Today I bring to you one of the foremost experts on a critical topic for individuals and relationships, Forgiveness. Dr. Fred Luskin is the Director of the Stanford Research Project on Forgiveness and author of the popular books Forgive for Good, Stress Free for Good, and his most recent Forgive for Love. He currently serves as a Senior Consultant in Health Promotion at Stanford University and is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology.
Question: In your newest book Forgive for Love, you cite some staggering statistics in your book that over 50% of marriages end in divorce and 60% of second or third marriages end in the first 10 years. An even more alarming statistic is the survey that showed only 25% of spouses saying they are “happy together.” What’s going on here?
Dr. Luskin: Being happy long term with another human being appears to be a difficult goal to achieve in the United States over the last 30 years. I think there are some unexplored cultural reasons…primarily a culture which has been taught that it is a sign of success to have things our way. That Burger King mentality of looking to have my irrelevant desires gratified makes it more difficult to achieve the kind of compromise, forgiveness and intimacy over time that a relationship requires. I think we have been so indoctrinated by our consumer culture that we think we have achieved something when in a car dealership we choose the specific extras we want as if that is a path to any kind of happiness and not a condition for reinforcing narcissim. When two people are conditioned in this consumer oriented way it makes it much harder to do the relationship work with oneself that a successful long term relationship requires. Forgiveness means one lets go of one’s demandingness for things our partner cannot or does not choose to give us and through that learn to love our imperfect mate.
Question: In a past blog, Refusing to Forgive: 9 Steps to Break Free, I quoted your 9 steps from your popular book Forgive for Good. Now in Forgive for Love you’re focusing more specifically on forgiveness as a vehicle for a lasting and successful relationship. If you were sitting across the table from a couple, and the man is filled with resentment because his wife has just cheated on him, what would you say?
Dr. Luskin: I would tell the man that he first needs to feel and acknowledge the wound and deal with his grief before he either forgives his wife or decides what to do about the relationship. There are so many questions in your question. Is the wife cheating in response to her husband’s neglect or infidelity? Is she looking for attention or paying him back for something. Is the cheating indicative of dissatisfaction with the relationship or a fear of deep intimacy? So many reasons can cause the same behavior. As for the husband he will be best served if he finds support for his pain from people not just his wife. If he has close friends this is the time to lean on them. Journaling, therapy or meditation are useful as he needs to acknowledge his vulnerability and loss not just express his anger.
He has a decision to make as to whether or not he wants to recommit to the marriage. That depends in part on the willingness of his wife to apologize and decide herself to recommit. Most important is can the couple create a place where they can talk honestly about their experience as a couple. He is under no obligation to remain married to this woman if he decides the wound was too brutal. That said, he does have an obligation to treat his wife as kindly as he is able. Her bad behavior is not excuse for him to be brutish or harsh.
I would suggest he forgive her but hold her as accountable as is possible considering the quality of their relationship. In forgiving her I would ask him to admit that he made the choice to marry this woman and in each choice of partner there is a risk. He could forgive her indiscretion and unkindness without condoning it or agreeing it was ok. But, he needs to acknowledge that we marry imperfect hurting people who make mistakes. The really important work is acknowledging his grief and deciding what is the best course of action for the future.
Question: Can you give us a glimpse into the four stages of forgiveness couples go through?
- The first step of forgiveness in self justified upset. Say your partner has lied about something and you have talked it over and they have apologized. That is the optimal response they can make and if it is followed by change in behavior they have done what they can. But, even with her good response you stay upset and angry and feel taken advantage of for a period of time. Most people at this stage think it is their partners fault they are upset and any normal person would feel violated the way they do.
- The second stage occurs when you get tired of being miffed because your partner lied a few months ago. You do not like the way you have withdrawn from her or the way you act in a condescending manner. So, after struggling you tell yourself to get over it and move on. Your effort is primarily to spare you further suffering and there is little deep understanding of your habits or the existential inevitability of suffering.
- The third stage occurs when you recognize your tendency to hold grudges rather than wait until you feel pissed for weeks on end. Because you understand there are situations that focus attention on your weakness, you work hard to grow and so practice forgiveness of yourself and your partner whenever you can.
- The fourth stage is a felt sense of the precariousness of relationship and the frailty of human interaction leading to a tolerant and kind attitude that is difficult to ruffle. You practice gratitude and forgiveness towards your partner and self as a regular part of your relationship not because they have erred but because it is part of your desire to grow in love.
Question: What do you do with a partner who you have forgiven over and over again and they continue to lie, cheat, and offend and you feel like a doormat?
Dr. Luskin: If someone does not or cannot change problematic behavior like lying or drinking or abuse the problem is not one of forgiveness but of self protection. An unwillingness to either clearly confront the wrong, ask strongly for couples therapy or move away/out after an egregious incident suggests low self esteem and self efficacy and have little to do with forgiveness. We each have to decide which behaviors our spouses do that are deal breakers and make our standards clear both to ourselves and to them. For some, one incident of infidelity is a deal breaker. For others, numerous drunken rages are accepted. Forgiveness soothes the emotional/cognitive pain it does not substitute for setting appropriate boundaries. If we are so weak that anything our partner does is OK because we fear losing them, then at least own that personal weakness and stop blaming the partner for how they act.
Question: Do you have any advice for the readers of the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Blog who try over and over again to forgive, but they can’t because the resentment is so powerful?
- I would suggest that people work on deepening their meditation practice. The ability to self regulate is significant in forgiveness and can be practiced in short bursts of mindfulness. The sense of victimization occurs when our nervous system is regularly activated by a relationship we disapprove of and can’t control and so the sympathetic arousal is blamed on the spouse instead of calmed through breathing or visualization practices.
- The other thing I would suggest is the regular acknowledgement of things to be grateful for such as all the things ones partner does for us; Examples are the regular things partners do for each other such as laundry, cooking and going to work. Seeing the beauty of any effort to love and understanding the poignant drive of people from differing backgrounds and experiences trying to connect and love.
- Third, the reminder to be kind whenever possible. Hold that as a goal for your behavior in the relationship and with that do your best to allow your partner to make mistakes without becoming overly harsh or nasty. Learn to grieve as a first response rather than attack. Learn to control your speech so that kind words are used by you as often as you can.
Bottom line is to learn to become more lovable and self controlled person yourself so that you encourage the best in your partner.
Thank you Dr. Luskin for your insights and important work! To the readers, please share your thoughts, stories, and questions below. Your interaction provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.