I recently conducted a radio interview (linked at the bottom of the post) with Janis Abrahms Spring, a board-certified clinical psychologist and a nationally acclaimed expert on issues of trust, intimacy and forgiveness. Janis and I discussed the dynamics between couples that lead to divorce or reconciliation, as well as the tensions of emotional reconciliation.
Forgiveness can only take place between the two people held together by the violation. The forgiveness process begins with, “I care about you, I care about how I’ve hurt you, what is you want me to understand?” And even people who get divorced can earn forgiveness. One person goes, “What do you want me to understand about how I’ve hurt you?” And this is something they should think out. It’s not something you come up with at the moment.
That involves some degree of letting down your guard and being willing to explore what this means and what it’s meant to each of you in a genuine way. In these situations, it can be best to start with acceptance. The acceptance is the healing of the self. It’s not the forgiveness. Forgiveness is be reserved for the offended, who cares deeply about how they’ve hurt them and works to make good. In a situation where the woman is the hurt partner, where the husband has an affair, goes off, remarries, and never apologizes. She then might think she has to have a show of power. She has to cut off from this person. She has to be really mean and nasty because she has to show that he can’t step on her that way. In turn, he can’t hurt her without consequence, so they’re both bitter. The kids are caught in the middle, between the warring parents. This is not healthy for anyone.
Another way of approaching this is to choose a level of a relationship with your partner that makes sense for you. It is constructive. It does not mean you have forgiven them. You begin to separate out, to choose to have a level of a relationship without forgiveness. So you may decide, for the sake of the kids, you’re going to get along with this person, with your partner. You’re not going to put the kids in the middle because we know kids suffer when they’re caught between warring parents, whether the parents get divorced or not.
This doesn’t mean you’re sacrificing yourself to do it for the kids, which I think so many of us do–to sell ourselves short for the kids. Women are very prone to that, but fathers do that too. Somehow it often seems that you, as the hurt party, are making a choice between really holding the betraying partner accountable for his or her actions and sort of taking it on the chin for the kids. But there’s a third option, which is to say, “I am not going to involve myself in reacting. I’m not going to do your behavior the honor of being in constant reaction to it and I’m going to choose. I’m going to proactively choose to be my best self for myself and for our children,” and move forward from that place of power instead of a place of disempowerment.
Working on forgiveness can start from this place of power. This process can begin with making a hurt list, the damages you need your partner to appreciate. The partners or ex-spouses then can talk out this hurt, in a way that maintains mutual respect but does not sugarcoat the feelings. After this step, it helps to pinpoint the reasons why you committed these hurts and discuss these reasons as well. From there on out, the rebuilding of trust has to be cemented on concrete behavior, not promises. Constructing a list here too can be helpful–a list of all the ways to cement the trust that you want to feel again.