Partner's Workshop: Stage Five; Lesson Six
Preparing for Forgiveness...
As we explore the concept of forgiveness, take a few moments to ensure that you are in the right frame of mind. This means that you will not be filtering what you read through a defensive, aggressive, defiant or otherwise emotionally-challenged state. Empty your mind of all preconceived thoughts as to whether you should or should not forgive those who have wronged you. Free yourself of all the pressure you may feel towards the expectation to forgive. And for the remainder of this lesson, consider only how forgiveness (or the decision not to forgive) might further your own transition towards a stable, balanced life.
Why You Must Forgive — Part I
You must forgive your partner — it's that simple. Whatever they may have done to you, no matter how many times they may have done it, it is no longer about their actions, but your reactions. It now becomes your responsibility to forgive them. That is what being a partner is all about. That is what being a compassionate human being is all about. And, if you continue to hold on to the anger and resentment that you may feel, when you see how much those destructive feelings are holding back the relationship...then it is you who is responsible for sabotaging your partner's recovery. This is especially true when your partner has openly committed to changing their life. If you do not forgive him/her, it is you who is the problem. And if you ever want to feel better, if you ever want your life back...then there comes a time when you must forgive and forget. So, if you want to heal, you must stop holding on to the anger...you must stop bringing up all of the negative memories. You have punished your partner long enough and it is time to get on with both of your lives.
Of course, every sentence above is false. Go back and read through that paragraph. Each and every sentence is absolutely false in relation to forgiveness. Each one outlines just about the worst approach to take — and yet, many partners feel some of these exact pressures on a daily basis. "Get over it!" "I've changed!" "Stop bringing up the past!" Such statements place a subtle pressure on you to forgive your partner for their behavior and 'wipe the slate clean'. To give them a 'second chance'. Or third. Or fourth.
Why is the pressure so great for you to offer forgiveness? Because in most cases, your partner really does love you. Without your knowing it, you serve as their moral mirror. That you continue to love them is enough validation to provide them with the hope that they just might be someone other than the person they know themselves to be. It is for this reason that they lie to you at all costs...and it is why they are desperate to hear that you have forgiven them. In order for their emotions to remain in relative balance, they must have an identity that is capable of counter-balancing the secret, immoral identity that exists within the confounds of sexual addiction. In your partner's mind, for as long as you see him/her as the sick, corrupt, immoral person that they know themselves to be, they will have lost their moral compass. They will feel lost, ashamed, emotionally overwhelmed. They will experience an identity crisis that will not resolve until they have either found someone new to become that moral compass, or until they have completely accepted their destructive behaviors as a normal part of who they are. Only your forgiveness offers them emotional relief to the extremely intense shame they experience as a result of your discovering their secret selves.
If we were to end the introduction here, it might be argued that you should never forgive your partner...as doing so will allow them to return to their dual life. And, there is some truth to this. But that is not what is being proposed. Intentionally withholding forgiveness in a conscious effort to punish your partner (or in your mind, 'hold them accountable') means that the shame that your partner is holding on to...and believe me when I say that such core shame is extremely intense...will be the greatest obstacle for them to overcome in transitioning to a healthy life. So, in terms of forgiveness, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't. The goal of this lesson will be to offer you a healthy perspective on forgiveness so that, while there will be negative consequences for both forgiving/not forgiving your partner...you will learn to generate a significantly more positive outcome — no matter which may occur.
What is there to forgive?
Everyone — every single one of us — has been mistreated by another person at some point in our life. We may have been abused, treated unfairly, lied to, abandoned, neglected, molested, humiliated, dominated, withheld love, etc. For some, the actions may not have involved us directly, but the consequences still had a tremendous effect on our lives. Situations like parental infidelity/promiscuity, parental divorce, the abuse of a sibling, careless behavior of a family member/spouse that led to their death (or the death of another), incarceration, etc., are capable of producing profoundly negative consequences in our life. No matter who we are or what our backgrounds, we all have lingering issues that require the need to make decisions as to whether we should forgive or not forgive the person that perpetuated the wrong. Obviously, this holds true for wrongs perpetrated through partners engaged in sex, love and porn addiction — as the consequences resulting from such behavior can often be lifelong.
By now, you have already explored the majority of those wrongs, so there is no need to revisit that list now. Instead, what you will be asked to do is to refine your perceptions in three areas. One area is to begin assessing the consequences of your partner's action by examining the offending behavior within the context of your life span. Another is to refine your perceptions of your partner in that same manner — across your life span. And the final perception is to refine your perceptions based on your partner in the context of his/her life span. To see them as a total being, from child to adult. To humanize them once more.
Refining Your Perceptions
To pursue true forgiveness, you are being asked to refine your perceptions of your partner and their behavior. This is not an easy thing to do, as the consequences of your partner's behavior are often destructive and overwhelming. Instead, it is much easier to perceive your partner in a manner that dehumanizes them. That simplifies and categorizes their actions. Because they have acted in a manner that makes no rational sense to you, you conclude that there is a clear reason for this. They are immoral. They are immature. They are selfish. They are (enter whatever label you wish here). But this is not an accurate perception of the totality of their behavior. Yes, your partner may very well be immature, and make immoral decisions, and act in selfish ways...but that is not who they are. It is only a part of who they are. And it is certainly not a guarantee of who they will be in the future. So, to take behavior stemming from sexual compulsions out of context and assign character labels to your partner is to do yourself a disservice. The motivations for compulsive behavior is much more complicated than that — as you should be starting to understand by now.
Now, it is all but impossible to look beyond the immorality, the deceptions and the blatant disrespect that your partner has shown you and the relationship. Fortunately, you are not being asked to do this. For forgiveness to occur, it is important that a sense of closure develops. In order for that closure to take place, you must openly come to terms with all of the consequences that have resulted in this crisis so that, should you make the decision to forgive your partner, it is a permanent decision — and not one that will emotionally linger for months and years afterwards. This does not mean that you must accept each consequence, or understand each consequence — it doesn't even mean that you need to identify each consequence. What it does mean is that no consequence that you have identified goes ignored.
How do I refine my perceptions?
Most often, destructive, irrational behavior is examined only in the context in which it was displayed. When this happens, such partner responses as, "What did I do wrong?" "Doesn't he find me attractive anymore?" "How could he do this to me? " "How could he do this to our relationship?" are common — though completely unhealthy. Any attempts to discern the motivation for your partner's behavior by looking at your role in the process will merely prolong the trauma that you have experienced, and will continue to negatively influence your own identity and confidence. That is not to say that there aren't ways you might improve yourself, or efforts that can be made to improve the relationship — that is almost always the case in every relationship — but any short comings that you may be searching for as a 'reason' for your partner's compulsive behavior is self-sabotage. And completely irrelevant to understanding the actual motivations for their behavior.
This is why it is so important for you to make a perceptual change towards the way you have processed your partner's actions. By expanding your awareness to include that behavior in the context of your partner's life, you allow yourself to come to the necessary conclusion that this is indeed a destructive pattern that has developed apart from you. That you played no role in your partner's addiction. Additionally, it should allow you to recognize that your partner made no conscious effort to develop an addiction. And that, most importantly, your partner did not engage in such behavior in a direct attempt to hurt you or your relationship. Granted, that does little to soften the consequences of the behavior, but it should help to 'humanize' your partner — allowing you to focus more on the specific destructive patterns involved, rather than the general characterological issues that define their identity.
So, to refine your perceptions, you will need to expand your awareness in three areas: how the consequences will have affected you over the course of your life (destructive versus constructive); how your partner's patterns have evolved over his/her lifetime; and the third is to recognize the role that your partner has played (may still play) in the context of your life. Exploring these perceptions will be at the crux of the exercises for this lesson.
This perceptual refinement is a critical part of learning how to forgive, as it allows you to forgive with understanding and compassion; or should you choose not to forgive, to do so also with an understanding and compassion (for yourself). It is only through a brave, honest, open look at all of the elements involved with a particular harmful act that personal closure can be achieved.
To Forgive or Not To Forgive
Must you forgive your partner in order to achieve emotional stability and closure? Absolutely not. Can offering forgiveness present you with one of the most effective tools in the healing process? Absolutely. Forgiveness is not a moral absolute. You have a choice as to whether or not to forgive someone — as both choices offer benefits (and pitfalls) on your road to healing. But without a doubt, the choice to forgive — when it is sincere, voluntary and complete — can offer you the greatest personal reward. But, the decision not to forgive — when it is made through calm, conscious choice — can also offer significant benefits towards healing.
Many religions teach that it is not for you to sit in judgment of others...that your role ends with forgiveness and mercy. It is taught that God is the only acceptable source for judgment and vengeance. This complicates things, as this is a rather simplistic view of such a complicated aspect of human nature. Keep in mind that there is a difference between judging someone's behavior and determining the consequences for that behavior. Judging the behavior of others — especially when the consequences of that behavior have directly affected you — is a natural, healthy and necessary way to develop your own boundaries. And, it is an effective means for recognizing and respecting the boundaries of others. While society may teach that the noble person offers mercy when there is no compelling reason to do so, it is almost always taken out of context. Reality dictates that you must develop an awareness of the effects that others have had on your life in order for you to grow. And judging others is necessary for this awareness to develop. Judging others is a natural part of the life experience. And when such judgment includes the wrongs that have been perpetuated upon you, the decision to forgive comes into play.
When it comes to forgiveness in a traumatic event, many become blinded by hate, shame, helplessness, love — at least early in the crisis. They tend to look back on certain people or events as being all bad (or all good). In response, they position themselves to make drastic decisions regarding the need to immediately forgive the person for what they have done, or to commit to never forgiving them. Both are unhealthy. In order for true forgiveness to take place, there must be an accurate perception of the situation that has created the need for forgiveness. This is a must, and yet it is the most frequently neglected aspect of learning how to forgive. Yes, learning how to forgive. Because forgiveness is a skill that must be learned...and chances are, nobody has ever taught you how to forgive — it has just been an expectation that you were supposed to forgive. Well, it doesn't work that way. While forgiveness can be a natural experience, there are some definite skills involved. The remainder of this lesson will focus on those skills.
Beginning the Process of Mastering Forgiveness
To master forgiveness, you must have a solid understanding of the types of forgiveness that are commonly associated with addiction: forgiving yourself, forgiving others and allowing others to be forgiven. By developing a sincere understanding and implementation of these three concepts, you will significantly reduce the prolonged consequences that accompany forgiveness when it is offered through contrived, insincere or forced methods.
As mentioned above, forgiveness starts with gaining a thorough understanding of the situation that surrounded the wrong. It means courageously exploring all of the elements that were involved in a particular act (or a particular person) — rather than focusing solely on the negative parts that make it easy to hate. Of course, it may not always be possible to understand or gather the facts in all situations — dealing with being gang-raped or having your child murdered by an unknown assailant are some extreme examples, but it should still be attempted — for your sake. Especially when the perpetrator is a family member, friend or plays some other active social role in your life.
Recalling previous information presented in the workshop, you should recognize that unresolved emotional extremes can rarely be managed through your value system — mainly because such extremes significantly disrupt the health of that value system. Your goal then, is to seek a resolution to those unresolved emotional extremes, so that you may once again rely on your values to regain balance and control. But how? To seek an end to the anger, rage, hatred, resentment...you should seek an end to the issue of forgiveness.
This may mean that you have made the decision to forgive your partner — in which case you have released them from further consequences relating to their past behavior. This does not mean that you condone that behavior, that they are released from responsibility for that behavior, or that they are not responsible for current and future behavior — it only means that you have come to see your partner's behavior in the context of being a human being, and that the current consequences of those past actions are sufficient to allow you both to move on.
This may mean that you have made the decision to never forgive your partner — in which case you have come to the conclusion that you have suffered enough as a result of their behavior, and wish no more part in their life. If this is the case, then the closure occurs only after you have moved on with your life — rather than continuing to ruminate and obsess over 'what was done to you'.
This may mean that you have made the decision to pursue forgiveness, but consciously choose to withhold it for now. In such a case, you have set certain expectations and milestones for your partner to achieve — in order to regain your trust.
With whatever decision you make, the issue is not with whether or not you have forgiven them, but that the decision you have made is one that you are comfortable with, and one that you are in control of. And know that, until such a decision is made, you will leave yourself vulnerable and emotionally unstable.
It was stated above that forgiveness is not an absolute. That you have the choice as to whether or not to forgive others for the influence that they have had on your life. This is not the case with forgiving yourself. When it comes to yourself, you must pursue forgiveness in a healthy way. Why? Because true forgiveness opens the door to true understanding, and it opens the door to allowing yourself to allow others to be forgiven. If that didn't make sense to you, read it again. Forgiving yourself allows you to allow others to be forgiven. Life skills such as intimacy, compassion, self-esteem, social interaction...these are skills that cannot be integrated into a healthy set of values when self-loathing and self-hatred persist.
With few exceptions, people who have struggled with compulsive behavior have many regrets. Depending on the severity of these compulsions, significant amounts of time and potential may have been wasted in the pursuit of these compulsions. For you, it is important to gain an accurate perception of these losses, and put them into the context of your life. Most of this has already been done in the first stage of the workshop. You should already have a pretty good idea of the consequences of your behavior...and so there is no need to relive it. What is important now is for you to have a clear understanding of those behaviors in the context of your life. You should be far enough along in recovery not to get too distracted by what you are going to be asked to do. This is not an exercise that is meant to conjure up extreme emotions, with the noted exceptions of compassion, understanding and forgiveness, so do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed.
When is the right time to forgive?
There is no right answer to this. There are, however, wrong answers — times when forgiveness should not be pursued (or expected). These include:
- You should never feel compelled to forgive someone as a result of others using guilt, power or the thoughts that there is something wrong with you if you aren't able to forgive.
- You should try not to draw forgiveness out over long periods, use it as a reward, or rescind it once it has been offered. If new destructive behaviors appear, they should be treated as separate incidents...within the context of your values and boundaries. If contracts for such behavior are in place (and they should be when addiction is involved), the consequences for that behavior must be enforced. But for your sake, avoid at all costs such emotional statements that renew past experiences of anger. Statements like, "I knew you wouldn't really change!" or "This is just like when you used to (enter behavior here)!"
- You should never feel compelled to forgive someone simply because the person who has wronged you has repented and made changes to his/her life. (Though this is something that should definitely be taken into consideration.)
- Closely related to the above, you should be extremely wary of ever offering forgiveness based on words and promises. Look instead towards the actions of those who have wronged you. The saying, "words are cheap" have never been so applicable as to those attempting to apologize. Even the sincerest apologies need to be backed up with action. Because it is only through action that real change occurs.
- You should never feel compelled to forgive someone in an effort to stabilize, encourage or motivate their behavior. This is especially common in a committed relationship where a rush to forgive the partner is used as a Band-Aid to avoid having to face otherwise painful feelings. If you are committed to this relationship, take the time to work through these painful feelings when the time is right. Otherwise, you will most likely find yourself experiencing them again later...after wasting many more valuable years. It is important for the person to know the effects that their behavior has had on you, and not simply be forgiven without further developing their recognition of boundaries (both yours and theirs).
- Do not forgive someone because you don't know what else to do (i.e. "Nothing else is working, maybe this will."). That is, don't use forgiveness as a "last resort" to salvage your relationship.
The above list is directed at the act of you forgiving others, but it is just as relevant to your own expectations of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a very precious, personal thing that can significantly assist you in your own healing and growth. It allows you to gain back control over situations where you previously may have felt none. Take forgiveness very seriously and never for granted.
Why You Must Forgive — Part II
Do you have to forgive your partner? No. Should you forgive your partner? Not necessarily. But if you can find it in your heart to forgive, and are able to do so completely, then it is in your best interest to do so. Not for your partner, but for you. Because what you are seeking is control and stability. And nothing will assist you more than to eventually look at your partner without seeing what he/she has 'done to you', but to see them for what they are doing with you. If you know that you will never be able to forgive your partner, then make that decision known, and make the necessary adjustments to your relationship (up to and including the possibility of ending it). It is a closure to this crisis that you are pursuing, and forgiving (or choosing not to forgive) allows you to move closer to that closure.
A. Consider the consequences of your partner's behavior over the course of your lifetime. How might they affect future decisions that you make? What positive roles might these consequences play in your life?
B. Referring specifically to your partner, take some time to consider the addictive patterns over the course of his/her lifetime. Imagine your partner as a child. Imagine them as a teen. Imagine them as an adult. Imagine them in other relationships. Gain a firm grasp as to how similar patterns have helped them to manage their life. What thoughts come to mind?
C. What does it mean to 'humanize' your partner? Why is this important in forgiveness and in seeking closure to the current crisis?