourself of that role. If he abused you, protect yourself. Commit yourself to never letting this happen again; but forgive. In a case like this, you may have to forgive yourself for having gotten tangled up with such a creep. You may be able to forgive him as well, if you are aware of how he came to be so unhappy and troubled. Forgive, if possible, but don’t forget.
There are important lessons to learn in every failed relationship. They may be lessons about your own narcissism or thoughtlessness. They be may be lessons about how you tend to lose yourself in someone else’s troubles. They may be lessons about your terrible taste in men or your tendency to be in a relationship with a woman who just can’t love you.
Life is a course in life. We are taught by our experiences and no textbook can really do it for us. Learn what each chapter has to teach you. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the emotional work of learning these lessons well.
Too many people hold onto the wrongs of their divorce and never really get past it. In my books on the subject, The Intelligent Divorce, I write about all the ways that people foolishly hurt their children because they are so angry or scared. Grieving the loss of the marriage, dealing with the fact that life is unfair and embracing the life you live now is the only healthy answer to divorce. If you have children to raise, your ex spouse may be part of your life for years to come. Let go, learn your lessons and deal effectively with him or her from a more centered place.
When what’s been done to you is unforgivable. Terrible things are part of this world. Some people are raped. Others experience the murder of a loved one. Holocausts, both personal and national do happen. You don’t have to forgive everything or everybody – it is not appropriate. But you still don’t want to be stuck in that wound and have it define your entire future. Maybe the best you can do is grieve the fact that this terrible event touched your life. Maybe you have to wrestle with this issue with God, Himself. That is up to you.
But, in the absence of forgiveness, grief can still work. Life is not fair and you were terribly hurt. Go through the mourning process. Grieve the innocent boy, girl, man or woman who had been injured so badly. Allow yourself to experience the anger, the hurt, and the despair of grief – but work towards acceptance; an acceptance that is tempered by memory. This is not a happy acceptance; aim towards a meaningful acceptance that acknowledges that there is a lot about life that is not in our control.
There is a life to live and staying victimized by this terrible experience is probably not an answer that is good for you. Maybe you can change your passive position to an active position by working to protect future people from experiencing your fate. This can be a healing for you and the world.
Conclusion: forgiveness – an endless subject. There is much more to convey about the power of forgiveness. While it can heal our wounds, forgiveness does not come easily. If we have hurt others, making amends and working on ourselves is an answer that counts. If we have been hurt, make every effort to grieve the loss of innocence or of lost time – forgive in whatever way you can – and move forward. The future beckons.
Some people never forgive and never forget. They remain victims forever, not just victims of the insult that happened, but also to an identification with their wound that may have impact on future relationships and their sense of identity. While I have tremendous sympathy for the hurt and pain of victims (since I am Jewish, I know of this issue from our people’s experience during the Holocaust), it can become an injury that never ends. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a technical term meant to deal with damage of unremitting victimhood (be it from human or non human sources). But you don’t have to have PTSD to get stuck in the past. Victimhood, in divorce, marriage or as nations does not help in the long run. We must forgive what we can, grieve when we can’t forgive – and yet remember what is necessary. There are always lessons. Perhaps the best one is that you survived to make something new and better.
In the end, our lives are about the stories we live and tell ourselves. Forgiveness is a story about putting the past in its place, letting go with an affirmative change in our hearts and living our present and our future. It has a power that is worth exploring, again and again.
May all my readers have a wonderful and blessed year ahead, filled with health and well being. May forgiveness be something alive in your life; a forgiveness that is honest and true.
This is a holy thing.