Do You Need to Forgive in Order to Heal?

Since I published Runaway Husbands in 2010, women have asked me from time to time whether they need to forgive their husbands in order to heal. It’s the one question that has stymied me because forgiveness didn’t really enter in to my own process after my husband left. It’s not that I either forgave him or not. It’s more that I came to understand why he left in the way he did and then I stopped really caring.

But I know for many, the hurt continues on long after the offence has been committed and we are always looking for ways to heal. So when I was preparing workshops to present at my recent divorce recovery retreat in Mexico, I decided that it was time to tackle forgiveness because I know it may be important to you.

I found two streams in my research on forgiveness. The first involves the idea of turning the other cheek. It is defined as follows: Turning the other cheek is a phrase in Christian doctrine from the Sermon on the Mount that refers to responding to injury without revenge. This passage is variously interpreted as commanding non-resistance, Christian pacifism, or nonviolence on the part of the victim.

This path would require the person who is hurt to step back from a typical reaction in which she might want to even the score, access justice or make the perpetrator hurt back in equal measure and instead, she would have to accept and integrate what people are capable of, and, in the interest of peace, just take it.

A step further along the same lines is when I hear that a woman is trying to pray for the one who hurt her. Both actions, turning the other cheek and praying for the perpetrator, put the power back in the hands of the victim who, although victimized, is not going to be beaten down, but rather, chooses to take the high road.

Women who have attempted to go this route have mentioned how hard it is. The hurt is so great that although they pray for him, their hearts are not in it and then they not only feel badly about him leaving, they also feel badly that they can’t forgive in this way. If they are unable to actively forgive him through prayer or acceptance, it just complicates the process of healing.

The second stream is different. It focuses more on softening the hurt that the woman feels inside rather than actively trying to transmit forgiveness to the one who hurt her. In this sense, I think that the word forgiveness is misleading. What she will be doing instead is closer to developing detachment, distancing, letting him go, and then moving on to self-love and self-compassion.

Michael Beckwith, the spiritual leader from Culver City, California, contributed these thoughts in the excellent Netflix documentary called HEAL: Every authentic spiritual path has some teaching around forgiveness. All forgiveness is self forgiveness because the resentment I may hold towards another or the unforgiveness or the rancor, all of those thoughts are happening within me. Even if someone did me wrong, I still have those thoughts – those thoughts are affecting me. They’re affecting my body temple. They’re affecting my blood chemistry, affecting everything.

He went on to say: So when I begin to forgive the so-called other person, I’m releasing resentment, anger, animosity. I’m releasing all that unforgiveness so that actually, I’m forgiving myself. Now, it doesn’t necessarily let the other person off the hook for whatever they did, it has nothing to do with them. It has everything to do with me.

The goal of this approach towards forgiveness is to drain away the pain you feel inside. When you no longer feel the hurt, you no longer feel the hate, and isn’t that a feature of forgiveness? The focus is on healing that internal pain and then naturally, you’ll no longer care enough about the person who hurt you to wish him ill. As author Wayne Dyer wrote: Forgiveness is a process. A choice you have to make over and over, every day until you're free of hurt. Forgiveness is not something you do once, you do it over and over. It’s an action, a choice. Decide that you don’t want to live with the effect of that anymore.

I know what you’re thinking: “Great! Now how am I supposed to do that? Heal the hurt? If it were just a matter of deciding to do it, I would have done it by now!” Of course, you would have! But this stream of thinking about forgiveness does offer some strategies and they go something like this: When you are aware that you are suffering hurt thinking about the person who hurt you, close your eyes and get in touch with your breath. Start breathing regularly and deeply and when your start to relax, visualize something - a place, a person, a pet, a memory - that brings you peace and joy. Stay with that image until it fills you. Feel it! And then take a few more deep calm breaths and open your eyes.

At first, it will be hard to do, almost impossible. But if you continue practicing this meditative “thought replacement”, you will get good at it and eventually, you will soften the hurt until it melts away. It’s a technique of replacing the hurt with appreciation for something precious and for the beauty you still have in your life. It’s something you can actively do - it’s within your control. And it’s both free . . .  and freeing!

So do you need to forgive in order to heal? No. You need to heal in order to forgive.

Think of something troubling and then try the breathing technique and tell me how it goes in the comments below.


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