The Importance of Forgiveness
Ellie M. McCann, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency; Heather M. Lee, Project Manager; and Sharon E. Powell, Extension Educator — Family Resource Management
In the context of divorce or separation, forgiveness is the process of letting go of the anger and resentment one ex-spouse feels toward the other. Forgiveness also involves ending the hostile responses that may have become a habit between divorced parents.
Try Forgiveness — You'll Feel Better
Forgiveness is not something you do for your children's other parent. Rather, you need to forgive the other parent for your own and your children's benefit, in order to move on to a healthier future.
Research by experts Alex Harris and Carl Thoresen (2005) shows that forgiveness can improve both mental and physical health. For divorced parents, forgiveness also contributes to a better coparenting relationship by enabling ex-spouses to see each other as human beings with both flaws and virtues — rather than “evil” robots without feelings that don't deserve respect.
Think about a situation where you have forgiven someone. You probably felt like a tremendous burden was lifted from your shoulders. If you have experienced this feeling, you already know how forgiveness can improve your emotional and physical health.
Moving Toward Forgiveness
Forgiving someone who has hurt you is usually not easy, and forgiving an ex-spouse or partner is especially difficult. Forgiveness requires changes in thinking, feeling, and acting. That's a tall order, but it can be done. By taking the following steps, you can move toward forgiving someone.
See the value of forgiveness in forging a new life. Forgiving your ex-spouse (or anyone) does not require you to condone or accept his or her hurtful behavior. Nor does it require you to feel love or try to reconcile with your ex-spouse. However, it does require you to stop feeling anger toward, and relinquish bitterness and resentment about, him or her so you can move on with life and set the stage for a workable coparenting relationship. Again — forgiveness is something you do for yourself and your children.
Understand what forgiveness means. When someone hurts us, we often refuse to forgive because we think that by doing so we are excusing what that person has done. But that's not the case. As noted, forgiveness does not require condoning or accepting a person's hurtful behavior. But we must let go of hate and anger before we can move on with our lives.
See forgiveness as a process that will take time. Forgiving someone requires changes in your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This won't happen in one attempt! Forgiveness is a process that takes perseverance and patience. Things will get easier over time if you make a sincere effort to forgive.
Forgiveness after divorce or separation involves reaching an understanding of why the marriage ended and recognizing the humanity of yourself and the other parent. This requires a conscious effort to change attitudes about the other parent and the complexities of human behavior.
Instead of holding a simplistic view of the other parent as evil or hateful, you need to view him or her as a complex human being with faults, as well as virtues. It's hard to understand sometimes, but people usually do things because they believe it makes the most sense or is their only choice at the time.
An Exercise to Help You Forgive
Grab a pencil and paper and write down your thoughts as you go through the following exercise.
Think back to a situation where you forgave someone and reflect on:
- How did your thoughts change as you sought to forgive that person?
- How did your feelings change as you sought to forgive that person?
- How did your actions change as you sought to forgive that person?
Now think about how you might change your thoughts, feelings, and actions to forgive your ex-spouse or partner. Write down those thoughts and a few ideas for making those changes real. One idea might be as simple as, “I will count to 10 before I start arguing with my ex-spouse [or partner] over something about the kids.” That's a way to start changing your actions and developing new habits.
What About Reconciliation?
As noted, forgiving an ex-spouse does not require reconciling with him or her. However, as your coparenting relationship with your ex-spouse or partner improves, you might start to wonder if you should revive your relationship.Before taking steps to reconcile, consider whether you and your children could handle the failure of such an attempt. For information on issues to consider before attempting reconciliation, see Should We Reconcile?.
Harris, A. H. S., & Thoresen, C. E. (2005). Forgiveness, unforgiveness, health, and disease. In E. L. Worthington Jr. (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 321-334). New York: Routledge.
Enright, R. D. (2012). The forgiving life: A pathway to overcoming resentment and creating a legacy of love. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Mayo Clinic. (2014). Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness.
Should We Reconcile? — Depending on your situation, you may still be considering whether the romantic relationship with your children's other parent is completely over or if you will eventually get back together. This resource reviews things to consider before making the big decision.
Change: Loss, Opportunity and Resilience — How to cope with change and possibly see change as an opportunity. Includes a booklet and a free one-hour online course.