Forgiving Your Partner for a Past Injury

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.

Red Flags

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.

Searching For Self Esteem

Finding a sound basis for your self-esteem can be a serious challenge when the world encourages you to look in the wrong places

When you’re not grounded in your true self, you measure your own worth by how others measure your worth. You try to prove how fast, how successful, how great you are.

Unhealthy Self Esteem

Have you ever felt good about yourself because you did well at work? Because you made a good financial decision? Or because you did well at a competitive sport? These are ways of obtaining self-esteem through your performance in the world.

Another way you may increase your self-esteem is by seeking other people’s approval. If they approve, you’ll be accepted, you’ll be ok.

And then, you might sometimes buy things to feel better about yourself, to feel that you matter because of the things we own.

These are common ways of meeting a need for self-esteem that becomes unhealthy when taken too far. In this article I’ll look a little more into these fragile ways of feeding the self-esteem, and then consider some healthier options.

Performance-based self esteem

I can value myself if I land a big sale for my company. If I pull long hours to get the product out the door, and then let my colleagues know that I made it happen through my own heroic efforts. More privately, if I can be a superstar lover and please my partner, I’ll know I’m worth something.

The problem is, you’re only as good as your last performance. And then, there’s that younger, more determined guy waiting in the wings who could be a threat. He’s hungrier, doesn’t have kids, is willing to give it all for the prize.

How fragile it can be to base your self-esteem on your performance! There is always the knowledge that sooner or later you will be outdone. It’s a cold world out there and you have to keep fighting for what you have. You spend a lot of energy fighting to avoid the shame of failing to outperform.

Your family won’t appreciate your work ethic so much as resent your absences. And you end up feelings curiously empty, privately uninspired, but assume that this is just the way it works. Workaholism exemplifies the person with a performance-based self esteem.

Basing self esteem on your Possessions

What is a consumer, but the buyer of products? You get something you wanted, but there will soon be something you need next. The message is, you are not enough as you are. You feel the need to supplement what you have with a shinier gloss.

The messages of advertising completely saturate our screens with images of luxury and beauty that we aspire to attain. “I deserve it, after all the work I’ve put in.” And I didn’t make the cut, unless I have the luxury life.

The things you buy provide you with an inanimate entourage, a collection of artifacts that reflect your aspirations. The hope goes, if you have the new AirPods, the right bag, the right e-bike, a great apartment or kitchen remodel, a luxury car or a luxury girlfriend, you have arrived.

But the feeling of satisfaction is fleeting and ultimately leaves one feeling empty. “What is happiness?” asks Don Draper. “It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” You will never be satisfied this way, but may go on chasing it regardless. The insatiable consumer exemplifies the person with self esteem based on their possessions.

Basing Self-Esteem on What Others Think

You ask others, in various ways, am I worthwhile? If you think I’m worthy, I can start to feel worthy, even if I have my doubts. I need you to keep telling me how worthy I am. Isn’t that what friends, lovers, are for? To be supportive, to offer validation?

It can get confusing, because wanting to be loved, cared for, and given attention are basic human needs. However, when you come to depend on the affirmation of others, this can set you up for trouble.

You become like an addict, craving the fix of attention and the engagement of others. If they don’t give you the validation you need or start to have their own needs, it feels bad, and you get irritable and miserly with your attention.

Or you could end up in a relationship where you feel you are being used. Your boss, your partner, or a so-called friend can dangle the reward conditionally, so that you jump through the hoops to earn it. Sex and Love addicts exemplify those who depend on others to shore up their self-esteem.

What you can do about it

Do you might recognize any of your own behavior in what I have described? Were you taught to value yourself? If so, was it along one of these lines?

No matter what you learnt, you are free to question the assumptions you were raised with. In the list below I’ve put a few qualities that offer a glimpse into some healthier forms of relating to ourselves and the world.

  1. Live with humility. When you feel good about your abilities, your work ethic, or creative capacity, you can carry your own supply of self-worth. When others discover your talents and abilities, you can feel good about your skills and talents being recognized.
  2. Speak the truth. It can feel very grounding to speak the truth of your emotions without fear of upsetting others, provided you do it in a way that is not intended to hurt them. This involves risk. Are you brave enough to try it?
  3. Aim not for perfection, but to be good enough. This might be tough for you perfectionists out there! Can you appreciate yourself for the ways you try every day to be better? It can take some work to change a perfectionistic mind. Therapy can be very helpful for those who are curious enough to want to know more about reclaiming one’s life from the urge to be perfect, and the shame around imperfection.
  4. Slow down your reactions. Make it your goal to respond thoughtfully and wholeheartedly rather than reacting impulsively. If you are being a responsible partner and not needlessly stoking conflict with the people you love, you keep them closer.
  5. Be accountable for what you say and do. It can feel like a bruise to the ego to accept criticism. But when we can do so, we can often provide others with the acknowledgment they need to make things right. When you take responsibility for your words and actions, you build your self-esteem.
  6. Claim your own mind. Rather than following the lead of others, try to think for yourself. This doesn’t mean go it alone. It can be more far more rewarding when you can make sense of your thoughts and feelings with a partner.

Developing greater self-awareness

When you start to think about how you value yourself, you can create a more robust source. Developing greater self-awareness is an important path for those who wish to create a more reliable foundation for their sense of self worth. Some people have never known anything but the relentless drive to achieve, to acquire, or to please.

There is no single path that works for everyone. Some try therapy, or a mindfulness practice. Some take up journaling or prioritizing regular conversations with a partner or a close friend. Whatever the path, it can be very liberating when you can stop trying to please the world and develop self esteem that does not depend quite so much on external factors.

Bruce Hearn is a therapist who works with men, women and couples in San Francisco. His work includes a focus on helping people with issues around self-esteem. To book a free phone consultation, call 415-598-8956 or email email hidden; JavaScript is required.