How to Forgive

Anger is about fear, woundedness, and risk.

Chronic anger, anger that lingers like the smoke in your kitchen after the stove has burned too hot, is often falsely accused of being the main culprit when forgiveness is withheld or when conflict is volatile. Think about that thing that your partner or spouse did that hurt you.

What were the immediate emotional experiences you can recall? Was it anger? Or something else? What was going on around you? Were you afraid of something that might have happened? Were you seeking support for something that had already occurred? Did your spouse let you down? Did she or he not understand the significance of how you felt?

Forgiveness often gets confused with giving in. 

Partners who give forgiveness often feel doubly burdened by their spouse's misstep and their own hesitation to offer those three little words: I forgive you. Why can't I seem to forgive? Why is it difficult to just offer forgiveness and let this anger go away? 

Maybe forgiveness isn't about anger. 

When you offer forgiveness, you are giving someone a gift, that's true. But the part of that story that is sometimes omitted is that you do so at your own risk.

To offer forgiveness, you do not need to bother yourself with how to let go of anger. Anger isn't the real problem. Rather, bother yourself with how you might give voice to the fear or pain that you feel your partner does not understand. 

Couple Holding Hands

I often surprise new clients by telling them to stop apologizing.

There are two conditions that must be met for an apology to work.

1. The person apologizing must truly believe they have wronged their spouse or partner.

2. The person who has been wounded must be convinced that the "offender," for lack of a better word, understands her or his pain. In other words, if I have hurt you in some way, then before I try to make amends, you need to be convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I understand how you've been hurt.

If the first condition is met, but not the second, you're just trying to solve the problem and it comes across as patronizing.

If the second condition is met, but not the first, then you should say, "that was not my intention," otherwise you, as the offender, build resentment because you feel like you're caving in, not being authentic.

Once someone has offered a sincere apology, the next step is the risk that the wounded partner must make. 

How do you forgive?

This starts with vulnerability. You must first actively choose to reveal the pain or fear that resides beneath the anger. Think of the pain as the aquifer and the anger as the flood. The flood is what we pay attention to, but the powerful river that we hide beneath the surface is a torrent. To offer forgiveness, you must first seek understanding and empathy.

Second, you must understand what you are really doing. You are not giving your spouse or partner a freebie. You're not even choosing to forget about the act.

What you are doing is making an active and conscious choice to let yourself be vulnerable and at-risk in a relationship where you've been previously wounded.

Your head has to get in front of your heart on this. You will not feel your way into forgiveness and your partner cannot pay the debt off enough to earn your trust, because this is not about trust. It is about risk. Your risk.

You have to make the choice. 

You are telling your spouse that you're willing to place your safety and your heart in their hands again despite the evidence that suggests you might get hurt. 

Easier said than done?

That's because it is. Forgiveness is a relationship outcome rather than an individual action.

If one person has failed to forgive, it is because the relationship has not yet had the experiences it needs. The offender has not offered true empathy...enough times. The wounded partner does not feel safe. Sometimes it takes time, and even when you do it right, you have to do it again...and again. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington