Forgiving the Ex, Part II

In a post last week, I discussed the negative effects of persistent anger against a former spouse, including the harm to their children. I suggested that maybe lawmakers need to encourage divorced parents to forgive each other. As I write this sentence, I realize how naïve and simplistic that sounds. How are lawmakers supposed to help people forgive a former spouse who abused, betrayed, or neglected them? Doesn’t encouraging people to forgive suggest that their anger is unwarranted? Doesn’t it suggest that the injurer’s actions were justified or that one is condoning or excusing her wrongful and unjust behavior? Well, no. Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver does not have a right to be angry. To the contrary, the person who forgives chooses to “abandon [her] right to resentment . . . toward one who unjustly injured [her] while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward [the injurer].” Enright et al. (1999).

When asked if they have considered forgiving someone who has hurt them deeply, people often reply that the other person “doesn’t deserve forgiveness.” That may be so, but one does not forgive for the injurer’s benefit, but for one’s own benefit and possibly, for the benefits to one’s children. As I discussed in my earlier post, forgiveness may reduce anger and its negative effects on one’s physical and psychological health and parenting abilities. It might also reduce some of the destructive behaviors some parents engage in after divorce such as interfering with the other parent’s access to the children or disparaging him or her in front of the children. It might also enable some former spouses to cooperate as co-parents in their children’s upbringing. The question is not why divorced parents should forgive, but rather how can they be encouraged to do so?

Most people who have been deeply hurt do not consciously consider forgiving. Some researchers believe that most people need to be taught how to forgive and their work suggests it is possible to facilitate forgiveness in six to eight group sessions. Psychologists, such as Robert Enright and Everett Worthington, have used forgiveness interventions to help participants forgive offenses such as neglect, marital infidelity, and parental-love deprivation. Although social scientists have developed different forgiveness models, they all have certain elements in common. They all ask participants to acknowledge the pain the other person has caused them and the anger that they are feeling as a result. They also teach participants what forgiveness is (abandoning one’s right to resentment) and what it is not (excusing, condoning, or forgetting the hurtful and unjust behavior, giving up one’s desire for justice (i.e., punishment of a battering spouse), or reconciling with the injurer). They also encourage participants to attempt to understand the injurer’s background and experiences, not for the purpose of excusing the behavior, but rather to foster empathy. Finally, they encourage participants to consider forgiving and, if possible, to commit to forgiving. This does not mean that the person will forget the harm or that all of the angry feelings will go away immediately. To the contrary, even after deciding to forgive, the injured person is likely to recall the hurt and become angry again, but by committing to forgiveness, he will continue to try and let go of the anger and try to feel empathy and compassion for the other person.

Participants in forgiveness interventions have reported fewer negative feelings toward the injurer than the control group. They have also reported a greater willingness to forgive. One forgiveness intervention, Forgiveness and Divorce: Can Group Interventions Facilitate Forgiveness of a Former Spouse?, assigned 149 divorced individuals to one of three groups (1) a secular forgiveness group, (2) a religiously integrated forgiveness group, or (3) a wait-list control group. The group sessions discussed feelings of betrayal, coping with anger towards the former spouse, forgiveness education, preventing relapse (holding on to forgiveness), and closure. Although there were no differences between the secular and religiously integrated forgiveness groups, participants in these two groups self-reported similarly higher levels of forgiveness and lower depression than the wait-list control group.

Many states require divorcing parents to participate in parenting education and mediation of custody disputes, in part, to reduce inter-parental anger and help parents understand how their anger negatively affects their children. Given the potential benefits of forgiveness, lawmakers should consider requiring, or at least recommending, that angry, divorced parents participate in forgiveness interventions. Many people are probably skeptical of the law’s ability to cultivate forgiveness between divorced parents. In my next post, I will discuss how lawmakers have already attempted to facilitate forgiveness in other contexts and address some of the objections to this proposal.

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5 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    “That may be so, but one does not forgive for the injurer’s benefit, but for one’s own benefit and possibly, for the benefits to one’s children.”

    That’s why I forgave my ex; She used me as a quick get out of debt scheme, married me deep in debt, left a year later debt free with ME deep in debt… I’ve little doubt it was planned.

    But I couldn’t really move on with my life as long as I was obsessing over how I’d been screwed over. And they do say living well is the best revenge.

    “The question is not why divorced parents should forgive, but rather how can they be encouraged to do so?”

    There’s another obvious question: “Why would it occur to anybody that it was the government’s place to encourage forgiveness?” Could we have some sense here that not everything is the government’s responsibility or place?

    The government could do it’s part by reducing the grievances created by it’s own unjust divorce laws. That’s it’s proper role here. Not facilitating grievances, and then ordering people to forgive them.

    Because that’s the correct term. The government isn’t really good at suggesting things.

    So, I predict you’re going to have some guy, angry over being divorced and taken to the cleaners, getting angrier over the fact that he’ll be denied visitation if he doesn’t pretend it doesn’t bother him.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    I agree with Brett that the true naivete in your sugestion lies in the notion that this is a matter for lawmakers. Based on my own experience with divorce and the socially-obligatory marriage counselling, once something like this is mandated, you will wind up with people going through the motions or gaming the system. Making it an available option is one thing, making it a requirement is something else.

    Your suggestion is also less plausible because you sound as if you’re speaking from psychological studies and cost-benefit analyses, rather than from the depth of human experience. (Maybe you have that experience, but you’re not demonstrating that.) E.g., you explain that “Forgiveness does not mean that the forgiver does not have a right to be angry. To the contrary, the person who forgives chooses to ‘abandon [her] right to resentment . . . toward one who unjustly injured [her] while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward [the injurer].’ Enright et al. (1999).” Point #1, the forgiver is sometimes a he; and point #2, why are the compassion, generosity and compassion toward the injurer necessarily “undeserved”? Life is a lot more complicated than Enright et al. (1999).

  3. A.J. Sutter says:

    correction to previous comment, last sentence: ” … why are the compassion, generosity and love …”

  4. The problem I have with this is it can quickly turn into lecturing a wronged party on what they should feel, apparently to make the lecturer feel happy about their role in resolving disputes and facilitating social order. It really starts to sound like a threat, “If you don’t feel like, I, lecturer, are telling you that you should feel, all sort of bad things will happen to you, and your kids”.

    It can be a double injustice – the person suffers the first injustice, and then they have to deal with a busybody giving them grief over it.

    It may not be what you intend, but I wish people doing that would take into account the practical result.

  5. ohwilleke says:

    If forgiveness is in the enlightened self-interest of the person forgiving, then one ought to be able to foster it without compulsion, simply by making help available. Indeed, this does happen. Churches do a land office business offering groups and counsel on coping with divorce, and psychologists and various counselors rush in to address the issues of those for whom churches are not available or not enough. If there is a role for government at all, it might be to endow a foundation to make post-divorce coping resources available without regard to financial need, rather than in the litigation process.

    There is also a fairly credible school of thought that says that if you want peace, seek justice. Japanese tort and criminal cases routinely involve abject apologies, but apologies only work in the context of a shared societal sense of shame. (Japanese divorces also often result in something approaching a termination of all parental rights for one parent or the other.)

    Certainly, there is no doubt that the divorce and post-divorce process is tremendously destructive for all involved in the 25% of divorces that are high conflict. But, forgiveness seems a decidedly second best solution in these anger infused cases. Perhaps, for example, joint parenting is overused in such cases, forcing people who have told the court that they can’t communication by seeking a divorce, and established that fact by proving themselves incapable of co-parenting, to work together.

    It may also be that people need a forum, in the tradition of the feudal poetic notion of a “love court” in which to air their grievances and have them judged, even if those grievances aren’t suitable to resolve in the same forum as property division, maintenace and parenting time. In the high conflict divorces that I’ve been involved in, both parties have almost always been itching to tell the stories of why their marriages ended, whether the judge cared or not.