Based on the comments below my last YouBeauty 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.
Easier Said Than Done
Most people have some idea that forgiveness is good, but it’s much easier said than done in practice. To get to forgiveness, you need to work hard to start changing your attributions about your partner’s behaviors.
An attribution is a causal explanation. When we attribute causal explanations to our partner’s behaviors we can do so in a positive or negative light. Forgiveness begins with the choice to look toward the positive. My wife came home late from work the other night. I was upset because she does this often and I get saddled with preparing dinner for the kids on my own way too often.
I got upset, and my main thought (attribution) was that she’s taking advantage of me… again! When I let that thought take over, my blood started to boil.
She came running in the door when she got home and apologized for being late. I didn’t care, I wanted to give it to her, and I’d been working up a really great speech in my mind.
I am not sure what stopped me, but her apology allowed me to step back for a second and re-work my attribution. She has a tough job. She’s doing the best she can. She’s human and imperfect, just like me.
Suddenly, I didn’t feel so bad. The key to forgiveness is to seek understanding. You might dismiss my example as a trivial problem that hardly explains what happens when relationships are really stuck. This may be true, but consider the example above. Brian could do the same thing. The “real” reason Veronica has trouble getting on time is that she’s doing so much around the house and she’s the primary person getting the kids ready to get out the door (to school, to play dates, to visit the grandparents, etc.). Brian can forgive the lateness if he can put his thoughts and feelings about the past on hold long enough to understand the real reason why Veronica has a hard time keeping on schedule.
Don’t Be a Doormat
There are times when understanding your partner’s motivations are not enough. Forgiveness is an olive branch, and making an effort to understand your partner’s behaviors instead of jumping to negative conclusions is all well and good. Do not, however, become a doormat in the process.
To begin, I suggest you only forgive when you also express the hurt. Take the example with my wife. I totally understood her position, but I also told her how much is sucks to get left doing the dinner routine by myself too often. I was able to overcome my anger to forgive, but I expressed my frustrations in a reasonable way.
You cannot forgive bad behavior indefinitely. Express how you feel about the hurt and tell your partner what is and isn’t acceptable. If the bad behavior continues, you need to stand up for yourself and make some changes.
In this particular situation, it might be advisable to read my prior column. If you find what I wrote offensive in any way, I hope you can forgive me and see I was just trying to do my best.