Only recently, have I been able to truly forgive myself and my former spouse for our divorce. Honestly, my journey was stalled for many years because I was unable to let go of resentment and to emancipate myself from the hurt and pain that we caused our children. It was easier for me to blame my ex than to face my part in the breakup of my marriage.
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 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 the need to forgive arises daily. We all make little and big mistakes that necessitate others forgiving us – not to mention forgiving ourselves. However, the importance of forgiveness takes on a new meaning after divorce because no one marries with the intent of divorcing; hurt and shame can run deep.
What does forgiveness really mean? Forgiving is one way of letting go of your old baggage so that you can heal and move on 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-spouse’s actions, giving up claims to a fair settlement or reconciliation. While forgiveness may help others, it first and foremost can help you.”
What can be done if someone is unable to 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.
What are grievance stories? They are the ones that you tell a friend to make sense of something that didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped it would. Luskin explains that you will know these stories because telling them makes you mad or hurt all over again. These are the stories that describe the painful things that you’ve endured but not healed from.
Creating a positive intention is a surefire way of transforming a grievance story into a positive goal. For instance, my positive intention is “I let go of the pain from my divorce and forgive myself and my ex.”
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.”
The following are 7 steps to becoming a forgiving person, adapted from Dr. Luskin’s model:
- 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, discovering faith, improving your physical health, and finding your passion.
- Take 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 release might read something like: “I release you from the pain you caused me when we used to argue.”
- Don’t allow wounds to fester. Make a choice to feel hurt for a shorter period. Challenge your unrealistic expectations and standards (that you hold for yourself and others) which ultimately lead to feelings of disappointment or distress.
- Focus on those things that you can control. You can’t control the past but you can make better choices today – such as letting go of hurt feelings.
- Accept that people do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding. This doesn’t 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’ll realize that all people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest.
- The final step is practicing forgiveness. Avoid holding a grudge and declare you’re free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect. For some people, genuine forgiveness isn’t possible, but accepting their divorce and the events surrounding it is.
Forgiveness signifies breaking the cycle of pain and giving up the belief that the other person should suffer as much as we do. It has a lot to do with letting go of those things we have no control over. In Choices: Taking Control of Your Life and Making it Better, author Melody Beattie writes, “A lot of things happen to us over which we have no control. That includes people, their use of free will (or not), and acts of God and life.” Beattie’s words remind us that we can be so invested in playing the victim that forgiving someone may make us redefine ourselves.
In sum, the turning point for me was when I faced the shame I felt about my divorce, moved on from the victim mentality, and began to adopt a forgiving mindset. I wish you well on your journey toward forgiveness!
Let’s end on this amazing quote: “Life is an adventure in forgiveness.” Dr. Norman Cousins
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Vicki Shemin says
As a divorce attorney/therapist, I can attest to the fact that divorced men and women recover by experiencing a panoply of emotions. Some end up at this stage of forgiveness; others do not. My (confidential) international divorce research explores these various questions, and more. If you have a few minutes, your input is invaluable and would be greatly appreciated. LETTERS TO EX-SPOUSES: AND I JUST WANTED YOU TO KNOW www.surveymonkey.com/s/XC89FQ9 Thank you, Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW