Mar 20

Forgiveness: Not Always Necessary, Often Helpful

How do we show and offer forgiveness? As stated by Melissa Dahl, New York Magazine:

There are different kinds of forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is largely external; it’s a change in the way you behave toward someone who’s wronged you, even though you may still feel negatively toward the person. Emotional forgiveness, on the other hand, is an internal change in the way you feel toward this person — resentment giving way to positive emotions like empathy, sympathy, compassion, and even love. That’s the real kind of forgiveness; the other one is the much more common playacting variety.

This very much reminds me of the work of clinical psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, author of the 2004 How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To. Her revolutionary wisdom and advice is right there in the subtitle: forget what others are going to tell you, not only is forgiveness not easy but it’s also not necessary if it seems an unreasonable option for you.

In a nutshell, she describes four different kinds of forgiveness:

  1. cheap forgiveness
  2. refusal to forgive
  3. acceptance
  4. genuine forgiveness

Cheap forgiveness is the type we probably do most often. When engaging in this conflict-avoiding sucking-it-up kind of attitude, we might as well be saying “You haven’t earned it, but you’re forgiven anyway.” Although this guarantees a reconciliation of sorts, negative consequences often eventually ensue.

On the other hand, while the second type, being unwilling to forgive, often seems understandable based on the specific circumstances, it usually doesn’t help anyone in the long run and in fact often leads to further pain.

Conscious acceptance, though, does lead to healing—at least for the accepter. “Acceptance is a healing alternative that asks nothing of the offender. When the offender is not sorry, or is not physically available — when he or she is unable or unwilling to make meaningful repairs — it is not the job of the hurt party to forgive. But it is the job of the hurt party to rise above the violation and heal him or herself” (Spring, Huffington Post). Her book provides 10 steps towards achieving this goal.

Genuine forgiveness also involves certain steps, in this case leading to exchanges that are transformative for each party. It’s actually the only type of forgiveness that necessitates work on the part of the offender as well as the forgiver. “…(B)oth parties negotiate a process during which the hurt person expresses his or her pain, and the offender apologizes and takes responsibility for his or her poor behavior” (Publishers Weekly).

Nov 13

“After the Affair”: Infidelity, Forgiveness, and Recovery

In the mid-90’s psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., along with husband Michael Spring, wrote what may be the best book for couples, gay and straight, trying to recover from one partner’s affair. After the Affair: Healing the Pain and Rebuilding Trust When a Partner Has Been Unfaithful now has a revised edition, with a new section regarding cyber-affairs.

A review of After the Affair by Samantha Smithstein, another psychologist, describes the stages of recovery outlined in this book:

In the first stage, Reacting to the Affair, she empathizes with the likely feelings of the ‘hurt partner’ and the ‘unfaithful partner’ (her language), giving language to, and normalizing, their experiences. In the second stage, Deciding Whether or Recommit or Quit, she helps both members of the couple confront their ambivalence about the relationship and make a thoughtful decision about whether or not to stay. In the third stage, Rebuilding Your Relationship, she reviews strategies and tools to help the couple rebuild trust, intimacy, and get to forgiveness.

What about the issue of whether or not to confess an affair to begin with? From an interview with Spring in the New York Times

Some experts say you absolutely must reveal it in order to rebuild your relationship. When you reveal your affair, it deconstructs your relationship and allows for a new level of honesty.

Other experts say you absolutely must not reveal it. When you do, you destroy the spirit of the hurt partner. They never recover. Keep it to yourself.

I have found that people go on to build better bonds, better marriages, after telling and after not telling. What is essential is to understand the meaning of the affair, why they had the affair and to address those issues.

One of the dangers of not telling is that people give up the lover, return to the marriage, but they never face the problem and so they live in a prison. They come back to something stale or damaged and they never work to reinvent their relationship. That’s not good for anyone.

Let’s say confession has occurred, recovery has begun, but forgiveness is a sticking point. If so, she has another excellent resource, How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To (2004). Like After the Affair, this book presents original ideas that came from her many years of clinical experience. 

Not for issues of infidelity only, this book advises that you may or may not decide forgiveness is the choice for you.

As stated in the book description, Spring “…proposes a radical, life-affirming alternative that lets us overcome the corrosive effects of hate and get on with our lives—without forgiving. She also offers a powerful and unconventional model for genuine forgiveness—one that asks as much of the offender as it does of us.”