Updated: Jul 28, 2021
We’ve been talking about how your past haunts your present as a couple. We started by talking about why it’s so important not to argue about what actually happened and who did what to whom. Then we began the discussion of how to heal the wound when one of you did something that truly hurt the other, a hurt that feels hard, or impossible, to get over.
Now we get to the really hard part. How does real letting go and actual forgiveness happen? What can you do to make it happen? Can you make it happen? Or is the best any of us can do is to just make it possible for forgiveness and letting go to happen?
So what is forgiveness about? Let’s say I accidentally bump into you on a crowded street. I say, “Oh, I’m so sorry.” You say something like, “No problem.” And so I’m forgiven.
What just happened? The damage was negligible. I acknowledged my part in it. I said I was sorry. On your part, that was enough for you to let go because...you no longer saw me as a threat! You could tell from what happened and how I handled it that you had nothing to worry about from me.
Would that work if I’d just held you up at gunpoint? As I start to walk away with your money, I say, “And by the way, I’m really sorry about this. Really!” I don’t think you’re gonna say, “No problem.” Because as I disappear into the shadows and fog, I’m still a problem for you. You don’t feel safe at all when it comes to me. Even if I’d had tears in my eyes when I’d said I was really sorry. My “I’m sorry” had done nothing to make you feel safe.
And there’s a whole other issue. Suppose I robbed you at gunpoint and you recognized me as your cousin. Now not only do you no longer feel safe, but I am no longer the person you thought I was to you. Maybe you thought I was okay before. Maybe if necessary you’d have let me drive you to the doctor before. But no longer. No way.
So when we talk about apologizing and saying I’m sorry, we’re talking about doing a lot of work. Not to carry out the basic meaning of those words. Not so you can say, “I said I was sorry,” even if you had video of your sobbing your guts out when you said it. No, the work is about doing what’s necessary to make your partner feel safe.
The work of sorrow and apology is for you to establish that
You understand in every possible way the hurt and damage you caused
You fully realize the impact what you did had on your relationship
Your realization of all this somehow showed itself in the realm of action: you changed the way you dealt with your partner so they could see that you’d become in some way a different person
And all this works to create a feeling of safety in this way: if your partner can think, “He’s (a) a good person and (b) he’s willing and able to change and (c) he really understands the damage he’s done, then I can feel pretty confident that this won’t happen again.” Good people who can change just don’t go on to hurt someone they care about like that ever again. It’s as simple as that.
How do you do this? Well, you just talk about it—for months, or years if necessary—with the person who did the damage getting feedback from the person who was hurt.
Once all this work is done, then forgiveness—and more!—can happen. Forgiveness is just being able to say, “This no longer stands between us. We are now, formally, okay with each other. Harmony has been restored.”
But that’s not the same as reconciliation. You can have forgiveness but still go on to have a divorce. Reconciliation means that whatever I did not only doesn’t stand between us but also no longer stands in the way of our having a loving, trusting, intimate relationship. The past is not only buried but love has come back to life.
And the groundwork for this happens when you do steps 1 through 3 above and they lead to your allowing loving actions to begin to appear in your lives together again.
What are these “loving actions”? It’s not necessarily sex. There are couples who go on having sex throughout this process. It’s intimacy. Intimacy is when you can answer yes to the question, “Is it safe to be naked with you?” Not just physically safe, but emotionally safe. Not just physically naked, but emotionally naked. Can we feel safe with each other when we show who we really are with each other? A yes answer to that question means the past really is dead.
Just one thing, though. Even without hurts from the past, even if you’ve been together a long time, it can be hard to put your feelings and needs out there without ending up feeling you wish you hadn’t opened your big fat mouth in the first place. You didn’t have the slightest thought of starting any trouble, but somehow your words weren’t received with open arms, and the next thing you know both of you are having a fight.
That’s where our new book Why Couples Fight comes in. The problem comes when I innocently “open up,” but you somehow feel that my free and open expression is disempowering. It can happen in so many ways! And the next thing you know, we’re off and running. What’s going on here, how to prevent it, and how to do much, much better...it’s all in our book.