©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Without forgiveness there is no future.
--Desmond Tutu

ArleneEyes downcast, hands jammed into jean pockets, he paced my office. Beyond the fact that he’d announced his name as Carlton, he had paced in silence. I thought about saying, “Just give me the bottom line.” But then I realized his male brain would likely do that, anyway—when it was ready.

More pacing. More silence. 

Finally he delivered a series of bottom lines:

“My wife left me five years ago.”

“We’d been married nearly fifteen years.”

“We did everything together, a perfect match in every way.”

“I’ve taken complete responsibility for her leaving. I didn’t give her    enough time.”

“I forgave her right away. Must have been caught in the counterfeit forgiveness trap, though, as nothing has changed for me.”

A few pointed questions gave me some additional information. He was just starting to repeat how perfectly matched they were, when I held up my hand. He noticed the movement.

“There’s an elephant in the room, Carlton. Do you see it?” I asked.

Carlton turned to me with a look of bewilderment.

I explained. “You were a ‘perfect match in every way’ and yet she didn’t value the relationship enough to be monogamous. How many emotional and physical/sexual affairs did you say she had during your marriage?”

“Several,” he replied.

“How many did you have?” I asked.

He shook his head.

“You did everything together and yet she left because you didn’t give her enough time?”

He nodded. “That’s the reason she gave when she left.”

“And you’ve taken ‘complete responsibility for her leaving’?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“It makes no sense,” I said emphatically. “The reason is never the reason. I repeat: There’s an elephant in the room. Do you see it?”

Carlton stopped pacing. “Oh, I get it,” he said. However, the widening of his eyes suggested that this was a new concept for him.

“If the reason is never the reason, I wonder why she really left.”  

“I wouldn’t know,” I replied, “but there are a plethora of possibilities. For example:

  • “The baggage she brought to the marriage hooked into yours. As you began to work on your stuff and get a little healthier, the baggage no longer meshed.
  • “She had a history of sexual relationships with multiple partners. Over time, her brain may have found monogamy boring.
  • “She never genuinely loved you to begin with. The marriage may have been one of convenience for her or her rewards came when you performed in public, so no glue was developed to hold you together in long term.
  • “You were sexually attracted to her and the resulting hormonal tsunami kept you from clearly evaluating whether or not she had the characteristics that would bode well for a long-term monogamous relationship.
  • “Ad infinitum.”

“Probably all of them,” Carlton replied with his first smile, albeit a wry smile.

“It’s all water over the dam, now,” I said. “While it’s important to identify what happened and learn from it, the question is, Where do you want to go from here?”

His answer was immediate. “I need tips on how to genuinely forgive. She ‘moved on’ the day she walked out. I’m trying to move on but haven’t gotten very far. I mean, her leaving was a big loss for me.”

“First,” I said, “avoid confusing genuine forgiveness with loss and the need for grief recovery. They are two separate journeys, although they may overlap at times.”

I suggested he read the article on my website entitled, “Loss Recovery—Grief Recovery Pyramid,” which would give him tips on how to manage losses. Grief recovery is important. For everyone. Otherwise, you risk developing a slush fund of unresolved grief. Then, when another loss occurs--even a comparatively minor loss--that slush fund of unresolved grief can come rushing forth and trigger a tsunami of over reaction.  That can not only be startling for everyone involved, but extremely unhelpful.”

Carlton nodded.

“Second, the process for moving on differs for every brain because every brain is different.” Naturally, the time frames differ, as well. Moving on usually needs to involve a clear choice. If the person is saying “I’m trying to move on,” the brain may not get in gear in the way it would if the person were saying “I am moving on now” or “I have moved on.”

Carlton nodded again and said, “I am moving on. Now.”   I smiled.

“This brings us to the path to forgiveness,” I said. “Genuine forgiveness and a healthier future go hand in glove. There are some specific strategies that you can use as a guide. Think of them as seven life-saving steps.

Step 1: Identify what happened to you.

Acknowledge the event or situation simply, clearly, and honestly. Avoid pretending either that the event or situation was no big deal or making more of it than is warranted. Take responsibility for the contribution you made, if any. Never take responsibility for anything you did not contribute. Avoid blaming others in an effort to displace some of your discomfort onto someone else. Realize that your goal is to create a future that is better than your past. Start moving from a victim stance to that of a survivor, one day at a time. A victimstance allows what happened in the past to control your future. A survivorstance allows you to create a healthier future regardless of what happened in the past.

Step 2: Outline the consequences to you.

There may be primarily negative outcomes from the event or situation. but some positive outcomes are also possible. It is important to have as accurate and balanced a picture as possible. Mentally step away from the situation and ask yourself how others might view the event, might perceive what had happened. This can help you look at the event or situation is a slightly different way. At times it can result in your identifying positive outcomes that you had missed. Genuine forgiveness acknowledges the consequences and faces the pain. It works through the process so that the pain no longer dominates your thinking and no longer triggers anger and thoughts of revenge.

Step 3: Make a decision to forgive.

Recognize the value of forgiveness to your life and health. Think of decisional forgiveness as a behavioral intention to resist an unforgiving stance and to respond differently toward a transgressor—in your mind, if not literally in person. State your behavioral intention to stop hanging on to an unforgiving stance and to mentally respond differently. In effect, it removes the enemy outpost in your head that has been staffed by the person who hurt you. Otherwise you’ll live in the past and be held hostage to the person who caused you pain. Forgiveness neutralizes the power of the person in your past and allows you to move forward. This doesn’t mean you choose to associate with the person, however. You may choose to be in the same room for short periods of time (e.g., at family gatherings if the person is a relative or at holiday gatherings if the person is a friend) or you may not. It’s entirely up to you. In the same way, trust must be earned. Forgiving does not mean trusting injudiciously. You may never trust the person again. Again, it’s entirely up to you.

Step 4: Embrace emotional forgiveness.

Think of emotional forgiveness as the replacement of negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented emotions. Emotional forgiveness, which involves psycho-physiological changes, has more direct health and well-being consequences. If you have been harboring anger and resentment, replace those thoughts and emotions with positive emotions. While it has often been said that love is blind, so is anger. Emotional forgiveness is a process of altering your one-dimensional perspective into a more inclusive big-picture dimension. If you fail to forgive, the person who hurt you still holds you as an emotional captive. Forgiveness doesn’t erase what happened or make up for it or even balance the score. It does keep you from spending the rest of your life with the person who did you wrong.

Step 5Alter your personal perspective.

Your perspective reflects your brain’s opinion. Forgiveness doesn’t change what happened. Rather, it is designed to alter your perspective. It’s the old 20:80 rule. Only 20% of the negative effect to your brain and body can be laid at the door of the event or situation. About 80% of the negative effect involves your personal perspective, i.e., the weight you give to what happened, the importance you place upon it. You may not be able to do anything about the 20%; you most certainly can do almost everything about the 80% because it involves your own brain’s opinion and you can alter your opinion. Use whatever works in your life. For example, if you embrace Christian ethics and believe that the Deity loves everyone, then ask yourself how you can refuse to forgive someone whom God loves?

Step 6: Stop continual rehearsing.

When you rehearse, you tell your story again and again from your own perspective. You may rehearse to others; you may rehearse to yourself. Usually you include only the bad, sad, angry, and hurtful aspects. In the process, you may trigger the release of adrenalin (offering a momentary shot of energy) and, as adrenalin levels increase, so do dopamine levels, which help you feel better for a short period of time. Some people actually become addicted to the adrenalin and dopamine released during rehearsal. In addition, because the brain wants congruence, while you are rehearsing, your brain will search for other memories when you felt the same way: sad, angry, or hurt. This can begin to snowball until you really feel quite rotten.

Step 7: Develop a mindset of gratitude.

As Martin Luther King put it, “Forgiveness is not an act, it is a perpetual attitude.” You can create a forgiveness mentality and hone the requisite skills to change your thoughts from negative to positive. When recalling the event or situation (as you undoubtedly will), immediately focus on something for which to be grateful. It is physiologically impossible to be fearful and grateful at the same time. When an old memory crosses your conscious mind, you may need to take a moment and move through decisional and emotional forgiveness again. Then, embrace an attitude of gratitude.

“Do you have those seven steps written down anywhere?” asked Carlton. “I’d like to be sure I remember them all. This is doable.”

I promised to send them in an e-mail.  With a brief smile and handshake, he was gone, his steps definitely lighter than when he had arrived.

The bottom line? The path to forgiveness is never easy. It is, however, a prescription for health. Yours.

When we react to other people, we join their dance—and why dance with a person you don’t like? Forgiveness allows you to stand on the side and watch them dance. You don’t have to dance with them if you don’t want to. You can dance the dance you enjoy with whomever you enjoy.
—Dick Tibbits

Note: You may want to read the Mini-Monograph "To Forgive or Not to Forgive"


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