A number of years ago, my husband went through a certification process on a “relapse prevention” program. He was a fundraiser for a non-profit which worked with addicts breaking their addictions and getting back on their feet. The course wasn’t strictly necessary for his position, but he felt it was important to know what the counselors deal with on a regular basis so that he could more effectively tell their stories to potential funders.
The course was intensive and the participants were required to do homework each night. One evening when he came home, he told me they had gone through the section on forgiveness – an essential section for any addict who wants to truly leave their compulsions behind them and move on. I was intrigued with the conversation until he turned to me and said, “I think we should go through the exercise and talk about your father.”
In the later years of his life, my father had made some – let’s put it mildly – “poor choices” which had HUGE ramifications for us kids. I had tried to forgive him. I thought I had done a decent job at it.
But here’s the thing about forgiveness: it is a large, ambiguous, and difficult-to-pin-down concept. Sure, we have all heard the quote that refusing to forgive someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die. But how do you know when you have actually forgiven them? What do you say and do? Can you ever move to the place of having fondness for the person?
Out of sheer love for my husband, I decided to listen to the perspective that he had gained at the course. Michael Dye, the author of the course, had an interesting spin on forgiveness. It wasn’t just a question of what the person did and how you can “let go”, it was an in-depth look at what you had told yourself when you were hurt.
Through my tears, Eric helped me fill out the chart. Here is one example of what I wrote:
Person: My Dad
Offense: He re-married four months after my Mom died.
Judgment: He is selfish and weak, unable to live without a woman.
Vow: I will never need a man like he needed a woman…I won’t be that weak.
Effect on me: Trust issues in my relationship with Eric which have taken years to address properly.
Person’s Debt: He owed me the right to grieve at my own pace – without a step-mother – for at least a year.
There were actually a litany of offenses, but I won’t bore you with all the sordid details. Eric sat next to me on the couch and wouldn’t let me leave until I had put everything on paper. It took hours. At the end of the list, Dye has you verbally articulate a forgiveness statement releasing the person of not only the offense (the typical approach to forgiveness exercises) but also the DEBT that they still owe you. Keep in mind, the debt might not be logical at all. It is your emotional response to the hurt you have experienced. For example, you could be forgiving a parent for being absentee during your childhood. S/he might “owe” you all the time that you lost with them.
It is the DEBT part of this exercise that is profound. Because unless you actually know what you are forgiving a person for – meaning what debt you are releasing them from – it is impossible to forgive them. If you try to address the offense, but never dig deeper to the debt, you will be spinning your wheels.
How does this have anything to do with sex???
Because I meet a significant number of people who have been unable to move past offenses and debts that his/her spouse has inflicted. A lot of these people are still married but can’t figure out why their sex life is tanking. Let me tell you, if you think you can have a thriving sex life when you are holding on to something that your spouse did to you, you are out to lunch. Sex is one of the most intimate ways we express ourselves with our partners, and this expression will be severely curtailed by unforgiveness. It festers and grows until it becomes all encompassing.
Let me tell you what I experienced after I completed the exercise regarding my father. All of a sudden, for the first time in years, I was able to remember the good things he had done for me. It was as if all the unforgiveness had been a cloud that prevented me from seeing him for what he truly was – a man capable of making some very good as well as some very bone-headed decisions. And there is enormous freedom in coming to that place.
One last thought…forgiveness is a unilateral act. You do not need an apology, an acknowledgement or even a public allocution from your spouse or other offenders in order to forgive. My father had been dead for years when Eric and I went through the exercise. It was for me and me alone. And it brought enormous freedom.
Who do you need to forgive in your life?
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