Being the best partner — 28 February 2007
There are ways to forgive yourself for relationship misconduct

Forgiving another person for serious misconduct is a very hard task. Forgiving oneself appears to be an even more difficult process. Yet, it is essential for one’s psychological stability, competency, balance and health to learn how to pardon oneself for past misdeeds.

When an offense is horrific, such as taking a life, forgiving the offender is often associated with love, compassion, exceptional courage and even super-human capabilities. Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Harvard psychiatrist and the author of “Dare to Forgive” explains why the capacity to forgive is so exceptional. Forgiveness, he says: “goes against the natural human tendency to seek revenge and the redress of justice”.

It appears that desiring revenge is one’s natural drive to right the wrong that was so egregiously inflicted on him/her. Most people find it hard to pardon even small infractions, while others are able to forgive offenders who carried out even the most heinous crimes.

Curiosity about interpersonal forgiveness gave rise to many studies about the nature of forgiveness. Yet, self-forgiveness has received little scientific attention. Dr. R. D. Enright, a forgiveness researcher, defined self-forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong”.

In relationships, the behaviors that generate the most hurt for one partner may also create more intense self-blame for the other. Examples are: having and affair, not being present for a child’s birth, or being unavailable to a partner during personal grief, illness or trauma.

The person responsible for inflicting this type of pain may feel not only guilt, but also profound shame. Guilt is the regret about the action, while shame is related directly to one’s self view. It may be perceived by the offender that the behavior represents his/her faulty nature. This individual may label him/herself as insensitive, selfish, callous, or incapable of being loving or loved.

With the shame and self-derogatory labels comes a fear about the permanent loss of trust and love of the partner. It is hard for the guilty party to see how to remediate the partner’s hurt, pain, contempt, mistrust, anger and withdrawal. The offender may feel helplessness and hopelessness about his/her ability to resurrect the relationship to its pre-offense state.

For some people, whose early childhood lacked sufficient support, a profound sense of unworthiness of old may seem to have been confirmed. Depression is a common outcome and with ongoing self-flagellation; even thoughts of suicide may arise.

The inclination to not pardon themselves serves some people well. Being unforgiving helps them feel reassured that they are indeed good and decent people who feel remorse and are able to punish themselves for their wrongdoing.

Interestingly enough, the same people who are so hard on themselves, when asked, would not be as judgmental of others in the same situation. The standard to which these individuals hold themselves is so high that they block their chances for self-acceptance and forgiveness that they grant others.

Self-forgiving has health and relationship benefits. Forgiveness reduces the stress associated with anger, bitterness, hostility and resentment, all of which have physiological consequences. Everett Worthington, executive director of ‘A Campaign for Forgiveness Research’ states: “every time you feel unforgiveness, you are likely to develop a health problem.

Research by Drs. Zechmeister and Romero found that self-forgiving offenders were more likely to apologize and make amends to the victim than those who did not forgive themselves. It appears that self-forgiving best serves both parties and may allow resumption of the connection between the mates to occur more quickly.

• Self-forgiving can be facilitated if the individual believes that all people are fallible. It does not excuse the conduct but directs the redress and amends to come.
• Forgiving oneself does not mean that the offensive behavior is justified, it only charts the offender’s course for future conduct.
• The offender must fully understand that his/her behavior was wrong and the reasons it was unacceptable to the partner, as well as what general moral and interpersonal values were violated.
• Forgiving oneself requires a decision to act according to one’s highest worth and values.
• Self- forgiveness is the abandonment of anger, vindictiveness and punishment of oneself and opens the way toward true repentance and change.
• All relationships and psyches strive toward health. Offended mates prefer to trust that the offense was not due to the partner’s weak character, but to a human failing. The wrong doer must also join his/her partner in this view for his/her own wellbeing and the restoration of their love.

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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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