A recent New York Times article on forgiveness reminded me of how important forgiveness can be in relationships and how costly it can be to not resolve disputes. Throughout my personal and professional experience, I have witnessed firsthand how devastating unprocessed injuries can be to relationships. When left unaddressed, resentment can fester and create a toxic atmosphere that seeps into all aspects of one’s life. It’s not just the initial injury that causes the issue, but rather the complexity and longevity of the hurt. The offender may struggle to apologize due to feelings of shame or anger, while the injured party may struggle to forgive, despite the long-term negative consequences of holding onto bitterness and resentment. The result can be a breakdown in communication and a disconnection from loved ones, with family members cutting themselves off from each other and avoiding contact altogether.
Everett Worthington’s REACH model is one way of looking at the process of forgiveness. In this model, there are five steps to forgiveness: Recall the hurt, Empathize with the offender, Altruistic gift of forgiveness, Commit to forgive, and Hold onto forgiveness. This process can be followed as an individual who has been injured, but perhaps it has the most power when it involves both parties involved, typically a couple. Of course, it can apply to any relationship, such as between friends, coworkers or family members.
Recall the hurt
This involves acknowledging and accepting that one has been hurt, and allowing oneself to feel the pain associated with the hurt. This is not easy because we humans generally prefer to avoid pain at all costs, distracting ourselves and being ‘too busy’ to deal with it. The truth is, it is both uncomfortable and a necessary step in the process of forgiveness.
Sometimes there can be an entanglement of hurts in which the injured party reacted to being hurt by injuring their partner back. Talking about an entangled hurt can lead to recriminations and comparisons about who was injured the most. It is important to maintain focus on one complaint at a time with the understanding that both injuries ultimately need to be addressed. Allowing space to take turns in speaking and listening is crucial to be able to disentangle the injuries and for each partner to understand the other’s point of view. Therapy can help with this, and if you struggle with hashing things out at home, a communication method such as Nonviolent Communication can be very helpful.
Empathize with the offender
This means trying to see things from the other person’s perspective and understand why they acted the way they did. This step can be challenging, especially if the hurt was intentional, part of a pattern of offensive behavior, if the offender is not willing to take responsibility for their actions, or if there is too much hurt to be able to feel empathy for the other.
Being injured by someone close to you can carry with it old feelings of times in the past where you have been injured or not considered. A fresh injury can stir up anger, which can be activating and marshal your resolve to refuse to be treated this way. This can be a healthy reaction to being mistreated. A less healthy adaptation might be to feel that you are dependent on this person and so must endure ongoing mistreatment in order to survive.
It must be said in terms of forgiveness that there is a red flag when there is a situation of domestic violence or ongoing abusive behavior. Forgiveness can be a part of a the response, but partner violence and repetitive emotional abuse are unacceptable. Some people might try to forgive their partner for abusive behavior, but fail to hold them to account. When the injured party minimizes the injury or explains it away, perhaps feeling it was their own fault, it can perpetuate an ongoing cycle of abuse. If you are in this situation, it is a good idea to seek help from a domestic violence center or by talking with a therapist who can provide support and help you to think more deeply about the abusive dynamics in your relationship.
Altruistic gift of forgiveness
This involves making a conscious decision to forgive the offender, even if they have not apologized or asked for forgiveness. Recall how it has felt when you have been forgiven in the past. It’s important to note that forgiveness is not the same as condoning or excusing the offender’s behavior.
Commit to Forgive
This means making a commitment to work on forgiving the offender, even if it takes time and effort. This step involves letting go of any desire for revenge or punishment, and focusing on healing and moving forward.
Hold onto Forgiveness
This means making forgiveness a part of one’s identity, and actively choosing to let go of any resentment or bitterness towards the offender. This is important for maintaining healthy relationships, and in practice it does require effort to truly put resentment aside.
The Cost of not Forgiving
The emotional tension of not forgiving someone for a wrong can be overwhelming and exhausting. It can create a persistent feeling of anger, resentment, and bitterness towards the offender, which can lead to a breakdown in the relationship. Holding onto grudges and past hurts can also take a toll on one’s mental health, causing feelings of anxiety and depression. When you choose to work towards forgiveness, you can release the emotional tension and move towards a healthier, happier life.
As a therapist, I understand that forgiveness can be complicated, and not usually something that is achieved overnight. However, I also know that forgiveness is possible, that it is good for your health, and that it can lead to healing and growth in relationships. With the REACH model in mind, it is possible for individuals and couples to work towards forgiveness and create stronger, healthier relationships.
If you and your partner are struggling to forgive each other after a hurtful experience, even one that happened long ago, I encourage you to seek support from a therapist. Couples therapy focused around forgiveness can heal old wounds and create a brighter future for your relationship. If your partner is not willing to participate in a therapeutic process, you can still do a lot of work with the help of individual therapy.
Bruce Hearn is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco. He works with couples and individuals.