Gina has embarrassed Carlos in front of their closest friends.
LuAnn learned that Raymond wasn’t completely honest with her about the cost of a recent purchase.
Royce looks on several years of marriage in which he’s felt prohibited from pursuing his interests.
Renee finally has a “voice” in her marriage, but is realizing how much resentment she’s built up for not feeling “seen” or “heard” for over 20 years.
Many of the couples I work with have experienced some painful incident that keeps them from “moving on” with their relationship. In therapy these couples often say, “We want to move on, but we don’t know how to get beyond this. How do we put this behind us?”
They often mention forgiveness as the key to moving on, but also reveal what a difficult task this can be:
“I try to forgive what happened and let it go, but it keeps coming back up.”
“If he keeps holding this over my head, if he can’t forgive me, I’m not sure I can stay in this marriage.”
“I’ve asked for forgiveness, and she’s even said she forgives me, but nothing’s really changed.”
The elusiveness of forgiveness can make it seem like a secret code: hard to decipher or hard to repeat.
So what’s actually involved in addressing a hurt or injury in a relationship and coming out on the other end feeling like it’s no longer coming between the two partners? How do both people feel good about the process and the outcome? What does forgiveness even mean in such situations? How does a couple actually “do” forgiveness?
One of my assumptions is that most couples have experienced some degree of success with the “two-step” of “I’m sorry” followed by “I forgive you.” It may take a variety of forms:
“I’m sorry,” followed by, “Thanks, that helps.”
“I really screwed up,” followed by “Thanks, but I really made things difficult for you: I’m sorry too.”
“I really was out of line tonight, I apologize,” followed by, “Well, it didn’t feel very good, but I could see that you were trying. It’s okay.”
Such two-steps may even be exchanged non-verbally, through certain looks, gestures or touches, in which both partners experience a shift: Something that has come between them is no longer there.
I also assume that the success of the “two-step” can make it confusing for couples when the same steps are used on other occasions but don’t make a difference. In therapy, clients may say to me: “I’ve apologized and she says she’s forgiven me, but nothing’s really changed.” Or, “I still think he’s holding it over my head, even though he’s told me he forgives me.”
In some ways, these challenges are at the center of therapy with couples: How do we move on in a way that really makes a difference, especially when our lives are intertwined in complicated ways, and when any one particular hurt or injury occurs in the context of a whole history of interactions, both good and painful?
“I may be able to forgive you for this particular incident, but the fact that it happened has me wondering and re-considering a lot of other things about our marriage.”
“I’m truly, genuinely sorry about this, and I appreciate that you’ve forgiven me. But now that it’s on the table, I realize that there are things that I’ve needed to talk to you about for a long time. Maybe now we can start to have those conversations.”
“I really want to forgive you, and in some ways I do, but I just don’t feel like I can let this go yet.”
So, what to do when the healing of forgiveness is desired but complex? What do we do when the seemingly right words have been exchanged (“I’m sorry,” “I forgive”) but they don’t make a difference?
I don’t have an easy answer. Sorry!
But I wanted to pass along something I read several years ago that helped me considerably by providing me with a framework for thinking about forgiveness.
A CROSS-CULTURAL PERSPECTIVE
In his book, Conflict Mediation Across Cultures, David Augsburger explores how conflict is understood and addressed in cultures around the world. He highlights how some aspects of conflict may be unique to a given cultural context while other aspects are similar across cultures. In the book’s final chapter he examines reconciliation rituals that, he says, exist in every culture. Key to reconciliation across cultures is the process of forgiveness, which he defines as follows:
"Forgiveness is the mutual recognition that repentance is genuine and right relationships have been restored or achieved."
Augsburger highlights four concepts or processes that are associated with forgiveness across cultures. It is these concepts that provide insight about how forgiveness works, and what gets in the way at times. I often share these ideas with my clients as a way of offering an additional lens for considering forgiveness. The four concepts are Confession, Contrition, Restitution, and Reconciliation.
Augsburger says confession “is the authentic recognition of responsibility for one’s acts and their consequences.” It “is not ventilation, dissipation, justification, or flagellation.”
Based on Augsburger’s description, I see confession as a sincere acknowledgement of what I have done and how this has affected my partner, regardless of what my intentions were. So I might say,
“I see now how I actually affected you, regardless of my intentions. I get it now. I’m sorry.”
Or statements like, “this is how I’ve hurt you,” or “this is what I’ve done,” can be key in a process that “owns up” to one’s part in having hurt the other or the relationship.
I think of confession as a non-defensive acknowledgment of the facts of the hurt or injury or damage I’ve done – “I see that I’ve done this …” But even such a sincerely felt acknowledgment can fall flat or feel unconvincing without the second concept or process of forgiveness: contrition.
Augsburger describes contrition as “appropriate sorrow for one’s wrong behavior and consequent grief-work for the injury to the relationship; such grief-work has genuine reconciliation as its goal.” It is “not punitive self-condemnation, obsessive remorse, manipulative kowtowing or expiatory groveling.”
If confession is an acknowledgement of the facts of the injury, contrition brings in the feeling of it. To the statement of “this is what I’ve done and how I’ve affected you,” it adds emotion: “and I really feel bad about it!” Further, “I’m so sorry about what I’ve done that I’m committed to taking steps to help you, myself, and us heal.”
How do we determine “appropriate sorrow”? There seems to be a more subjective element to contrition than confession, so it may be easier to get stuck here. “Does he really feel bad?” “Is she really sorry?” And the even more difficult question: “If you are really sorry, why did you do it in the first place?!?”
The subjective nature of contrition raises the question, how do we convey to our partner that we really are sorry, we do feel bad about what we’ve done, and we want to make things better? For some of us there is such a sense of shame or failure in these words that they are almost impossible to utter without falling into self-recrimination or, conversely, wanting to blame the other for the injury. One of the biggest challenges couples may face in this area is finding a “contrition language” that they share – a way of speaking and behaving in which one’s intended contrition is actually received by one’s partner as contrition: “I can see that you feel bad about this. I believe you.”
You might pause for a moment here and consider:
What are your ways of speaking and behaving that convince your partner that you are contrite?
What does your partner do or say that helps you know he or she is contrite?
Of course, one of the most powerful ways to convey contrition may be in our efforts to make amends, to make things right, to repair the damage that we’ve done. Augsburger’s third concept of forgiveness is restitution, which he describes as “the reestablishing of mutual justice (resolving guilt and responsibility)… It is the creative, responsive work of seeking justice between wrongdoer and wronged.”
“Reestablishing of mutual justice”! What is mutual justice and how do we reestablish it? How do we seek “justice between wrongdoer and wronged”? How is the debt of injury repaid?
First, asking ourselves the question, “What can I do to make things just or fair?” is crucial in this forgiveness process, and may be particularly effective when the injustice is obvious and concrete. If I’m really sorry that my negligence around the house has created more work for you, then I can start to repair the damage by doing that work myself, by noticing rather than being negligent about messes and routine cleaning work. I can start to make amends by doing those tasks that I haven’t been doing, and perhaps by taking on more than “my share,” to re-establish equity.
But what do we do when the injustice has been of the less tangible sort? For example:
When I’ve caused harm by my hurtful attitude or insensitivity?
When I can stop a hurtful behavior, but there’s no obvious way to make up for what I’ve done or balance the scales?
When I’ve damaged my partner’s reputation?
In many situations we don’t actually know what it will take to achieve restitution. We don’t always know what will make a difference. So it may require some creative experimentation, some trial-and-error. On a very practical level, restitution might begin with some questions. One partner might ask:
Are there words I need to hear, or actions I need to see, that can start to repay the hurt I feel?
Similarly, the other partner might ask:
Are there words I need to say, or actions I need to take, that can start to repay the hurt I’ve caused?
If such words and actions can be identified, and if they can begin to be expressed in a “heart-felt” manner, they can make a tremendous difference in moving toward healing.
As I reflect on the complications of restitution I realize that much of my work in therapy with couples is about helping them “reestablish mutual justice.” Our conversations, although we don’t always use the language of “justice,” are often in that territory:
How can we make things right?
What is good for this relationship?
How can we restore, or strengthen, the things that give both partners a sense of fairness and equality?
In those conversations we usually find that relationship justice results from a combination of words, actions and emotions, carried out through time, such that the relationship starts to feel right, equitable and fair.
Recognizing that there may still be some challenges in determining if meaningful restitution is possible, I want to move on to Augsburger’s fourth concept, to get a sense of where this forgiveness process leads.
Reconciliation “is a joint process of releasing the past with its pain, restructuring the present with new reciprocal respect and acceptance, and reopening the future to new risks and spontaneity…. As both persons accept their appropriate ratio of responsibility and share the redistribution of guilt, anger, suffering, and estrangement that have been between them, the situation is reframed, the pain reviewed and released, and the two reconciled to the past and to each other in the present.”
Augsburger sets before us a challenging final step in the forgiveness process. One of its challenges is that it’s a “joint” process requiring effort from both people involved. Consider this loaded phrase: “Both persons accept their appropriate ratio of responsibility.” Accepting such joint responsibility might look like this:
“I really stepped over the line there.”
“True. But I didn’t help by coming on so strongly.”
And consider this phrase: “Both persons … share the redistribution of guilt, anger, suffering, and estrangement that have been between them.” Perhaps these three statements capture such sharing:
“All along I’ve been thinking that I was the only one who’s been hurt, that I’ve been suffering while you didn’t give a damn. But I’m starting to see that you’ve really paid a price too; that the guilt has really weighed you down, and my distance has been very frightening for you.”
“I’m really relieved to be able to tell you that I’ve been angry too. It means a lot to me that you’ve acknowledged that. It helps me feel like a real person in this, that I’m more than just ‘the guy who screwed up’.”
“I keep wanting to argue that I’ve suffered more than you, but I don’t know if we can really measure our suffering. It seems, now, like you’ve probably had just as much pain as I have, but that we’ve shown it in very different ways.”
If my example statements seem a little too tidy … well … they probably are. Our reconciliation efforts may be conveyed as much in gestures and non-verbals, in tones-of-voice and touches, and through stop-and-start sentences, as they are by the kinds of statements above. But hopefully these statements capture the feeling of what couples are trying to convey to one another when they both participate in accepting “appropriate … responsibility,” and “redistribution of guilt, anger, suffering, and estrangement.”
Augsburger’s picture of reconciliation is also challenging because it involves transformation: The present is “restructured” with “new reciprocal respect and acceptance,” and the future is “reopened” to “new risks and spontaneity.”
To illustrate, consider a dirty car going through a car wash. Even though it’s covered with grime, or even caked-on mud, the car emerges on the other end shiny and clean. But it’s still the same car.
In contrast, following Augsburger’s notion of reconciliation, imagine that same dirty, car going through the car wash but now it emerges not only shiny and clean, but it’s actually a different car. Maybe it’s just a newer version of the same car, or the same car that’s changed from an automatic to a 5-speed. Or maybe it’s changed from a family van to a sports car, or vice-versa. Maybe it’s a hybrid. The point is, it’s transformed. It’s new! It’s not just a “clean” version of the same old thing.
The “joint” aspect of Augsburger’s definition of reconciliation indicates that it is not just the one who is seeking forgiveness that has changed, but also the one who is on the receiving end of those forgiveness efforts. Because, to follow Augsburger’s argument, the forgiveness process itself becomes not simply one where one person’s a petitioner, asking for forgiveness, and the other decides whether or not to grant forgiveness (though it may begin with these roles). Instead it is a joint process in which both persons reconsider (i.e. consider again; think about; take a new look at) the relationship and one another; and both persons learn about themselves, the other, and the relationship.
Reconciliation ushers in, in some ways, a new relationship: a relationship updated based on what was experienced, and learned, and worked through in the forgiveness process. A relationship in which both partners can say:
“So this is who we are now, and this is how we want to relate with one another, and this is what we’re moving toward together.”
Not the Only Way
One of the thoughts that was with me throughout the writing of this piece was my hope that these four concepts not be seen as The Correct or The Right way of doing forgiveness. Guided by the principles of Narrative Therapy, I’m reluctant to imply that any step-by-step approach to relationships is the right way to do it, or the standard that should be used to judge oneself or one’s relationship.
I’ve presented these ideas here because I think they have a lot to offer us when we feel stuck in our relationships; when we believe forgiveness is in order but we don’t know how to proceed or our usual ways aren’t working. But this isn’t the only way of doing forgiveness. I’m sure there are many other “forgiveness ideas” and “forgiveness stories” out there that could also provide us with hope, inspiration and guidance in times of difficulty.
Narrative therapists pay a lot of attention to people’s language and how that language creates “realities” or “truths” about life (“language” refers to the broad range of ways we express or communicate with one another: through words, gestures, tones of voice, glances, touches, etc.).
One of the main challenges of forgiveness (after, perhaps, the emotional challenge) is the “language” challenge. If I want to confess, what words and gestures can help me express myself accurately? How do I convey to my wife that I am actually trying to confess? And how do I accurately convey the extent of my contrition? What language will help me say “I’m sorry” in a way that actually reflects how sorry I am? How do I confess, or “own up” to what I’ve done, and express it in a way that says I really mean it?
Further, if I find language that works for me, will that same language work for her? Will it sound “genuine” to her or will she hear it as just an attempt to rationalize or defend myself, or just an opening salvo that will ultimately result in my blaming her for what has happened?
Complicating things more is the history of the relationship. Have my past confessions proven true through time, or would my partner say that what sounds like a confession at the beginning proves to have a short shelf-life? Have I become “the boy who cried wolf” in my contrition? Do words and gestures that, in the past, evoked softness and openness in my partner, now just put her on guard, waiting for “the other shoe to drop”?
An implicit question of all of this talk of forgiveness is, what are the “forgiveness stories” held by the two partners? That is, from their experiences, what are their pictures of what forgiveness is and how it’s supposed to happen? How do those stories shape what is said and done, and the steps taken? How do those stories influence each person’s understanding of what it means, and looks like, to “truly” be sorry for what one has done? It’s not hard to imagine that much of the work for a given couple may be just in deciphering the forgiveness stories they’ve brought to their relationship, and then figuring out a forgiveness story or forgiveness language that works for both of them.