As a marriage and family therapist, I have worked with various presentations of injured relationships (often related to infidelity) and the most productive and positive results come with forgiveness. When anger and bitterness are directed toward anyone, including ourselves, the result fuels further vulnerability. Infidelity, for example, injures the foundation of relationships, leaving both parties with a difficult choice—hold on to negative feelings or let go and move forward. In my work, I often talk about forgiveness, and while it is easy for me to talk about it, putting it into action can be, and often is, challenging for clients trying to cope with an emotional injury.
Nearly everyone has been on the receiving end of a comment or action that is hurtful. Maybe your spouse had an affair or your best friend lied to you, intending to “protect you.” When we feel betrayed by someone we trust and love, it can be excruciatingly difficult to understand how that person hurt us, intentionally or not. And there is a host of negative emotions that keep us imprisoned in our anger or sadness, unless we forgive and move forward. Forgiveness shares a border with betrayal and is necessary for us to heal.
Human forgiveness may be understood as the act of letting go of negative emotions, and the challenge for most, if not all of us, is how to do that. It can be difficult to find compassion for someone who has wronged us in some way; depending on the offence, it can be nearly impossible. There are shades of grey when it comes to forgiving, yet succeeding in doing so brings great benefits to the sufferer.
Why is it so important to practice forgiveness, or at the very least, engage in its possibilities? Engaging in forgiveness frees us from the toxic emotions that accompany grudges and bitterness. In fact, it is in our own interest—our happiness and inner peace—that we forgive. Holding an intense grudge mimics the notion that “resentment is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die from it.” We end up hurting ourselves when we don’t practice forgiveness. And yet, we walk a fine line between being oblivious to the infraction that caused us pain and stewing in resentment.
While it is clear that forgiveness yields benefits, making peace with actions or events that feel unfair is hard work! It requires self-awareness and understanding of our own need for forgiveness, without hubris. Has the sufferer never intentionally or unintentionally hurt someone else? One needs to access difficult and painful emotions that often resemble grief. The injured party has to look deep inside and ask how productive it will be to hold onto their anger and possible vengeance for the wrongdoer. It becomes a tug of war between intellect and emotion. Logic says let go, while the emotional self wants to even the score somehow.
Forgiveness, like grief, is a process. The initial discovery that someone we love hurt us or has been taken from us in some unjust way is met with shock—protecting us from plunging into despair. And as it lifts, we move through stages of denial, anger, depression—vacillating between them —until we finally reach acceptance. Just as grief is a process that changes us in ways we never imagined, forgiveness is transformative and freeing in ways that release us from our suffering.
The benefits of forgiveness often outweigh the consequences of nursing the sentiment of being wronged or attempting forms of revenge. As systemic therapists, one can easily connect forgiveness to relationships, and when we are able to forgive —ourselves and/or others— the outcomes are positive for everyone. Forgiveness can lead to benefits such as:
- healthier relationships
- increased self-awareness and self-esteem
- reduced anxiety, stress, and hostility
- greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- improved heart health and lower blood pressure
- fewer symptoms of depression
When we are able to have compassion for the humanness we all possess, we are able to engage in forgiveness. Be patient and kind to yourself along the way. As with anything that requires great strength and tenacity, it takes time and some days will be harder than others.
Vanessa Bradden, LMFT is a staff member at AAMFT, collaborating with the Communications Department as a product development specialist. She has a private practice in Chicago and is an AAMFT Approved Supervisor. Vanessa’s clinical interests and expertise include working with individuals and couples coping with perinatal mood disorders, pregnancy loss as well as grief and other losses.