Forgiveness comes up often at Relate, the relationship counselling charity where I work. A common reason couples (or individuals) come is that one of them is finding it hard to ‘get over’ something their partner has done: “I’m not sure I can forgive him/her.” Usually this is caused by behaviour that breaches their expectations or norms, and results in them feeling betrayed, ‘abandoned’ and let down. Often the behaviour is such that we would all recognise it as damaging and hurtful, but not always.
Relationship damage can result in complex and overwhelming feelings of loss and pain. In addition, the person we might normally turn to in times of distress is both the cause and no longer seen as trustworthy or reliable. This can leave people isolated and confused, and often struggling for certainty as they try to make sense of their newly found situation. This can be just as true for the partner who is ‘to blame’. Their intent has usually not been to cause pain but often their motivations are unclear even to themselves.
I generally prefer to use the word ‘acceptance’ instead of ‘forgiveness’, as for many people forgiveness carries religious connotations and can feel absolute and demanding. Acceptance can feel more achievable and does not imply that what happened was ok, or that it’s forgotten, or that there aren’t consequences. It can mean that we are able to remember difficult events without strong emotions; and that we can understand those damaging behaviours in the context of our partner’s situation, life story and personality, (even if we don’t condone them or would have behaved differently ourselves).
During counselling I’m looking to support both partners to listen as well as they can to each other with-out defensiveness – to both really hear and be heard. This can allow softening, increased receptivity, honesty and expressions of genuine remorse. Alongside this, I’m looking to explore different ways of understanding their story, to broaden their narratives and allow new insights and possibilities. Often people are able to process emotional wounds and find some acceptance. Such acceptance does not imply that couples stay together, although often they choose to try which means further ‘work’: changing behaviours, gradually re-establishing trust and the creation of what, in many ways, is a new relationship.
Getting to acceptance can be challenging. But if we don’t do the work to ‘process’ difficult events, the evidence suggests that we ruminate on them and, in the absence of under-standing and acceptance, we ‘fill in the gaps’ with a negative story about whoever has hurt us. Does this imply that we should always ac-cept and forgive? ‘Requiring’ acceptance or forgiveness feels like moral coercion to me and, perhaps sometimes, it may be in someone’s best interest not to forgive.