Forgiveness takes time and effort, but with these eight steps you can forgive even the biggest transgressions.
Being part of a couple means that at some point or another there will be something – very possibly something big – to forgive in your relationship. But how do you do that? Here are some ideas that have helped me over the years.
Eight Steps to True Forgiveness
Step 1: Anger is okay…for a while
Feeling angry after a big breach of trust (think affair, financial lying, etc.) is a healthy part of healing. But in most relationships, that anger needs to be conveyed constructively. The day your partner tells you he had a one-night stand with a co-worker? Yelling, crying and whatever else you feel is expected and probably won’t surprise your partner. But if you are still doing that a month later, chances are good you are not working in your own best interests. You may still feel enraged and hurt, and your partner needs to know it, but he (or she) will only be able to hear and respond to that hurt if you are expressing it constructively…and even then responding will probably be hard. If you are still having trouble constructively expressing yourself after a reasonably short amount of time consider hiring a counselor to help you through your grief and pain. Actually, this is not a bad idea after any significant relationship shock if you can afford to do so.
Step 2: Allow yourself to grieve
It sucks that your partner breached whatever trust she breached. Grieving the wounds that this caused you is an important part of healing. You may wish to share that grief and pain with your partner. If so, it may help to say something like ‘I’m still feeling really sad about the pain I’ve experienced. It’s going to take me some time to recover. I would like to talk with you about it, to help me heal.’ Try to use as neutral a tone of voice as possible, and choose a time when you think your partner is able to hear you. First thing in the morning and late at night when everyone is tired are typically not great times. Some people find that writing about it is one way to achieve neutrality while also expressing their full feelings – they can carefully craft what they are saying and check their words to make sure they are ‘hearable’ by their partner.
Step 3: Find your humility
Did you know that 50-60% of married men engage in extramarital sex at some point in their marriage, as do 45 – 55% of women?(1) I will never tell you that having an affair is a good decision – there are better options, such as seeking couples counseling to work through your differences. But, having been on both sides of this one, I can tell you that it is often understandable. That doesn’t make it any less devastating. But for some couples, having or finding out about an affair (or any other major breach of trust) provides a chance to strip away all the crap that has built up in your relationship and take a cold, hard look at what you have and what you don’t have…and whether this relationship is worth saving.
Step 3: Understand that you are part of this
Hitting a crisis big enough to warrant forgiveness can be a time to remind yourself that your partner is with you by design - you chose to be with him or her. This person, who is capable of doing things you hate, has been sleeping beside you because you picked him or her. That person is flawed as a partner…but so are you. We all are! How have you contributed to your situation? If your partner was expressing unhappiness, did you listen? Did you act on those expressions?
One of the important steps to being able to forgive your partner is realizing that in many situations (not all!) you, too, have played a role in getting you to this place of dysfunction. Humility can help tame your anger and provide a way to think differently about your situation.
Step 4: Seek to remember the good things
You and your partner may be flawed, but you both have many good traits, too. In a time of crisis and forgiveness, it’s important to overtly seek to remind yourself of these good things. Spending your time recognizing the good, rather than focusing on the bad, will set you in a direction that leads more easily to forgiveness and positive emotions.
Step 5: Get to know your partner better
Partners in crisis often tell me “I just want my best friend back!” Friendship is all about knowing your partner well enough to accept both his positive and his less positive traits. It’s about being genuine together, and not hurtful. You will find the path to forgiveness easier if you start being your partner’s friend again. That may sound hard when you are recovering from a major hurt – and it can be. But the acts needed to rebuild your friendship can exist side-by-side with unease or pain…at least in the short-term. And the results – opening up; getting to know each other better; learning to talk constructively about difficult topics again; having fun together; and remembering why you got together in the first place – are worth the effort.
Step 6: Accept your partner
You cannot change your partner. Period. You may be able to negotiate some different behaviors from him or her, but you will not change who your partner inherently is. With that humility I wrote about above, remember that love is about accepting your own flaws and your partner’s flaws. If your partner has problems that are simply unacceptable (for example, your partner physically abuses you) then it may be time, in the name of self-love, to move on.
Step 7: Forgive yourself, too
As you work through this you should seek to be as gentle on yourself as possible. I know that in times of crisis I’ve learned some pretty unflattering things about myself, too. While that can be hard, it’s also really good – both for me, and for my relationship. Knowing oneself helps you shift your own behaviors that you don’t like to be someone you like better.
Step 8: Move on in the positive
Forgiveness is about letting go of anger and pain so you can move forward. Dr. Ned Hallowell calls it “a gift you give yourself.” Don’t just stop at forgiveness. Take a look at what you really want out of life and start living in a way that gets you there. If you wish to get your best friend back, for example, then be a good friend. If you wish to have more fun, then be ‘lighter’ in the relationship and create time and events to help you have fun. If you wish to receive more affection, then give more affection. Don’t fake it…but do remember that waiting for your partner to lead means handing over responsibility for your own happiness to someone else.
How Does ADHD Fit In?
The partner who has ADHD may find it harder to self-reflect and to control behaviors, such as impulsivity, that may hurt the relationship. Seek to optimize ADHD treatment, and look deep into your own hearts for the acceptance and mutual respect needed for a healthy relationship.
For more on forgiving, see my blog post about Busting Forgiveness Myths.
(1) Atwood (2005) as reported in Recovering Intimacy in Love Relationships, p. 184
Ideas adapted from an interview with Fredieric Luskin in Recovering Intimacy in Love Relationships.