Of the few certainties in life (the best known being death and paying taxes), there is one that is inevitable in close relationships. One day, someone you love or feel close to will hurt you. They may be unkind about your looks, or your friends. They may run off with the au pair, or insult your family. Being close to someone means they can kick you where it hurts the most. And if they do, how will you respond?
Retaliate, of course. If not straight away, you can always bear a grudge, so that however long it takes, even as you breathe your last, you will try to exact revenge. Except that vengeance is no longer current. These days, it's all about forgiving.
The UN's report Forgiveness, which looks at the psychological research into the subject, cites studies showing the importance of forgiving within personal relationships, as well as between war-torn nations. It makes you healthier and happier, the research says; it makes you feel stronger – it was Mahatma Gandhi who said, "Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong" – and better about yourself. Holding a grudge is bad for your blood pressure (no surprises there), causes anxiety and can reduce your life expectancy. It affects you and not them – the offender has probably forgotten all about what's making you bitter and twisted.
In relationships, couples who forgive each other are happier than those who don't – and happier couples are in any case more likely to forgive each other than those who have been making each other miserable for years.
But forgiving – as well as being dull compared with revenge – is by no means easy. Forgiveness experts define it as a process that results in your losing the desire to retaliate and letting go of negative emotions. You can forgive but not be reconciled to the person you are forgiving. You can forgive without telling them. No wonder it's not easy: the International Forgiveness Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a forgiveness model with 20 steps.
One of the world's experts on forgiveness is Frank Fincham of Florida State University. "Forgiving brings you peace and closure," he says. "But it takes time. It's more accurate to say to someone, 'I will try to forgive you.' To say you'll forgive and forget is a contradiction. You can forgive only when you remember."
So how do you forgive? First think about the benefits (no obsessing over how upset you are, no more feeling anxious or put upon), then about things you might have done wrong (no one is perfect); revisit what happened, seeing if you can understand your reaction and why the other person might have behaved in the way they did. As Fincham says, "It's a free choice to forgive or not, but you can usually make a cost benefit analysis for it."
The importance of forgiveness
Forgiveness is part of the process of healing and letting go of the past.
Posted on December 12, 2016 by Lisa Tams, Michigan State University Extension
When two people are angry with each other, each side feels hurt by the other and would like to receive an apology. Unfortunately, many people believe that they “lose” by admitting they hurt the other person. So neither side apologizes and the mutual resentment continues indefinitely. It’s important to remember that you do not lose by apologizing and admitting that you have been hurting the other person. You win and so does the other person.
So what exactly is forgiveness?We have a lot of misconceptions about it. For example, that it means being weak, not demanding justice, excusing the reprehensible behavior, or letting oneself be treated badly. It’s not any of those things! Forgiveness means to cease to feel resentment against someone or something. It is very empowering to know that you can regain your sense of self. You can wake up each day without reliving the past, even though you won’t forget it.
Four myths about forgiveness
- Forgiving means forgetting. False! Your brain doesn’t stop remembering. Instead of dwelling on the past, you are now free to protect yourself and move on.
- Forgiving means you’re a pushover. Absolutely not! Forgiving puts you in a position of strength. You can still hold people accountable, but you take away that person’s power to hurt you anymore.
- Forgiving means you can’t get angry. Not true! You don’t excuse unkind, inconsiderate, selfish behavior nor minimize your own pain. You can’t change the past or predict the future, but you don’t have to suffer forever either.
- Forgiving means reconciliation. Not always! It just gives you emotional space to make decisions that are best for you. It helps you decide, with strength and confidence, what’s best for you. You can decide if you want to work things out, or just walk away or do something else.
Why should we forgive?
The Stanford Forgiveness Project has shown that learning to forgive lessens the amount of hurt, anger, stress and depression that people experience. People who forgive also become more hopeful, optimistic and compassionate and have enhanced conflict resolution skills. This research also found that people who forgive report significantly fewer physical symptoms of stress such as a backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches and upset stomachs. The act of forgiveness also increases energy and overall well-being.
How to forgive
- Acknowledge the pain you feel and recognize who is responsible for causing that pain.
- Express your emotions in healthy ways.
- Release any expectations you have of righting the wrong that was done to you.
- Be mindful of or restore your boundaries so that this doesn’t happen again. Remind yourself that people cannot give you what they don’t have. Remember what to expect of others.
- Find new ways to get your needs met in the future.
- Don’t say things like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This is not an apology, but a criticism.
- Don’t make your apology conditional on the other person’s apology. “I’ll admit I was wrong if you admit you were wrong.” Just apologize for what you did wrong. If the other person wants to apologize back, it is their choice, but do not expect it.
- Learning to forgive requires acceptance by acknowledging that what happened really happened, instead of wishing it were different.
- Release the unhealthy attachment you previously maintained concerning how the other person behaves.
- Reframe your life story and find meaning in the broken places. Redefine, recreate and restructure your life.
This article was published by Michigan State University Extension. For more information, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu. To have a digest of information delivered straight to your email inbox, visit http://www.msue.msu.edu/newsletters. To contact an expert in your area, visit http://expert.msue.msu.edu, or call 888-MSUE4MI (888-678-3464).