Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves. – Thich Nhat Hanh
Self-Forgiveness – the act of accepting and loving your whole self, is not an easy task, especially when you have hurt your partner. Letting go of self-blame, guilt, anger and regret means acknowledging and facing your flaws, mistakes and failures. It means understanding that you’ve made poor decisions, you are “not so nice,” you have hurt the person you love the most; and, it means believing you deserve to be forgiven. Loving yourself enough to embrace self-forgiveness can be challenging.
Individuals and couples come to therapy because of the pain they are feeling in their relationship, after a breach of trust. It may be in the form of unresolved conflict, chronic arguments, lying, an affair, emotional hurt or abuse, lack of intimacy, or talk of divorce or separation.
In all cases, there is an element of trust called into question. Here are the common problems people have and the resultant trust issues called into question:
- My partner won’t listen to me or see my point of view.
- Can I trust you to hear me?
- Our unresolved conflict is keeping us apart.
- Will we be able to overcome our differences?
- He has withdrawn from me emotionally and I don’t know why.
- I don’t know why you have withdrawn. Is there someone else?
- She lied and I wonder what else she is lying about.
- Can I trust you to tell me the truth?
- He cheated and I don’t know who he is anymore.
- Are you the same person I married? I thought I could trust you. Now I’m not sure.
- She doesn’t care about my pain and hurt. It’s always about her.
- Can I trust you to hold me when I’m hurting?
- He yells and curses at me when he’s angry; sometimes in front of the kids.
- Will you treat me with respect?
- We don’t have sex anymore.
- Am I still attractive to you?
- Every time we have a fight, she says she’s going to divorce me.
- Will you leave me?
Repairing a relationship where there’s been a breach of trust takes the willingness to face and acknowledge the ways in which you have hurt your partner. Most often there is hurt on both sides. Relationship issues are not created in a vacuum. Partners must allow themselves to be vulnerable and seek forgiveness from one another.
In addition, they have to be vulnerable enough with themselves to accept self-forgiveness. The bigger the breach, the harder this is to do.
When we come face-to-face, witnessing the pain we’ve caused in the eyes of our partner, it is overwhelming. Feelings of deep guilt, shame, inadequacy, and failure may lead us to:
- Ruminate about what we did,
- Hold onto excessive self-punishing behavior or negative thoughts,
- Feel a chronic sense of self-loathing,
- Define ourselves primarily by the poor decision we made.
Therapy helps couples with forgiveness of each other; and of one’s self. In addition to asking for our partner’s forgiveness, we have to forgive ourselves. It’s not only to feel better individually. Self-forgiveness is necessary to heal the relationship.
How do we work towards letting go of the guilt, the shame, the regret, the negative thoughts? It takes work:
- self-compassion, and
In other words, you have to work on your sense of “self.” You must believe you are not an inherently bad or evil person; you made a mistake, a poor decision, used bad judgment, but that doesn’t define your complete and total being. What you did was an act, a behavior, but it is not the sum total of who you are.
Choosing self-love, when you have been beating yourself up isn’t easy, but without it, the relationship will not heal.
Here are some tips to get you started:
1) Face what happened head on, individually and especially in the presence of your partner.
Thinking about how we have hurt someone we love is painful. The difficult feelings it triggers sets our automatic fight or flight response in motion. This means we may immediately avoid, deny or defend, instead of owning our responsibility for the hurt.
It’s hard enough to watch and be empathetic when our partner’s in pain, but knowing we caused it makes it that much harder. In sessions I’ve watched people cringe when they listen to the pain expressed by a partner.
Yet, paradoxically it is the very expression of the injured partner’s pain, and having the “other partner” face, tolerate and empathize with that pain head on, that creates healing. The “other partner’s” understanding and “feeling” the pain they have caused makes it much less likely they will ever do that again. Feeling the intensity is needed to truly process the hurt.
2) Take ownership and tell your partner you accept full responsibility.
Admit, acknowledge, and validate what you did or said to hurt your partner. It is a way of joining with your partner and working toward self-forgiveness. It clears the air. It’s the most authentic and genuine act you can do.
3) Allow your partner to express their hurt and pain; just listen and empathize.
Actively listening to your partner may seem passive, but it is extremely validating and powerful. Allow him to express his feelings now and in the future. When there is a major hurt, like an affair, it may take months or years. Intensity and frequency of the pain will decrease over time, but there is no forgetting.
4) Apologize and ask for forgiveness.
When saying “I’m sorry,” it’s got to be done in a genuine, authentic and feeling manner. Let your partner know you want forgiveness but accept that it will have to be on their timetable.
5) Ask yourself for forgiveness and remember your intent was not to hurt.
Though these first four steps are done with your partner, they help you start the process of self-forgiveness. Now it’s important to focus on yourself. Remember to be kind to yourself. You did not set out to purposefully hurt your partner. Self-compassion is important. Remember you are human. We are all very imperfect. Remember this event is something you did, it’s not who you are. It does not define your entire identity.
If you struggle with this, write a letter of apology owning your misdeed and ask yourself for forgiveness. In addition, you can write another letter from your partner to yourself, imagining what you need to hear from them to forgive yourself.
6) Discuss how you can make amends and follow through.
Ask your partner what they need to start building trust. It might be transparency – like sharing passwords, being open with your computer and cell phone. They may want to know your whereabouts more often.
7) Allow yourself, your partner and the relationship time to heal.
There is no substitute for time. When trust has been broken it takes time to rebuild. Some couples see it as starting a new relationship or a new chapter in a relationship. When trust is broken the injured partner often doesn’t feel they know who their partner is. Work towards rebuilding that trust.
8) Find the “learning” in the experience and use that to move your relationship forward, to an even deeper place.
It’s vital for the person who breached trust to understand the part of themselves that allowed that to happen. Individual therapy may be needed. Self-understanding and self-reflection help create a different story about what happened. Sharing that with your partner will more likely lead to acceptance of what occurred.
Use this as an experience to learn about yourself, your relationship and your partner. Going through a very painful situation together may actually create a deeper sense of intimacy than you have ever had before.
What have you done to hurt your partner? What self-blame are you holding on to? Make a choice to forgive.
“Forgiveness does not necessarily mean reconciliation with the person that hurt you or condoning of their action. What you are after is to find peace. Forgiveness can be defined as the ‘peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less, taking the life experience less personally, and changing your grievance story.’”
– Dr. Frederic Luskin
Your relationship deserves the highest level of support. Relationship Experts, Bob and Lori Hollander are committed to helping individuals and couples build connection and deepen bonds in a world that often makes it difficult.
Call them at 410-363-2825 or email them today, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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