On Forgiveness

Last week I met with a Brad and Elana, a couple stuck in a marital rut.  They could not move beyond Elana’s relationship with a boyfriend that had preceded her marriage to Brad. At each turn in their relationship where he found himself hurt or frustrated, he would dredge up Elana’s past, often invoking her former boyfriend as “the guy you probably wish you were with.” When we sifted through all the issues and got to the bare bones of the problem, what emerged was Brad’s profound dilemma: he could not forgive Elana for her past yet wanted to remain married to her. He knew his attitude was unfair but could free himself of it.

For many people, forgiveness is a tricky subject.  Most profess practicing it yet many struggle to truly embrace it.  Lily Tomlin famously said:  “Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past.” While one part of our brain knows the past cannot be altered, the emotional part of our brain has little concept of sequential time and longs to return from past injiuries with a different outcome. Along with this, some of us carry the expectation that our partner will be flawless, thereby causing their failings challenge this notion.

When the cat destroys the sofa or the dog drags a muddy chew toy across the carpet, we are all fairly successful at forgiveness.  We give up the illusion of perfection and rarely believe our pets are “trying” to provoke us.  We forgive our heroes and heroines in novels and movies, nearly all of who struggle with a key character flaw or a regretted act. But with our partners, we hold on to idealized notions about just behavior and true loyalty. It’s as if our ability to accept human and failing goes offline when it comes to our romantic partner and is replaced by the unrealistic demands of our much younger selves. This part of us can barely tolerate that our spouse could have loved anyone other than us, even prior to knowing us!

Brad would do well to experience compassion toward his jealous and competitive feelings while simultaneously developing greater acceptance of Elana’s past. Forgiveness requires a certain contemplative stance that permits us to note what is or has been without our having to change anything about it. While our higher reasoning may never fully control such passions as jealousy, we can at least increase our intention to accept and, eventually, to forgive. Maybe then we will be as kind to our partners as we are to our pets.