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Forgiving Your Partner

Forgiveness is essential for a healthy relationship and for personal well-being.

In every relationship, there are very likely to be times when our partner will do things to us that we regard as offensive, insensitive to our feelings, or just plain dumb. When that happens, our response is predictable. It’s not uncommon to become insulted, hurt, angry, or have other similar reactions to this perceived harm.

We use the term "perceived" here because we want to emphasize the personal nature of how we interpret situations. Not everyone will construe the same words or deeds as hurtful or upsetting; some are thicker-skinned or won’t take some offenses personally or seriously. Nor will we always interpret words and deeds in the same way—it can depend on the context. For example, an off-hand comment from our partner, such as a joke at our expense, might be ignored or even taken as funny in some situations, but regarded as a major insult in others.

When we choose the latter interpretation (and we do have a choice), most of us will confront our partner to let them know that what they said or did is unacceptable. In healthy relationships, discussions will focus specifically on the issue at hand and not go off in other directions; they will then have a good chance of getting to a resolution.

But even if the problem is dealt with and resolved, affronted partners might sometimes continue to hold the thing that upset them in their heads. The accompanying negative feelings can affect how we think about and treat our partner and can form the basis for holding a grudge—which is never good for a relationship.

Ethical codes and most religious doctrines tell us that we should be forgiving to those who harm us. This advice certainly has its socially redeeming qualities, but it’s also sound from a psychological perspective. When we hold a grudge and refuse to forgive, we leave ourselves open to the danger of ruminating about the event; this is especially likely to happen if the harm came from someone we regard as important to us, such as our spouse. As we rehash in our minds the episode that’s gotten us upset, we re-experience all the negative emotions, as well as, perhaps, some behavioral outbursts. No matter how much we replay the event in our minds, the hurt remains because the event can’t be taken back.

Holding grudges is a lot of wasted work and destructive to our personal well-being, not to mention our relationship. More specifically, such behavior actually runs counter to our own self-interests—when we hold a grudge, we give power to those whom we believe harmed us. We can feel less in control of our lives because we’re focusing inwardly on the hurt and not outwardly on our own lives. In other words, we allow ourselves to be ruled by negative emotions springing from past events.

And as grudges are likely to fuel our anger, there’s a good chance we are setting ourselves up to exacerbate the problem by taking revenge, which is always a bad idea. It has been suggested that taking revenge is like drinking a cup of poison and expecting the other person to die.

In previous articles, we’ve talked about how all of us hold irrational beliefs, and such beliefs can prevent us from coping effectively in our world. Ruminating has its roots in irrational beliefs. Ruminating is irrational because past injustices cannot be changed, nor can we alleviate the unpleasantness surrounding them.

We might be thinking, "How could this person have done this to me? What’s wrong with him (or her)? What’s wrong with me?" This easily translates to the idea that the person should not have done this, as well as: "If they did this, they must be bad," or "I must be bad."

Furthermore, ruminating tends to fuel itself because negative thoughts and emotions start a chain reaction of negativity. These negative emotions then guide how we treat our partner, and sometimes others as well. Yet we haven’t solved anything. The best we can do with past mistakes—our own and our partner’s—is to learn from them and try to avoid making the same ones again.

In trying to forgive a wrongdoing, there are a few steps that you might consider.

First, acknowledge your pain and talk to others about it. Don’t deny or apologize for your thoughts and emotions. Then, try to appeal to your rational side and don’t let irrational beliefs or non-adaptive emotions get in your way. Keep in mind that forgiving is something you are doing for yourself. You will feel better and more in control of your life when you drop the anger and are no longer being ruled by non-adaptive emotions.

Again, like most change, this can require some real effort and lots of repetition. Nevertheless, the advantages to your psychological health and a healthy relationship far outweigh the costs. Forgiving our partner for a perceived harmful act does not mean that we need to continue our relationship with him or her. Some acts, such as cheating, may signal the end of a relationship. Forgiving means that we will try to have this event exert less and less effect on our own present and future thought processes, not on our partner’s.

For the sake of your own self-interests, you’re much better off if you fight the temptation to dwell on the negatives and leave past events in the past. You may have been justified in your anger, but how do you justify feeling bad twice? That’s what happens when someone decides not to forgive—you feel badly because of what had happened and you feel badly still when you hold onto the anger. We all feel better when we don’t have negative thoughts clouding up our brains.

Forgiving can be a lot easier if we keep in mind that everybody makes mistakes. When we stay angry with our partner because of mistakes they’ve made, we find it hard to accept their apologies. We may also find it difficult to maintain positive feelings about them; over time, that will interfere with our ability to enjoy our relationships.

On the other hand, when we truly accept the idea that mistakes will happen, we have a much easier time letting go of the negative emotions. We also give our brains the chance to work on fixing the problem because it’s not cluttered with negativity.

Of course, if we’re continually disappointed because of what we perceive as the things our partner does wrong, we might have to admit that our expectations are too high, or we believe there is something terribly wrong with our partner. Either way, these are things that can require some dramatic adjustments to our belief systems if the relationship is going to prosper.

Learn more in our book, Making Marriage Work.

More from Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.
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