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You might have forgiveness all wrong

When you say forgiveness, what do you mean?

Here's a little self-quiz to check your knowledge of forgiveness. The answers are at the end of this blog.

  1. If my partner/spouse apologizes, I must forgive them? True/False

  2. Forgiving someone means that I need to trust them again. True/ False

  3. Forgiveness is the only way to repair a relationship. True/False

  4. I can choose to forgive, even if my emotions are still angry or upset. True/False

  5. Science can't really tell us whether it's possible to forgive. True/False

John & Barbara are in my office for couple counseling and they are angry. There had been a pretty big offense. John had a secret bank account so he could spend it on things he knew Barbara wouldn't support- spending big bucks on a high-end whiskey trading hobby, and videogame subscriptions. He had been pulling money from his paycheck to put into that account. But then somehow a bank account notice was sent to their house, and Barbara saw it and it all spilled out. She felt betrayed, that he had been unjust to keep funds from her secretly. He felt pretty awful about it too. "I just don't know how to say no to her Dr. Jen. I mean she's so good to me really, and I just never can say no to women. So I kept the secret because I knew she wouldn't want me spending so much on whiskey and gaming. I apologized to her but she just can't get over it"

Apologies and Forgiveness are Different

Because couples live so closely together, and share so much, it is inevitable that there will be many mild offenses and some moderate or even severe offenses over time. Just being different people with different needs will sometimes cause offense. It can seem like you will be on the same page and see things the same after an offense is over. But that's not always the case. One person should apologize, and the other should forgive. Many people believe that.

But apologies aren't the same as forgiveness. They are two separate thing.

It can be helpful when there is a clear, sincere, apology where the partner takes responsibility for their part in the offensive situation. So if John apologizes saying something like "I shouldn't have kept funds secretly from you, when I knew we agreed to keep all our funds together. I was dishonest and that was hurtful to you. I am sorry" That can be helpful. But that's not forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not the same as Trust

Barbara might respond to that apology with continued protest about the injustice of what John did. She might withdraw and get sad about what it means to her. She might make a commitment to work together and try to improve things. She might even try and understand what about John's experience makes it hard for him to say no to women, especially her. None of those things are forgiveness.

Most of the time there is a process of 1) admitting the offense did happen and was hurtful, 2) apology, 3) restitution, and then 4) forgiveness followed by 5) trust-building. This isn't always how it goes in a relationship, but it is common for this process to take some time. There is one thing that the science of forgiveness has taught us (see and that forgiveness takes some time and effort on the part of the forgiver. Trust also takes time.

Trust requires both a trusting and trustworthy partner on both sides of the equation to reach a renewed trust. This often requires more than just apology and forgiveness, but efforts towards showing oneself to be trustworthy in the area of offense.

Forgiveness is a Good way to Repair a Relationship, but Not the Only Way

Forgiveness has demonstrated to predict better relationship quality across multiple research studies. If partners are apologizing and forgiving, they also tend to be happier and healthier. But that's not the only path towards repair.

Partners can

Forgive: Release the need for revenge or harm the other person, and decide to forgive while pursuing emotional forgiveness

Seek Justice: Sometimes an injustice in a relationship needs to have some kind of justice, whether through a justice system for something illegal, or through a family decision that metes out family - level justice to the offender. In this case that might be John selling his whiskey collection and putting money into the family coffers.

Forbearance: Forbearance is accepting the offense and choosing to move forward. Close relationships do require some level of acceptance that offenses do happen, neither partner is perfect, and some offenses should just be accepted as part of living with a wonderful but imperfect person. Too much forbearance isn't healthy, but all relationships require some forbearance.

Offering Restitution: When an injustice gap or offense happens in a relationship, it can be helpful for the offending party to offer up acts of service, loving words, resources, or other restitution to reduce the injustice gap. This isn't forgiveness, but it is good.

Decisional and Emotional Forgiveness are Two Different Things

Dr. Everett Worthington, Jr., Professor Emeritus from Virginia Commonwealth University has studied emotional and decisional forgiveness for decades.

Decision forgiveness is when a person decides to forgive the interpersonal offense, and not seek revenge for it. They may decide to let go of angry thoughts and actions. This can help alleviate some of the distress around the offense and dissuade people from seeking revenge.

Emotional forgiveness is when a person releases the negative emotions about the offender and replaces them with more positive emotions. For example, Barbara may stop ruminating about the offense, release her anger towards John, and focusing on empathy for his difficulty saying no to women. She may seek to understand how his relationship with women in the past might have contributed to that, and how she might even have contributed to a dynamic where being honest about negative things was not acceptable in their home.

Partners may decide to forgive early in the process, and emotional forgiveness usually takes longer to achieve.

The Science of Couple Forgiveness is Quite Robust: Forgiveness is Good Most of the Time

There is a substantial research base now for couple forgiveness helps couples

  • regulate negative emotions in their relationship,

  • lower guilt and shame through forgiveness processes

  • allow the offender to release shame and engage in the relationship more positively

  • commit to their relationship while forgiving

  • make sacrifices for their relationship while forgiving

  • find avenues towards forgiveness through perspective taking and empathy

There is a small amount of research on the "dark side" of forgiveness with couples who have aggression or violence. In some couples where one person offends and the other one forgives, this actually increases the probability of aggression in the relationship (McNulty study). This is still being studied but it seems people who are aggressive may sometimes respond to forgiveness with increased aggression.

So how did you do?

  1. If my partner/spouse apologizes, I must forgive them? False, these are different

  2. Forgiving someone means that I need to trust them again. False, different

  3. Forgiveness is the only way to repair a relationship. False, there are other ways

  4. I can choose to forgive, even if my emotions are still angry or upset. True, decisional forgiveness is one step, emotional forgiveness is a separate step

  5. Science can't really tell us whether it's possible to forgive. False, the science is robust

This intervention is part of the "Increasing bond by repair, forgiving and reconciling" unit within Hope Focused Couple Counseling.

Hope Focused Counseling

  • Intake and Feedback/ Conceptualization

  • Stabilization of conflict cycles (if needed)

  • Increasing bond by exploring patterns

  • Increasing bond by communication and conflict resolution skill building

  • Increasing bond by repair, forgiving and reconciling

  • Consolidating gains and planning for long-term future

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