By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Recent studies have shown that forgiveness is an essential component of successful romantic relationships. In fact, the capacity to seek and grant forgiveness is one of the most significant factors contributing to marital satisfaction and a lifetime of love.
Forgiving yourself and others is about being willing to acknowledge that you are capable of being wounded. It also means that you are willing to step out from the role of victim and take charge of your life.
Couples who practice forgiveness can rid themselves of the toxic hurt and shame that holds them back from feeling connected to each other. In The Science of Trust, Dr. John Gottman explains that emotional attunement is a skill that allows couples to fully process and move on from negative emotional events, and ultimately create a stronger bond.
Resentment Leads to Emotional and Sexual Distance
Abby has felt resentment and anger towards her husband Rob ever since she found out he has been communicating with his ex-girlfriend Samantha through text messages and emails. Rob has apologized and accepted responsibility for his actions, but Abby is unwilling to forgive him.
Over the last two months, Abby has shut down sexually and emotionally. She’s been giving Rob the silent treatment and has told him repeatedly that she’s unsure about his commitment to their marriage.
Abby puts it like this: “Rob says they’re just friends but I don’t buy it. I just can’t seem to get over my feelings of resentment toward him. During our marriage, we’ve gotten over many hurdles, including adjusting to crazy work schedules and trouble with in-laws. But this issue is too big.”
The problem with holding on to resentment toward your partner is that it often leads to withdrawal and a lack of vulnerability. Over time, this can erode trust. In Abby’s case, she has been bottling up feelings of anger and resentment for some time and she’s lost trust in Rob’s intentions.
In an effort to protect herself, Abby is unwilling to engage in what Dr. John Gottman refers to as repair attempts with Rob. This couple is stuck in a negative pattern of interaction and Abby is not acting with goodwill toward Rob – an essential element of a successful marriage.
Abby continues: “I can’t get over the fact that Rob has been communicating with Stephanie behind my back. It’s such a betrayal. I found out about it by reading a text message and recognized her name immediately. Even though I knew they were still friends, it hurts that he was hiding being in touch since she moved back home.”
Is it possible for Abby to rebuild trust in Rob after feeling betrayed? Gradually, Rob must be willing to put his relationship with Abby first and demonstrate trustworthiness through his words and actions. Abby would be wise to extend trust to Rob and not automatically assume the worst. In time, she may rebuild trust by taking responsibility for her own reactions and changing her mistrustful mindset.
For instance, if Abby is thinking like a forgiving person, she might adopt a perspective that assumes it’s possible that Rob simply made an error in judgment by not telling her about his contact with his ex. Or, it’s possible he believed he couldn’t be completely open and honest with Abby because she expressed jealousy in the past (about his ex) and he feared losing her.
Truth be told, many mistakes are not intentional, so it’s best not to make them into something they’re not. Listen to your partner’s side of the story, and avoid blaming or criticizing them when you confront them with your concerns.
If their negative pattern doesn’t change, Abby and Brian might begin to feel critical and contemptuous of each other – two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.
Why is Forgiveness Important?
Often people equate forgiveness with weakness, and it is widely believed that if you forgive someone, you’re condoning or excusing their behavior. However, in marriage, forgiveness is a strength because it shows you are capable of goodwill toward your partner. Studies indicate that forgiving someone is one way of letting go so that you can heal and move on with your life.
Forgiveness is about giving yourself, your children, and your partner the kind of future you and they deserve – unhampered by hurt and anger. It is about choosing to live a life wherein others don’t have power over you and you’re not dominated by unresolved bitterness and resentment.
It’s important to consider that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Author Deborah Moskovitch reiterates that forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook. She writes, “Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting what happened, or condoning your ex-spouse’s actions, giving up claims to a fair settlement or reconciliation. While forgiveness may help others, it first and foremost can help you.”
Here are seven ways forgiveness can transform your marriage.
1. Write down three ways negative emotions have impacted (or are still impacting) your marriage.
Be aware of negative emotions that you have not yet processed. Talking to a close friend or therapist can help facilitate this.
2. Find a way to dislodge yourself from negative emotions.
Examples include therapy, yoga, improving your physical health, and practicing expressing thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when people sweep things under the rug, so avoid burying negative feelings.
3. Take small steps to repair and let go of grudges.
According to Dr. Gottman, the number one thing that prevents couples from building trust and emotional attunement is the inability to bounce back from a conflict in a healthy way. The number one solution to this problem is to get really good at repair. He tells Business Insider that you’ve got to get back on track after a disagreement if you don’t want issues to fester.
4. Accept responsibility for your part in the interaction.
One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Drs. Julie and John Gottman explain that, “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.
5. Don’t let wounds fester.
Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding on to hurt feelings. Processing what happened will allow you to let resentments go so you can move on to a healthier relationship. Keep the big picture in mind.
6. Accept that people do the best they can.
This does not mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others. You simply come to a more realistic view of your past. As you take stock, you will realize that all people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest.
7. Think like a forgiving person.
Practice forgiveness by actively thinking like a forgiving person. Avoid holding grudges and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect and deserve compassion.
Practicing forgiveness will allow you to turn the corner from feeling like a victim to becoming a more empowered person. Experts believe that forgiveness can allow you to break the cycle of pain and move on to a healthier life. Keep in mind that forgiveness takes time and has a lot to do with letting go of those things you have no control over.
This article was originally published on The Gottman Relationship Blog.
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