If you asked your partner to honestly complete the following sentence: "I never mentioned it at the time but it really bothered me when you... " Most could complete this sentence without missing a beat and it might be stuff from three years ago. Like a missile it is just sitting there waiting to be launched. But here's the thing... in time, these "unforgivens" take on a life of their own. It's as though they go airborne and circle high above your head like buzzards ready to pick at your bones. It is on the day you have an argument that they begin to land. One after another after another. You almost stand in awe of the powers marshalled against you. These resentments lead to blame, criticism, defensiveness and full blown communication breakdowns. Simply put, the end result is disconnection. And of course, the solution is genuine forgiveness.
There is a lot of confusion about forgiveness, so let me start by defining the term. “Forgiveness is a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group that has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.” – Original source unknown
Unfortunately, many people are walking around with all of their resentments stowed away in a figurative backpack that they carry around everywhere they go. It weighs so much that they’re like a turtle with a shell that’s ten times too big. Eventually they end up stuck on their back with arms and legs helplessly flailing around. Once completely incapacitated and suffering to a point that is no longer manageable, they are forced to do something about it. But by this time they’re already mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted. They feel helpless and hopeless. Others are more like pressure cookers. They continuously stew in old hurts and resentments from the past until an explosion occurs. After the eruption they may feel better for a while, but it never lasts. The cycle starts over and before long the pressure has built up again, just waiting for another opportunity to explode.
Learning to forgive is not an easy task, however it is a skill that will prove to be very empowering and incredibly healing for you (and your partner). So whether you’re like a turtle or a pressure cooker, these 5 steps will help you empty your ‘backpack’ and let go of old hurts from the past.
Step 1: Make the decision to forgive. At some point in your life, you’ve likely told someone that you forgave them and genuinely meant it, but then your resentment returned and the feeling of forgiveness went away. This is normal. But if you want to achieve lasting forgiveness, you must make a solid decision to forgive. And that decision cannot fluctuate. Let me give you an example. Let’s say your spouse cheated on you. This created a breach of trust and deep resentment. He said he was sorry, asked for forgiveness, and genuinely regrets his mistake. You agree to grant him a second chance, and in a moment of reconnection, you decide to forgive him. Things are going well at first, but then doubts start creeping in. Every time he goes out, you question where he is, what he is doing, and who he is with. You feel insecure and constantly need him to remind you that he loves you and won’t do it again. When you have a fight, you bring up the affair. In other words, you have allowed your decision to forgive to fluctuate. As a result, you are no longer enjoying a loving relationship with your spouse in the present moment. Let me be clear, forgiveness does not mean you need to stay in relationships that are not working for you, nor does not mean that you should trust people who are not worthy of your trust. The truth is, you’re not forgiving the other person because they deserve forgiveness, you are doing it because you deserve peace. So if you want to remain in your current relationship and reconnect with your partner, then make the decision to forgive, commit to it, and do not give yourself permission to fluctuate from that decision.
Step 2: Get clear about it. It may be easy enough to say: I forgive you, but from there to actually forgiving someone who has hurt you is a whole other matter. So once you’ve made a solid decision to forgive, it is time to get clear about it. At the top of a sheet of paper, write your partner’s name. Next write what you are forgiving them for – be specific and thorough. Finally, on the back of the sheet, make a list of all of the reasons you want to forgive your partner. Once you’ve made a complete list, write the top three reasons on a post-it note and put it in a place you will see often throughout your daily life. Remember, if you do not know why you want to forgive, you will likely lose your commitment when the going gets tough. I also recommend keeping your full list handy so you can go back to it when you start feeling like a turtle or pressure cooker.
Step 3: Try adopting the other person’s perspective. No matter how confident a person may appear, there is no doubt that they have experienced traumatic events, losses, fears, and challenges at certain points along their journey. Unfortunately, these events often go unhealed and then show up in various forms later on in a person’s life. This can explain, at least in part, why people behave in the ways that they do. Perhaps you cannot see any possible explanations for why your partner acted the way they did. However, if you’re serious about forgiving them, you will need to try to adopt their perspective and consider the factors that may have contributed to their behaviour. In order to access your own feelings of compassion, you may even try visualizing them as a hurt child experiencing their own traumatic events. When you’re ready, imagine yourself holding and helping heal this small child. This exercise can help you to access the feelings of vulnerability they might be feeling.
Step 4: Think of times when you acted similarly. It is quite possible that you never did anything as bad to your partner as what was done to you, but you’ve no doubt hurt your partner at some point in the relationship. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of and we’ve all been dishonest in various ways throughout our lives. While it is not healthy to focus on our mistakes and transgressions, it can be good to review them and remind ourselves that we’re not perfect either and that there are times when we wanted and needed forgiveness. Take some time to think of the ways you’ve acted similarly.
Step 5: Forgive yourself. If you’re feeling guilty, ashamed or angry at yourself for things you’ve done in the past, you’re not alone. Many believe that if others knew the "truth" about them - their dark side, disturbing thoughts, all the bad things they've said and done, etc. that they wouldn't be worthy of love and connection. This belief is common and it causes many to create a false self and hide parts of themselves. This however requires a great deal of role-playing and is intensely energy consuming. When we withhold forgiveness from ourselves, it creates a great internal conflict that causes us to reject ourselves. This self-rejection is the worst form of self-violence and it creates a disconnection in all of our relationships. You may think it is your partner who is rejecting you, but first and foremost, it is YOU who is rejecting YOU. In many cases, your partner has not even had a chance to meet the real you! Therefore, complete steps 1 and 2 but with the focus on forgiving yourself - you may find it helpful to use the list that you created in Step 4.
When I encourage people to forgive, I usually hear every “but” in the book. But he did this, but she did that… And all these ‘buts’ may be true, but if you’re serious about freeing yourself up, you need to think and act differently than you ever have before. You need to take immediate and effective action to forgive your partner (and yourself).
About the Author: Lise Leblanc is a Registered Psychotherapist with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology and a Masters in Educational Leadership, along with several clinical, mediation and leadership courses/certifications. For the past twenty years, she has worked in therapeutic, educational, leadership, and coaching roles. She is the founder and director of Fill-Me-Up Cards and Minimum Stress, companies dedicated to relationship building and stress management. If a relationship recharge is calling to you, then Fill-Me-Up Cards for Couples is a great tool to help you through this process. Fill-Me-Up Cards for Couples is a 21-day relationship challenge consisting of 2 decks of cards (His and Hers) that will give you and your partner a 21-day plan full of creative ideas to help you reconnect romantically, emotionally and sexually (can be purchased at www.fillmeupcards.com)