Tools for Couples Happiness — 10 November 2003
The difficulties and rewards of forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult tasks people are asked to
undertake. At the same time it is also one of the most freeing
experiences one can have.

The difficulty in forgiving is related to the depth of the hurt one
suffered. The greater the offense, the harder it is to even contemplate
empathic reaction to the offender. It is an expectation that is
counter-intuitive to our instinctual survival needs. How can one forgive

another for pain inflicted and harsh treatment which has been so
hurtful? Even in situations where the offense has not been so
grave, the recipient feels hurt and violated. How could the offended
extend a hand again to the offender and be able to trust again?

Children learn very early in life to avoid making contact with things
that hurt: hot stoves, irons, heavy objects, biting dogs, etc. They also
learn to avoid incurring the wrath of angry parents and other punitive
adults. These early lessons dictate children’s reactions to
assure their comfort and safety.

For adults, the physical dangers are more easily avoided.
The greater risks become the psychological injuries which may be
inflicted by loved ones. Violated trusts, gossip, unkept promises,
disclosure of confidences, betrayal, unavailability in time of need,
sarcasm, self-interests that supercede friendship, are some of the
behaviors that create hurtful emotions. The felt pain is about
not mattering enough to be of prime consideration to another person.

In love relationships, even more so than in any other relationship,
trust is a given. Mates share their innermost fears, worries,
inadequacies, failures, dreams and hopes with each other. The implicit
contract is that these vulnerable emotions will be safeguarded and treated with the utmost reverence. When a partner violates the trust, the mate may be emotionally crushed by being degraded, mocked, dismissed, or betrayed. The loss of safety is likely to have the injured party emotionally withdraw from his mate. Needless to say, intimacy is jeopardized and an estrangement is experienced by both partners.

To restore the relationship a sincere and true apology is required from
the offending partner and forgiveness is needed from the offended mate.
Both of these behaviors are taxing. To apologize, one needs to first
acknowledge to himself his offensive conduct. He then needs to be
secure enough to admit it to the partner, ask for forgiveness and commit
to changing his ways. Without this process, forgiveness is unlikely to
take place.

Our culture and most major religions advocate the process of remorse,
repentance, request for forgiveness and redress to achieve redemption.
Understanding the failings of humans has enabled us to learn to
appreciate those who have truly shown remorse and committed to
correcting their ways. Forgiveness, however, does not have as clear a
process and eludes many.

In order to forgive another person we must believe that as harmful as the actions may have been, the offender is not inherently morally inferior to us. Under some circumstances, and with sufficient stress, we too may have been capable of engaging in the same act. This is the hardest concept to accept. Most wronged people are certain that they would not have been able to do to others what was done to them. In many cases this is true. However, without the
concept of mutual human frailty, forgiveness is impossible.

Another obstruction to forgiveness is the attribution of malice to the
offender. Believing that an individual purposely acted in bad faith, was
immoral, insensitive, and evil in his misdeeds, disallows us to develop
empathy for this person. Actually, most offenders act badly out of weakness- not
out of meanness. They often resort to getting their own needs met by
selecting a selfish option that ends up hurting us. Developing
empathy for the offender is the last thing hurt people are inclined to
do. Yet, without empathy, forgiveness is impossible.

Getting to forgiveness requires time. It can only occur after the
injured party is able to withdraw, nurture the wounds and heal. There is healing
from the pain , healing from the loss of trust, healing from the sense
of insignificance born out of the injury, healing from the reconstructed
beliefs about the relationship and about the offender. Feeling safe
enough to re-approach the one who inflicted pain upon us, is an act of
courage. When we are devastated, courage eludes us. Time helps us
regroup and regain our hope that the connection can be restored and be
positive again. Prior to the completion of the healing process,
forgiveness is not possible.

The process of remorse and pleas for forgiveness by the offender may be
shorter than the process the offended may go through to get to the point
of accepting the apology. Yet, harboring hateful, vengeful
feelings toward an offender, only hurts the non-forgiver. The angry,
vindictive feelings that are housed in one’s body may even lead to tissue damage and serious health problems.

Being able to forgive, brings relief, freedom and physical and emotional
ease. Couples who exchange sincere apologies and forgiveness describe
that their intimacy is heightened. They often feel closer to each other,
more accepted and loved for having overcome a mutual crisis.

About graver offenses the question that is often raised is: “Are there
unforgivable deeds?” Most ethicists and people who advocate forgiveness
as a needed healthy process, answer it with a negative. They assert that
the moral stance requires that we forgive even those who have committed
the most heinous of crimes. Some people may disagree. About less
egregious hurts between people, the prevailing attitude is that forgiveness heals the forgiver, the offender and their relationship as well as to their well being.

If you have been wronged, your road to forgiveness will require:

  • Remembering what Alexander Pope said: “To err is human, to forgive divine”.
  • Taking the time you need to recover from the pain of the emotional injury.
  • Allowing yourself to see the offense as part of the offender’s weakness rather than his or her flawed character.
  • Searching your soul -Under extreme circumstances could you have acted in a similar way to
    your offender? If the answer is yes, you are closer to forgiveness.
  • Harboring hateful feelings only punishes the victim.
  • Forgiveness frees you to restore your emotions and body and reconnect with your capacity for acceptance, empathy, caring and love for yourself and others.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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