Relationship column: What to do in order to forgive
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Dear Neil: Could you address the subject of forgiveness? Although I know what it means to forgive, I’m baffled by how to do it.
My wife abruptly dumped me for another guy, and I feel extremely hurt, rejected and humiliated. I really cared about her, supported her, was good to her and I loved her, but obviously she did not have the same feelings for me, and she hurt me badly.
I have been consumed by retribution fantasies: wishing she would beg for me to take her back so that I could reject her and show her how it feels. The problem, other than the fact that she will no longer talk with me, is that I am turning into someone I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be this person obsessed with vengeance and pain. I want to be free of her. Free to lick my wounds and move on.
So my question to you is how do I go about letting all this go and forgiving her? I seem to have forgotten how.
– Unforgiving in California
Dear Unforgiving: Forgiveness means to grant pardon, and to hold no grudges or resentment afterwords. It is clearly easier to talk about, and much harder to do it.
The problem is that when you continually resent your ex-wife and are mired in pain and fantasies of retribution, as you so effectively described, those emotions still keep you tied you to your ex emotionally. Your pain and anger are likely not be hurting your ex-wife, but they are clearly hurting you. It’s your peace of mind that’s destroyed, it’s your body that is tightening up, it’s your mind that is tortured by what happened — because resentment, hurt and anger all bind us to other people just as effectively as love does, but in a negative way. In addition, your wounded feelings will obstruct you from being able to love anyone else.
Forgiveness is not sanctioning another person’s behavior. It is letting go of your grievance and no longer needing to get even, because you are no longer carrying the hurt and pain around with you. You may fear that if you forgive, you are opening yourself up to being hurt or victimized again. Thus, you may think that holding onto your grievances and hurt will keep you on guard and protect you from such a thing ever happening again. But it doesn’t work that way — it just keeps you stuck and unhappy.
Here’s what you can do in order to forgive:
First, honestly acknowledge that you have been deeply wounded.
Second, respond to the following sentences with as many answers as you can: Before you hurt me, I thought I was … I thought you were… I thought we were… I thought we would… Since you hurt me, I think I am… I think you are… I think you will… I think I will… I think we were… I never thought that being hurt could make me… I thought I was safe with… The hurt I feel today reminds me of how I felt when… I knew I was vulnerable, but I never knew you could … I used to think I could control … I used to think I could prevent …
I no longer believe that our marriage was perfect, but I do believe…I wish we would have… I wish you would have… I wish I would have… If I forgave you, I’d have to give up… I’d have to accept… I could no longer blame you for.. .I could no longer want… from you. (The above questions come from Beverly Flanigan in the book “Forgiving the Unforgivable.”)
Third, throughly explore what you gained from your relationship with your ex-wife. How are you better, wiser, deeper, richer or more expanded as a person than you were before the relationship began? What did you gain from this relationship?
Forth, although your ex-wife may never apologize to you, you deserve an apology, so write one to yourself. From her point of view, write the letter you would love to receive from her. Something like: “I’m sorry I hurt you. I was wrong, and you didn’t deserve what I did to you. Please accept my apology.” You may never hear these words from her, but it matters that these words are owed to you, and you want to hear them. So give them to yourself.
Fifth, what were your failures in the marriage? How did you contribute to the problems or sabotage the solutions? Did your ex-wife plead with you to do certain things that you didn’t do, or was she saying she was unhappy about something that you ignored or took too lightly? What was your role in causing the relationship to fail?
Finally, write a letter of self-forgiveness. Regarding your marriage to your ex-wife, what are you willing to forgive yourself for? (These letters are meant for your eyes only, not for you to send them to your ex-wife. They’re meant for your healing, not for the purpose of blaming or shaming someone else.)
When you forgive, you have accomplished one of the more difficult tasks life asks of us. You agree give up whatever control you exert over your ex-wife, but you begin to regain control over yourself.
Neil Rosenthal is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Westminster and Boulder. His column is in its 21st year of publication, and is syndicated around the world. You can reach him at 303-758-8777, or email him through his website: http://www.heartrelationships.com. He is unable to respond to individual queries.