Based on the comments below my last column (Train Your Man, September 9, 2013), I seem to have caused quite a stir with my ideas about how to get your partner to “behave better.” It seems the people who commented in protest focused an awful lot on the attention-grabbing headline and had trouble seeing the big picture of what I was trying to point out.
My column originated from a clinical situation I observe all the time: People ask me what they can do to change their partners. My husband mostly ignores me at night after work. What can I do? My wife is a slob and doesn’t take my requests to clean up seriously. What can I do? These are important questions and may reflect serious relationship problems. My main goal in the prior column, then, was to arm people with tools and ideas for figuring out how to have things go better. In essence, how to get the love you want.
Some of the negative comments got me down a bit. But, mostly the points got me thinking. I ended up spending a lot of time thinking about the topic of forgiveness, a topic I’ve written about a bit before on this site. I don’t feel I need to be forgiven for the column, nor do I need to forgive the people who posted testy things. But, my thoughts about the last column reminded me that forgiveness is an essential topic in the study of close relationships. We can improve our relationships by studying the science of forgiveness.
What Is Forgiveness?
One of the defining elements of close relationships is that we make ourselves vulnerable to our partners. We open up. We get out of our comfort zones. We trust.
When our trust is violated and we’re hurt, we often go on the offensive. Sometimes the hurts are little insults—your partner was looking at his iPhone while you were talking. Other times, the hurts run pretty deep—your partner kissed a co-worker at a Halloween party.
Just this week I observed this process unfold during a therapy session with a couple. Brian was talking with his wife, Veronica, about how hard it is for the family to get anywhere on time. Mostly, he was talking about ways in which his wife cannot tell time (read: all the subtle ways Veronica is not that bright). Brian wasn’t being very nice about it, but he wasn’t being terribly nasty, either.
I asked Veronica, “Does he always do this? Does he always put you down like this?” She nodded emphatically. I then asked him, “Why are you putting her down so much?”
Brian’s first reply: “What are you talking about? I’m not putting her down. I am just describing the situation as it is.”
My reply: “You’re putting her down. Anyone can see that. I’m curious why you think you’re doing it.”
His second reply: “In all honesty, I have a lot of resentment toward her. About things that happened. About the past. I just can’t get over some things. I guess it all comes leaking out when we try to talk.”
From this illustration, we can see a definition of forgiveness emerge by studying its opposite. Brian is stuck in his hurt, and it’s coming out all over the place.
We forgive when we choose to look beyond the pain inflicted by our partners and not react to our hurt. Forgiveness is not the act of “making up,” but is instead the decision to overcome the negative feelings of being hurt.
People in higher quality relationships tend to forgive each other much more easily. This is a no-brainer, right? Much more importantly, research indicates that forgiveness predicts improvements in marital satisfaction and overall commitment to the relationship over time. The more we forgive, the more likely we are to be happy in our relationships.