It’s widely known that couples upset and anger each other; often unintentionally, but in our worst moments, we may sling a few deliberate barbs out of exasperation. Part of this mutual wounding arises from the foundation of emotional vulnerability that intimate relationships are built upon. When you’re vulnerable with another, a deeper level of emotional intimacy is possible (one of the gifts of vulnerability), but the flip side is that your vulnerability exposes you to greater emotional wounding (one of the potential costs of vulnerability).
This mutual wounding places forgiveness at the center stage of your marriage/relationship.
Without efforts to forgive—without the ability to “let go” of past hurts—the inevitable misunderstandings and conflicts that occur in relationships have the potential to turn into emotional toxins. Chronic anger and defensiveness, lingering resentments, and ongoing mistrust all have the power to undermine the very foundation of your relationship. No relationship is immune to these dangers.
The Pitfalls of Premature Forgiveness
The willingness and ability to forgive can be the antidote to the emotional toxins I just mentioned. The emotional benefits of forgiveness (benefits to oneself and our relationships) are now well understood by researchers and the general public. I frequently hear clients share this very sentiment when they declare, “I should be able to forgive him/her…I’m tired of being angry; it’s not healthy.”
But feeling like you “should” forgive is very different from being ready to forgive.
When forgiveness is forced (when it emerges from an obligatory sense of how things ought to be rather than arising from the truth of what is unfolding within us), we’re more likely to confuse self-denial for genuine forgiveness. Don’t mistake the shutting down of feelings considered antithetical to forgiveness as moving closer to forgiveness.
Premature forgiveness can arise when we try to coerce “nobler” experiences, such as kindness or compassion, at the expense of what we are truly feeling. In these instances, the “anti-forgiveness” feelings (such as mistrust, defensiveness, anger or jealousy) are temporarily avoided for the more desirable experience of magnanimity.
The path to true forgiveness must allow for the injured partner’s true feelings—including intense anger at times. Forgiveness that is built upon self-denial or the over-zealous and premature embracing of kindness is likely to backfire and paradoxically prolong the forgiveness process.
Relationship Help Self-Reflection
Rather than telling ourselves, “I should be able to forgive” or “I shouldn’t still be angry, I should be kinder!”, it can be beneficial to reflect upon the following questions:
- “Why am I still hurt/angry?”;
- “Is there some unfinished emotional business I’m not fully attending to that is feeding my pain or grievance(s)?”;
- “What unintended purpose might my anger be serving?”;
- “What are the pros and cons of remaining angry (or upset)?”;
- “If I let go of my anger, what is my biggest fear?”
1) I’ve created a workbook for couples on how to make forgiveness a regular part of your relationship. Click love and forgiveness for more information about this forgiveness resource.
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Dr. Rich Nicastro