The Four-Part Forgiveness Method for Couples
by Jennifer Ripley, Ph.D., Psychologist, Professor
I’ve done a lot of clinical work with couples working on forgiveness. Some of them have had enormous, heartbreaking offenses of manipulation, control, aggression or infidelity. Some have had many small offenses of slights, ignoring, criticisms and stonewalling. Whether the offenses are large or small, single-offense or repeated offenses, it’s never easy.
But there comes a point in couple counseling process when the communication has improved some, when past relationships have been explored, and conflict patterns have been illuminated. The couple knows what to do, but there are still negative (even toxic) feelings. They need to release those negative feelings but are having a hard time.
When the anger, frustration, embarrassment, and struggles from the past are hanging on, it’s time to work on forgiveness. Whether you are a therapist who wants to help a couple with forgiveness, or a couple trying to work through forgiveness yourself.
People often want to forgive, but HOW?
1. Identify Four Forgiveness Scenarios
Identify four things that need forgiveness in your life. One of them should be outside of your relationship with your partner, and three inside the relationship. Note that if you have a traumatic/ severe offense (e.g., domestic violence, infidelity) you likely will need more help and time than this exercise will offer. These four offenses will be targets to help learning how to forgive, so pick things you think you could make progress on.
Example: a) I still have some angry/sad feelings about my former coworker who undercut me at work; b) my spouse not being responsive when I was sick; c) my spouse used curse words at me in a fight last month; d) my spouse was indifferent to me when I was crying in our fight last month.
If you are doing this together in couple counseling, or working on it together then give each other the list of four thing. Each partner has “veto power” over what things to work on together.
2. Learn the REACH model of forgiveness.
Importantly REACH stands for
R= Remember the hurt in a new and different way.
E= Empathy for the other person, in this case for your partner who got into a place where they hurt the person they love.
A= Altruistic Gift of forgiveness for your partner. Ponder how everyone needs forgiveness sometimes, including yourself and how meaningful it is to give and receive forgiveness in a love relationship.
C= Commit to forgiveness. Even if not ready for full forgiveness yet, but to work towards forgiveness and releasing the emotional offense.
H= Hold onto forgiveness, once given and received with careful interactions and protection of the work of forgiveness.
Another key concept about forgiveness is emotional vs. decisional forgiveness.
Emotional forgiveness is the release of negative emotions replaced with more soft, warm and positive emotions towards the other person.
Decisional forgiveness is making a decision to choose peace, not engage in retaliation or withdraw from the relationship. To try and be careful and thoughtful, even if still hurt and feeling pain from the offense.
Both types of forgiveness are important.
3. Practice Apologies and Taking Responsibility for Your Part
Some couples use apologies well, but many have never been in the habit of apologizing well and taking responsibility for their part of difficult situations. Healthy mature relationships involve taking responsibility for your part, no more but no less either.
I am sorry that I did _______________. I see that it hurt you or caused difficulties for you. I really don’t want to hurt you. I would like to take responsibility for my part in that difficult situation. I hope you will be able to accept my apology; if not now, then maybe later.
Notice how important it is to make this a “but, of course, normal” part of your lives. You will hurt each other at times. Hard days happen. You are both human. Take responsibility for times when your humanness caused pain, offense, or difficulties for your partner.
4. Work on Forgiveness
First, start with the person whom you need to forgive outside of your relationship. Use the REACH Model (this REACH workbook LINK is designed to walk you through it) applied to that offense.
Then work on the three offenses within your relationship, one by one.
Time spent working on forgiveness is key to finding relief and forward movement in your decisions and emotions.
Reflect on What you Learned
Do you feel you are practicing and learning HOW to forgive when you need to forgive someone?
Do you notice thoughts or emotions that rise up when you work on forgiveness? Some people struggle with guilt for their own offenses. If that is you, then you might benefit from working on self-forgiveness (LINK to self-forgiveness workbook).
Other people have a hard time admitting they have hurt someone they love. Often there is a sense of self-condemnation and a desire to protect oneself from vulnerability in the relationship. If I admit I did something wrong, will my partner attack me with it?
Where do you find that the road of forgiveness gets really hard to keep going?
Suppose you find that trust and difficulty believing your partner won’t harm you with apology and forgiveness. In that case, you might also need to work on reconciliation and trust-building between you.
Talk with each other, or with your therapist, about the process and experience of forgiveness for you.