Deciding to forgive?

Why should I forgive my partner? The 4 phases of forgiveness

In our close relationships we may encounter challenges which are difficult to overcome and cause considerable distress. Many face the dilemma of a partner’s affair, or struggle to understand and stand up to emotionally manipulative family members or friends.

At Attuned Psychology we often see clients asking for help in managing relationships with adult children, or with elderly (and increasingly self-absorbed) parents for whom there are expectations of ongoing caring responsibility. In these situations, there may be strong cultural or gender based pressures to be a peacemaker.

Caring for someone who has hurt you, perhaps over many years, usually leads to anger (sometimes hatred!) and ongoing resentment. Of course, anger of itself isn’t a problem, but there is very good evidence that prolonged chronic anger has a significant impact on your psychological and physical wellbeing.

The decision to seek help with strong feelings is of itself an indication that change is needed. One option for change may be forgiveness.

What is meant by forgiveness?

There is a lot of confusion about the concept of forgiveness. To be clear – forgiveness isn’t about repairing a relationship or reconciliation. Neither is it about forgetting what has happened to cause hurt, or condoning or excusing injustice.

In the context of therapy, forgiveness is a process not a goal. It involves a reasoned decision to overcome hurt and let go of negative emotions such as anger and resentment.

Forgiveness is an active choice, and should both be empowering and reflect your personal values (the things that are most important to you).

It’s important to understand that forgiveness doesn’t require the other person to acknowledge that they are in the wrong. It might mean accepting that you may never get an apology or an acknowledgement of the wrongs that were done.

Forgiveness therapy

Dr. Robert Enlight, an American Psychologist, has suggested there are four phases of forgiveness.

Phase 1 involves becoming aware of what has happened, and how the hurt has impacted your life. This involves giving yourself permission to experience anger and other negative feelings without judgement or fear. Find a safe place to do this, or perhaps write down your feelings even if they are never shared with the person who has hurt you.

Phase 2 is when a decision is made about the need for change, and an exploration of options to aid the healing process – in this case an exploration of forgiveness and what this may mean.

In some cases forgiveness of another person may not be possible or even appropriate – for example where there is domestic violence and severe abuse.  In this case, forgiveness might be self-directed; being compassionate to yourself if having mixed emotions about a family member, or deciding to let go of shame or guilt.    

Phase 3 is when the work of forgiveness happens. This may involve stepping back and seeing the person who has caused hurt in a different way, perhaps in context of their childhood upbringing or other stressful events in their own or your shared life, or acknowledging the impact of mental illness of dysfunctional personality traits.

It can be helpful to separate the behaviour from the person, recognizing that it is rare for there not to be some element of good inside of everyone or for there not to be some positive shared memories.  

Remember though, this isn’t about finding excuses for the person who has hurt you, but more about helping to explain “why”.  For example, recognizing (but not condoning) infidelity which has happened in context of marital unhappiness. Or seeing that the behaviour of a family member reflects (but isn’t excused by) a history of past trauma.

Forgiveness should always ensure physical and psychological safety. Where possible this means establishing clear boundaries, ideally in consultation with the other person, to make sure that hurt doesn’t reoccur.

Phase 4 happens when it is recognized that there has been positive change from the process of forgiving. You may find that your act of compassion has led to new understanding of yourself as well as others, or a renewed sense of purpose or focus.  

To learn more about forgiveness therapy read:

The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcoming Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love. By: Robert D. Enright  (2012).

If you would like help to understanding how you have been hurt by another or in exploring the decision to forgive, contact us to make an appointment with one of the experienced Psychologists at Attuned Psychology.

Dr Angela Crettenden

Clinical Psychologist

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