By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “How can I ever forgive my ex after what I’ve been put through?”
Weary from people telling you that you should just forget and forgive your ex and move on with your life? Frustrated by how easy that sounds, but how difficult it is to do? Would you like a new way to “let go” of your ex without feeling you have absolved him or her for what he or she did to you? This article shows you a new way to deal with forgiveness that works without compromising your values or minimizing your experience.
We’ve all heard it before. “Forgive and forget.” “Turn the other cheek.” “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” “To err is human, to forgive divine.”
This is all well-intentioned advice, I’m sure. However, while it might look good on paper, or sound good in a sermon, forgiveness is not that simple for mortal human beings. Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It,” may work on the playing field, but it does not work in the field of human relationships, especially when dealing with divorce.
The Fundamental Difficulty in Forgiving Your Ex
I don’t know about you, but when I got divorced, these socially appropriate prescriptions for what I “should” do could not have been further from my mind. I felt angry, resentful, abandoned, apprehensive, disconsolate, frightened, furious, hurt, and overwhelmed, among others. Well-meaning advice telling me simply to forget it, forgive her, and move on was silly. However, that was all I heard!
Divorce, including recovery from divorce, is a life transition. It takes time. Likewise, letting go of our attachments to how things used to be takes time. This includes our attachments, both positive and negative, to our ex. Letting go of the emotional ties to another is not an act of logic and can’t be accomplished by making a rational decision.
A More Helpful, And Humane, Approach to Forgiveness
Then I ran on to a book by two educators and psychologists, Sydney and Suzanne Simon, entitled How to Make Peace with Your Past and Get on with Your Life. This book puts a human touch to forgiveness. It removed my guilt about not being able to make the simple decision to “forgive” my ex. For the first time I had a way to think about forgiveness that was truly useful. Their book laid out what forgiveness is, and what it is not, and in the process, pointed out the way to let go of the past so we can get on with our lives.
What Forgiveness Is Not
Simon and Simon point out that what all major religious traditions tell us about forgiveness is not scientifically true. That is, forgiveness is NOT
(1) a Clear-Cut, One-Time Decision that is usually communicated by some form of
(2) Public Pronouncement, preferably to the ex, in which we acknowledge a degree of
(3) Self Sacrifice by promising to
(4) Forget what was done to us, and offer
(5) Absolution to the perpetrator, while in the process giving the impression that we actually
(6) Condone what they did.
What Forgiveness Is
On the other hand, they tell us that Forgiveness IS (1) the By-Product of an 2) Ongoing, Internal, Healing Process in which, over time, we Let Go of the intense Emotions attached to incidents from our past with our ex.
Some outcomes of this “letting go” include the recognition that we no longer need our grudges, resentments, hatred, and self-pity. In addition, we no longer want to punish our ex who hurt us because we realize that nothing we do to punish our ex will heal us. That is, it is an “inside job.”
What Does This Means for You and Me?
Some consequences of treating forgiveness as the by-product of an ongoing healing process include:
(1) Don’t expect forgiveness to come all at once. The negative feelings will linger until they are “dissolved away.”
(2) We must take personal responsibility to engage in the healing process. Time alone will not do it. Making a public, or private, declaration will not do it.
(3) Well-meaning people will tell you to do stuff concerning forgiveness, and how you feel about your ex, that is just wrong. We must courteously ignore them while we go about healing ourselves.
The good news is, if we “do the work” required to heal from the pain of the divorce transition, one day we will wake up and realize it has been days or weeks since we had any strong feelings about our ex. This means forgiveness is complete.
So, what is “the work” we have to do? What does this “healing process” look like? Where can I go to get it started?