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Forgiveness

How Forgiveness Can Help the Grief Process in Gray Divorce

Grieving and forgiveness are foundational for healing.

Key points

  • Forgiveness is essential for healing and growing through a gray divorce.
  • Few people understand the value of forgiveness.
  • Forgiveness is not a substitute for grieving.

This post is the third of a three-part series on gray divorce and the grieving process for divorcing couples, their family members, and friend and support networks.

"Gray divorce" is the term for a split that occurs in couples ages 50 and older. Researchers project that as the U.S. population ages, the number of people in this age group who divorce will grow by one-third by 2030.

Divorce research indicates that even when adults have experienced myriad losses, physical and psychological disturbances, and grieving, eventually, most of them heal and cope successfully with divorce. As South African theologian and anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu said, they can see the light despite the darkness and have hope for a better future.

Grieving is foundational for healing to occur. The timeframe for grieving significant losses like divorce can vary from months to years, and the phases that many grief theorists describe are not linear.

Alex Shute/Unsplash
Forgiveness is essential for healing.
Source: Alex Shute/Unsplash

"The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." –Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and activist

Forgiveness is essential for genuine healing. Few people truly understand forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a substitute for grieving, and it is not forgetting or condoning what someone has done that hurts you. For years, as a psychotherapist helping clients heal from the losses accompanying divorce, I searched for an effective forgiveness process. I found it at the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. Psychologist Fred Luskin, co-founder and director of the project, developed a forgiveness training methodology. Six research studies that the Stanford Forgiveness Projects conducted validate his methods. Below, from his book Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, are important points for parents experiencing a gray divorce and for those they love.

"Forgiveness is not forgetting that something painful happened, denying or minimizing your feelings, or giving up that you have feelings. Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with the one who hurt you.

Forgiveness is for you, not the one who hurt you; taking back your power; taking responsibility for how you feel; about your healing and not about the people who hurt you; a choice; and a trainable skill. Forgiveness helps you get control over your feelings and can improve your mental and physical health."

He also writes, “In careful scientific studies, forgiveness training has been shown to reduce depression, increase hopefulness, decrease anger, improve spiritual connection, increase emotional self-confidence, and help heal relationships. Learning to forgive is good for both your mental and physical well-being and your relationships.”

His forgiveness training teaches that when people do not have the tools and skills to deal with their emotional pain of things not turning out the way they want, they create what he calls grievance stories. If you answer "yes" to any of his four questions below, you have likely created a grievance story about your gray divorce or your parents’ gray divorce.

  1. Do you think about this painful situation more than you think about the things in your life that are good?
  2. When you think about this painful situation, do you become either physically uncomfortable or emotionally upset?
  3. When you think about this situation, do you do so with the same old repetitive thoughts?
  4. Do you feel yourself telling the story about what happened over and over in your mind?
Robina Weermeijer/upsplash
Mindfulness practice benefits the brain and body.
Source: Robina Weermeijer/upsplash

Brain Science Explains Why Mindfulness Practice Helps

Luskin's four questions remind us about what we know from brain science: Neurons that fire together, wire together. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb first used this phrase in 1949 to describe how neural pathways in the brain form and grow stronger when they are stimulated through repetition. This is the reason practicing mindfulness has so many benefits. Mindfulness includes breathing from your diaphragm (belly), relaxing your muscles and entire body, awareness without judgment of what you are experiencing in the current moment, and mental imagery. Practicing mindfulness stimulates the neural pathways to become stronger with positive, not negative images and emotions.

Luskin prescribes a process he calls positive emotion refocusing technique (PERT), which is a mindfulness practice. He writes: When you are feeling the effects of an unresolved grievance or ongoing relationship problem:

  1. Bring your attention fully to your stomach as you slowly draw in and out two deep breaths. As you inhale, allow the air to push your belly out gently. As you exhale, consciously relax your belly so that it feels soft.
  2. On the third full and deep inhalation, bring to your mind’s eye an image of someone you love or of a beautiful scene in nature that fills you with awe and wonder. Often people have a stronger response when they imagine their positive feelings are centered in the area around their heart.
  3. While practicing, continue with soft belly breathing.
  4. Ask the relaxed and peaceful part of you what you can do to resolve your difficulty.

Luskin points out that we impede the forgiveness process when we take things too personally, blame others for what we are feeling, and have unenforceable rules, which are our expectations about how we think something should be. For example:

  • "We were supposed to be married until death do us part."
  • “Our parents should stay married for their lifetime.”

Or, we have unenforceable rules about how someone should think or behave, for example:

  • “My dad should not be dating and acting like a giddy teenager.”
  • "My wife shouldn't be with someone who is the same age as our grown daughter."

Luskin notes that we do not have the power to make our unenforceable rules happen. Instead of remaining stuck, being upset, and obsessively thinking about our unenforceable rules, he recommends practicing the above PERT exercise to calm our fight-flight-freeze response and then state our strongest positive motivation for being in the grievance situation in the first place. For example, instead of ruminating about, “My parents should stay married for their lifetime,” state, “I want a loving, intact family.” Then accept that humans never get everything we want.

Sometimes gray divorce parents and those they love can begin the forgiveness process while still grieving. Embracing forgiveness enables you to start practicing mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, and broadening your perspective. You can begin to see a different future than the one you imagined before the divorce.

Source: Hareez Husaini/Unsplash
Looking forward helps healing from a gray divorce.
Source: Hareez Husaini/Unsplash

This is why car windshields are much larger than the rear and side-view mirrors. When we are looking forward, we need a broader range of vision than the rear and side-view mirrors provide.

Copyright 2022 Carol R. Hughes, Ph.D.

References

Ahrons, C. R. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2006.00191.x.

Amato, P. R. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.01269.x.

Brown, S. L. and Lin, I-F. doi:10.1093/geronb/gbs089.

Davis, D. M. and Hayes, J. A. doi:10.1037/e584442012-022

Davis, D. M. and Hayes, J. A. doi: 10.1037/a0022062

Luskin, F. Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. New York: Harper Collins Publishers

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