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Parenthood: The Treatment of Forgiveness

The science behind forgiveness

Parenthood, an increasingly popular NBC show, chronicles the intimacy and conflict of an extended family. Each episode offers much for those interested in common familial dynamics and dysfunction. In recent episodes a major conflict has resurfaced, and that is the relational friction between Crosby and Jasmine. A description of this conflict, and the way that couples can escape its pitfalls and ascent to a happier and healthier relationship is what follows.

Long ago, in season one, Crosby and Jasmine were passionate partners bound by the birth of an exceedingly cute son, Jabbar, and what seemed like natural chemistry. All of this quickly went south, however, when Crosby impulsively slept with another woman and Jasmine responded by shutting down, emotionally.  

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Episode after episode passed and the relational distance and silence between the two only increased. Crosby moved to the couch, then he moved out, and currently the two have been negotiating an informal shared custody - all without having had an honest reckoning about the betrayal. They walk on eggshells around each other. What a shame. We all saw what a good fit they were as a threesome and we can all clearly see the reduction in well-being that the separation has had.

What is needed here is forgiveness. And I don't mean that Jasmine has to do all the work. I also don't mean that they have to end up together as one nice, happily-ever-after nuclear family unit. But they are stuck, and their 'stuckness' hurts their daily mood, their relationship quality and their nurturance of Jabbar - so a lot is at stake.

Forgiveness is a complex challenge, and the field of clinical psychology has done what it always does when striving for solutions to complex challenges - it has created a model. More specifically, there are many models of forgiveness - how it works, and what treatment steps can be taken - and this blog will highlight one in particular put forth by Gordon and Baucom (1998).

This theory of forgiveness looks at interpersonal betrayals - like Crosby's one-night affair - and reframes it as a trauma. The idea here is that not only might the injured partner, Jasmine, react to the event in a manner consistent with a post-traumatic stress response (i.e. intrusive thoughts like flashbacks, avoidance of the partner, intensifying emotional reactivity, etc.) but that IT IS A BIG DEAL. 

To deal with this BIG DEAL we have a three-stage model - there is the impact stage, the definition stage and the moving forward stage. Assume for simplicity sake that the common path for a couple post-betrayal is to go through each stage, in order, with a varying degree of time and energy spent on each stage.

The impact stage is about the impact of the betrayal on the partner. Think of this stage as the emotional roller-coaster time that immediately follows discovery of the interpersonal breach. A fluctuation in emotion, ranging from numbness to extreme bouts of anger, guilt and resentment are to be expected - as would be the case with any life-shattering event. A fundamental shift in standards and assumptions has occurred, because as a general rule of mental health goes how one feels is dictated by how one is perceiving the meaning of the event. So, once upon a time Jasmine thought that Crosby would never do such a thing. And even more fundamentally, she thought that such a thing would never happen to her because she was a good person living in  a fair and just world. Now, Jasmine doesn't know how to think about herself, Crosby or the world at large. This opens the door to a lot of confusion about how to feel, ambivalence about what to do, and a profound loss of power, control and predictability within the relationship. Such a psychological shake-up can help give birth to some unhealthy, unrealistic patterns of thinking about the whole thing: "It's all my fault, I deserved this; Crosby did this just to hurt me because he's a horrible human being, etc." These are all understandable reactions and contain at least a grain of truth, but these thoughts are also unbalanced, at least partially unrealistic and perpetuate the kind of intense affect that makes it hard to think straight.

The definition stage about the initial inklings of picking up the pieces. Some researchers have referred to this as a moratorium phase where the injured partner takes some reflective time with self to make sense of what happened and let the emotional sting slowly dissipate - like an injured animal that stumbles away from a fight and hides in the underbrush until his wounds have healed. Jasmine is naturally seeking some semblance of self-worth and understanding about why the betrayal occurred. The key is to question the betrayal in the right way - to not get bogged down in ruminations about how it should never have happened in the first place (that's what the first stage is about) but to step back and look objectively and fully at why it happened. A few clinical notes are worth mentioning, here: "Yes, Crosby is fully responsible for cheating (there was no gun to his head), but often times the context for what causes a betrayal is more complicated. What Jasmine did to push Crosby into the arms of another woman, however briefly, was an important variable in the equation (i.e. choosing her mother over Crosby in a patterned manner). And certainly there were other factors influencing Crosby's decision-making process (i.e. alcohol, feeling like an outsider, etc.) that marks yet another line of inquiry that must be pursued if the overall context is to be flushed out.  

The third and final stage, moving forward, is about just that. And it mainly comes in the form of rebuilding trust, viewing self and partner with a more balanced perspective (which often involves recalling some of the positive characteristics of the cheater as hard as that may be) and allowing the anger and urge to punish subside.  Here, it's time to reach out, approach intimacy in small, careful steps, explore apologies, regrets and unresolved emotions about the betrayal. Also, new standards, expectations and assumptions for the future are articulated. So this phase is not just about laying down the law 'if you cheat on me again I'll kill you,' it's about saying, 'time to be more attentive to my needs on a day to day basis.' This phase also notes that apologies are only as meaningful as the action used to back them up; and to forgive is not to forget, and 'setbacks' are allowed. Yes, the victimized partner needs to stop hyper-vigilantly scanning the cheater for future signs of betrayal, but the cheater also needs to tolerate the occasional 'how could you!'

Currently, it seems that Crosby and Jasmine are just beginning to enter the moratorium stage. They've been off licking their wounds, and silently suffering with the occasional gesture of warmth toward each other. But now, with Jasmine dating a rather dashing boyfriend, and Crosby calmly expressing some legitimate despair at having his status within Jabbar and Jasmine's life threatened, some empathy has emerged.In the most recent episode there was a scene where Jasmine looked at Crosby with understanding, and Crosby felt understood. That's a major step toward forgiveness and whether they reunite as a couple or not, the journey toward forgiveness is an exciting and important one to watch.

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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