“You have wronged me” she said. “You have been unfaithful, deceitful and uncaring.” His expression is one of remorse. “I’m so sorry” he replied. “How can I make it up to you?” The therapist observes. She believes there is hope for this couple. It’s her turn now. She has been trained in various healing approaches but which one will she choose. Read on to understand why she chose to counsel the troubled couple on the benefits of forgiveness.
Three decades ago Bob Enright, PhD., University of Wisconsin, pioneered a study on forgiveness as it relates to positive psychology. Dr. Enright says that forgiveness is more than letting go or moving on. True forgiveness allows us to reconstruct our perception of the person who hurt us from negative to positive. Forgiveness is a virtue encompassing empathy, compassion and understanding according to Dr. Enright. In opposition to popular belief, it is not weakness.
“Forgiveness and Health” is a 2015 book written by Toussaint, Worthington and Williams. These authors point out that stress reduction is the greatest benefit of forgiveness. “Forgiveness allows you to let go of the chronic interpersonal stressors that cause us undue burden.” Other benefits are the release of toxic anger; anger that is deep and enduring, release of muscle tension, release of anxiety – all with a counter effect of strengthened energy and immune support.
What then is the outcome of a troubled couple who has suffered a marriage trauma, decided to stay married but does not work on forgiveness? Research supports a strong relationship between stress reduction, psychological well being and forgiveness. In the absence of forgiveness, grudges may intensify, stress may build and there may be a focus on the traumatic event rather than on the process of healing. The outcome may be more misery, conflict and a negative conclusion.
What if one believes they are simply not the forgiving type? Toussaint has good news for these folks. “You don’t have to be the world’s most forgiving person. If you work at it, it takes the edge off the stress and ultimately that helps you feel better.” He recommends developing empathy, keeping a journal, and trying if you possibly can to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
How can taking a few steps back into the past help the present? Certain therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focuses on the present. However, sometimes revisiting the past and facing the pain can provide an easier path to a more harmonious present. Coop Gordon, PhD at the University of Tennessee focuses her practice on couples infidelities. “Sometimes it’s worthwhile to go back to the historical events and process them on a deeper level with couples and individuals. If you’re too focused on the present, you can forget about the past’s influence in the present.”
Where then can a couple start to begin healing through forgiveness? Dr. Enright’s forgiveness model uses a four phase approach: 1) uncovering the negative feelings about the offense 2) making a decision to forgive 3) working to understand the offending person and 4) discovering empathy and compassion for her or him. A trained licensed psychologist can guide you through these steps with the goal of achieving a more harmonious relationship.
Being able to understand the past and these old, pushed away feelings and memories will help you to effect positive change in your life and not repeat what has caused suffering in the past. As a couples therapist in Pasadena I understand the obstacles and challenges that individuals and couples face. Donna Shanahan, LMFT practices Couples Therapy Pasadena, CA Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.