The Power of Forgiveness in Divorce
The Power of Forgiveness in Divorce: How Lawyers Can Become Healers!
The power of forgiveness is of immense importance to working with the feelings and difficulties we share in relationship transitions, but it is frequently ignored. In many cases true wrongs were committed and real injuries were inflicted. Forgiveness doesn't deny that, it just offers a perspective and freedom from the cycle of rage and reactivity.
This article discusses one angle of approach that may be useful for guiding lawyers - and their clients who are in the midst of great relationship hurt - to, as a team, overcome reactivity. It is really written to the client, but the implied sensitivities are for the lawyer.
Here is a useful working definition of forgiveness:
"People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficience, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right)." (Enright and Fitzgibbons)
We tend to think in terms of what seems to be happening to us; this is natural. That sense of separation supports the idea that each of us are unique and special, that we were a victim, and that wrongs must be righted. That conditioned view supports fantasies of punishment and relative justice.
Wounded thinking is like a muscle spasm. It is self-perpetuating. It is mindless. It is a conditioned view that assures continued personal suffering and the experience of havoc in relationship breakup. This view poisons children and many others and helps to make divorce or family law disputes needlessly expensive. Many people choose their lawyers based upon this reactivity, and so they pick a 'guide' who is invested in conflict - or asleep. This is one reason why this matters for lawyers even though the clients are having the primary experience.
But is it true that what people in divorce or relationship break up experience happens only to them? Is what they (we) feel and how they (we) see it any different or more or less true for them (or us) than what the other person - the husband, or wife, or domestic partner - experiences? Is it true that the one we bore a child to, or who bore a child to us, or whom we trusted intensely for a time, is as selfish and insane as we view them to be today? If this may not be true did they change, or did our view of them change? Is it possible that both person's perspectives, attachments, and identifications changed, and that none of it is exactly true?
Might forgiveness alleviate the pain of breakup, and be valuable in setting a course for future relationships that are not mere replays of past patterns of behaving and reacting? If we don't help ourselves and our clients to answer these questions truthfully, then how can a reasonable person expect a different outcome next time? And, of what real value are we? We can be healers, or we will be destroyers.
These are important questions. Our client's answers tend to be different from day to day - from feeling to feeling. This realization says a lot. Yet Truth doesn't shift - does it? The conviction with which we hold certain opinions about others and what they did to us, and our roles, moves all the time.
Such questions invite us to test the stories our minds and our client's minds tell us as thoughts flit and dance and spin, particularly in the midst of breakup. And here is where I begin to refer to lawyers and clients together in one breath.
Humility and perspective are, we can usually agree, good things. In many cases the abuse that people suffered is far from imagined, and terrible victimization may have occurred and the consequences must be worked through. But is being right itself a prescription for wellness?
Victimization can also be self-inflicted. Within the range of behaviors we too have sometimes played a role along with the wrongdoer. Either way, the road towards forgiveness leads to the possibility, only at an appropriate time, that there is nothing more healing that we can do for ourselves than to consider overcoming our grievances by forgiving transgressors.
A Working Definition of "Forgiveness"
What is and what is not forgiveness? Because we need boundaries, and injustices do happen - injustices seem to be happening more than ever - a spirituality of forgiveness that ignores personal safety or equates with allowing continued victimization is neither constructive nor rational. Associating "forgiveness" with 'giving in' or inviting or accepting further pain or suffering is misguided.
Why care about forgiving? Who would dispute that each of us will live longer, happier, more fulfilling and more positive lives if we are not caught in a knot of pain and resentment?
Dr. Robert D. Enright and Dr. Richard P. Fitzgibbons authored "Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope", an examination of forgiveness as a tool for the therapeutic community in helping their clients. They offer to professionals, including lawyers, who are assisting people experiencing resentment, anger, hostility, hurt, etc., a model that suggests a way out of the learned legacy of hurt. They suggest this definition of forgiving:
"People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they wilfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditioned worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right)."
This description, being a long one, needs to be broken down to assess what response might be invited. "Rationally determining" assumes that a wrong was committed and that the forgiver was indeed a victim of that wrong. For instance, the forgiver must be free of illusion or undue influence or coercion, such that they do not distort reality (and the risk to them) by forgiving. It is critical not to overlook the fact that a moral wrong may have occurred. Forgiving a real wrong may become all the more hugely liberating.
"Wilfully abandon resentment" describes an active participation in the role of forgiving, and in changing the potency of the ordinary response that is resentment. To willfully or purposefully forgive isn't like flicking a light switch.
The process takes whatever time it takes, whether days or months, and any person may reasonably become ambivalent and uncertain along the journey. Still, this process begins with a conscious election to consider an alternative.
The words "responses" and "respond" refer to feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that accompany, are linked to, and are conditioned with the experience of resentment. Forgiveness is about abandoning resentment and all the natural manifestations of resentment within the process. Our conditioned reactivities serve to perpetuate a sense of personal pain and misery by obsessing the wrongs we have suffered: This thought process is repetitive; the feelings may make us ill; and our responses tend not to be reactionary and to add a layer of wrong upon a wrong, and even to impose collateral damage on others which we usually do not intend.
"Beneficence" is described as a moral principle. Moral principles are described as the quest for the good in human interaction. Morality implies justice and mercy. Justice precedes mercy when someone forgives, because forgiveness is a merciful response to an injustice - "in other words, the one who forgives has a clear sense of right and wrong, concludes that the other acted wrongly, and offers mercy. Forgiveness is centered in the forgiver's genuine desire for good toward the one who unfairly hurt him or her." [Enright and Fitzgibbons, supra, at page 23]. Beneficence is an authentic sense of goodness in which people aid others without thought of what they have done or can do for them. It is mercy offered without any motivation for a return, especially the return of feeling morally superior, or gracious.
"Compassion" denotes the idea that the forgiver suffers along with the injurer, despite whether the injurer themselves actually feel remorse or regret. Instead, the forgiver has a sympathetic sense of the other's frailties and identifies with that common state of existence. Is not dependent upon the other's admission of guilt.
"Unconditioned worth" is a recognition that all persons are entitled to be uniquely valued for what they are as human beings, irrespective of what they have done or done to others. It is a placing of value upon the condition of humanness. It can seem a tall order, but only if we view the person as nothing more than what they say or do and as having no divinity beyond those narrow constructs.
"Generosity" recognizes that the offender is given more than he or she deserves based upon their words or deeds, for no reason other than their unconditioned worth as persons.
"Moral love" expresses generosity and beneficence by investing in the other's well-being, despite everything else. This may consist of a softening of the heart of the aggrieved towards the offender, and according to Enright and Fitzgibbons, this aspect of forgiving may take a really long time and require that one first work through appropriate stages of anger and grief lasting for extended periods.
None of these elements are to be rushed, and it should be obvious that forgiveness can only be genuine where it is spontaneously and freely given with a full recognition of the nature of the wrong and the pain of its hurt. Forgiveness is worth exploring in divorce and family strife. It is certainly an attitude that will help bring sanity to the processing of the traumas that we commonly suffer from.
After all - all beings desire to regain peace and happiness.