Forgiveness in relationship

The previous entry was just an introduction to this one. Analyzing my personal life, my family background, the things that brought me peace or made me feel frustrated (sometimes to the point of loss of control), I spent much time thinking why people who care for each other can’t live together, what could have made it better, what are the triggers and what mends.

I realized that, at least for me, fights that do not end in taking responsibility, apology and (maybe) promise to be better, in complete and formal forgiveness, stay with me for a long time. It might be not so for other people. I realized I have a long-term emotional memory. Why do I say “emotional”?! Because, while I remember what was said, I also feel again what I felt and, in a moment, I am back in the emotional swirl of events as far away as 20 or more years. It’s like the frustration, anger and pain of that moment never went away, it was just pushed under the rug, waiting for a right time to be brought in the open again. Pretending it never happened (to hurt/be hurt, to be betrayed/betraying) will never help as it DID happened (or so the other think) and from that point onward only the healing can help, not denial of it happening.

From other people’s stories I understand that this is how many people feel. Okay, not many have outbursts like I do, but they feel the same. I couldn’t help wondering “What is so difficult?! How can one not only hurt and wrong you but also deny they did this, sometimes shift the blame on you”. I heard many stories of people who added insult to the injury and I asked myself why. I know that human nature is weak, I know that we don’t always do what is right and it is ok but if we did wrong, why can’t we at least offer the comfort of an apology. Well, a heartfelt apology, one we can accept, comes naturally only after admitting to ourselves that we were wrong. As I said in the previous posting and in the one about eHarmony, for some people it is so difficult to look in the mirror and see what they did (not what they are; if only they would understand this!) that they are ready to go to any lengths to avoid this. We need to feel that we are the good guys and when this image is untenable from the logical point of view, we shift the blame onto the victim. It’s ironic almost: we are ready to add to our bad deeds and words just to defend the image of the Good-ME.

In any fight occurring in a relationship, BOTH sides are at fault. ALWAYS! While everyone seems to agree on this, when it comes to enumerating their faults in breakdowns of relationships, many will list “too understanding, too good, and too caring”… OMG, aren’t they taking too much burden on their shoulders?! . In fact, if we analyze honestly the situations we could discover that we were brutal, lacked sensitivity, understanding, and patience. If only we could have told that to the other. But, normally, we don’t. It happened to me that I took responsibility and apologized for losing control although I knew that anyone would have lost control in the same situation and the result, contrary to a middle-of-the-road solution was “Yes, you should apologize. Yes, you did wrong”. Unhealed previous fights spring up again in the conversation and the “You NEVER” or “You ALWAYS” throws everything in a destructive spiral.

Let’s check those words. “YOU” is maybe the most unhelpful word in a fight. The only person one can hope to control is oneself. What the other one should have said, done, and think is not something you can influence. If we want to change something, either the world or the behaviour of another person, there is only one person we can act upon: ourselves! “ALWAYS” and “NEVER” are also destructive words. Not only did we shift the blame onto the other with that YOU, but now we transform them into villains and condemn them to an image of evilness. No wonder that they react with the same words. I suspect that these words – ALWAYS and NEVER – come also from the fact that previous conflicts never ended with a complete healing, with apologies, with spreading the blame evenly, as it should have ended. Yet, as we know, “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

How can this vicious circle be broken?! Think, think hard, and force your mind to analyze and to seek your own faults. It has many virtues this path. First, when you discover what you did wrong, it will be much easier for you to forgive the other one. If you start from the angle that you are blameless, you feel entitled to throw the stone. Less so if you admit to your own failings. Don’t start by weighting who is MORE to blame. Maybe you just turned your back onto somebody who was shouting – it seems like an appropriate answer to a less than polite behavior and many people will not accept it as a fault. But that is ignoring the partner, their pain and you were as rude as they were by not accepting a conversation or at least acknowledging that they have a discontent. Secondly, if you manage to see and accept your failings, you are ready to defuse the situation because you are ready for an apology.

The sooner you reach this point, the better this is, in most situations. If the wrong you did is deep, then it might be good to let some time wash the gravity of the situation and then try. Open your mouth and say what you did wrong, accept it and admit it. It should be easy if you admit that you are just a person who did wrong, and that doesn’t make you an evil person.

Let’s recap (I fear I might have lost myself in too many words, as I usually do):

  • As I said, justifications, superficial excuses etc. NEVER help! They can only pour gas on fire.
  • Related to this, what we intended to do has only a limited relevance in the overall context. “I didn’t want it to end this way”, especially when said in a less than caring tone, is no excuse in the fact that (from the point of the other) it came out bad.
  • When one says one is hurt, there is no point in justifying, explaining why they shouldn’t feel that way etc. Feelings are feelings – they exist and by denying they exist we make the pain/frustration/anger grow.
  • Allowing the pride to take over and looking for an easy way out (something like “let’s pretend it never happen”) is no solution, not for the long term. A relationship can continue but it will not be as strong and complete as it could have been otherwise.
  • When a fight occurs, focus on your OWN failings, analyze and see what you did wrong because you DID wrong, even if your wrong seems (in your own eyes) less than the other people’s wrong.
    Think if you never, in your life, did a mistake similar to the one you are blaming. It helps!
  • Once you identified your failings, say them OUT LOUD. You have to make the other understand what happens in your head, how you feel about it. Don’t assume that the others know you feel guilty! Silence is of many kinds: guilty silence, accusing silence, ignoring silence.
  • APOLOGIZE and do it properly. “I apologize for . I was/did wrong” As you can see, there is no follow up after what you did wrong. No “but-s and if-s”! Don’t just say it, believe it! Unless you are Meryl Streep or Jack Nicholson, most people will be able to feel if your apologies are sincere. If you cannot assume responsibility for your faults… then it’s your fault for what will come.
    Insist on these apologies, in the same short and decisive manner, if the other one continues ranting or wait for a more auspicious time (when they calmed down)… Maybe even let them know “I will wait until you calm down and are ready to listen and maybe accept my apologies”
  • Say what you have to say in a short, serious, responsible manner and drop it. Don’t try to get a correct emotional response right away. For some people (myself included) it takes some time to ponder on what was said.
  • Promise that things will get better, that you will work on yourself and try very hard to fix those faults you identified, that drove the other person’s anger.

Will this fix the problem? Will it fix your relationship? Not necessarily! You can ask for forgiveness but you cannot force it. You have good chances, depending on the fault and how skilled you are with words. Besides, what is the alternative?! Continuing fighting, pretend nothing happened until next time when something happens and all these frustrations show up again, ride that destructive spiral? It takes two to fight and it takes two to make-up so you will not be able to solve the problem on your end. If the other person is not so enlightened to make amends and apologies for their own faults, there is nothing you can do ANYWAY. In that case though, you can continue with your life with a clean conscience, knowing that you did everything to fix the fight, the break-down, and it wasn’t possible. Still, be optimistic – people, as I said, want to be good, to forgive and be forgiven. You can create the opportunity for all these to happen.

Apology, Forgiveness and Christianity

I was raised in a culture in which nobody would admit guilt. “L’enfer c’est les autres” (The Hell is the others) seemed to be a Romanian unspoken guideline. Parents were never mistaken, teachers were infallible, bosses never chose the wrong path, marriages ended with bitter resentment on the mistakes of the other, never self-blame. Oh, sure, “nobody is perfect” would be acknowledged and repeated but it never applied to the speaker. That doesn’t mean that people didn’t feel or know they were guilty. We, the Romanians, are not more stupid than other nations. It’s only that words were missing or when they were coming they never give peace and forgiveness.

In 2003, there was a minor incident at work. I assumed the previous sys admin knew what he was doing and I did a modification requested by the company. Under that correct assumption I managed to wipe-out 110 business email addresses and work email started bouncing. When accused, I defended myself and explained that it’s not my fault that the previous sys admin didn’t know what he was doing. My manager looked at me sad and said “Andi, remember: it takes a great man to acknowledge its mistake”. I didn’t say anything but his words resounded long time in my head. After all, in the situation mentioned, if I had been such a good professional I consider myself to be, I would have double-checked the settings left by the previous sys admin.

I wanted to be a great man and with vanity fighting lack of responsibility, I started admitting my mistakes, taking blame, saying “I’m sorry”. In the beginning it was a daunting task – saying the words felt like ripping my guts. In time, it got easier, especially when I noticed the effect on the ones I wronged. They would calm down quickly, and hey would be forgiving and often give me a huge leeway. Most people want to forgive if we’d only give them the chance. By denying guilt, losing ourselves in long and tedious explanations and argumentations, we only manage to enrage the ones we hurt.

Christianity is NOT a dead, abstract philosophy. I never looked at it that way, at least not at Jesus: a concept, some rituals, shiny or dark clothes and candle smoke. It is alive, if only we try to use it. I was never capable of believing in the fact that Jesus is LITERALLY “The Son of God”. I see him just as very humane person: philosopher, psychologist, politician (in a very lose sense), and many more things. I wonder why the form, spread by St Paul, crossed times and ages yet the essence is very often ignored.

Despite many religions having similar or close concepts, Christianity is the one who established a complete model for “repentance”: acknowledgement of the sin, honest sorrow, making amends and, eventually, forgiveness. Such process is needed because, most of the times, it’s not the other’s forgiveness we seek, but our own. With the exception of a tiny percentage of population, pathological cases, it seems to me that there are no good or bad people. We all did wonderful things and we did things less than laudable. We are simply people doing sometimes good and sometimes bad. But we need, we have this basic human need to feel that we are GOOD, that we are the good guys/gals. If we are told that we are bad, if we feel we did wrong, we are overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness, we don’t like ourselves, sometimes we even hate ourselves. It’s a amply-discussed concept and I can certify it over what I discovered studying myself: In order to be good, we need to love and like ourselves. But when we sinned or wronged or hurt, be it God or people we love, people we care or even ones we don’t care much for, we stop loving/liking ourselves. We need to forgive ourselves and as the first step toward that personal forgiveness and peace of mind is achieving the forgiveness of the ones we wronged – God (through the mouth of the priest), people we hurt etc. That is (maybe) why Jesus included in his philosophy the idea of “dying for the sins of everyone”. I feel that he wanted to relieve the feeling of shame, of hopelessness that can push us toward more evil actions or words, the same feeling that pushes us closer to Hell (albeit a metaphorical one). When one is a lost soul, when one cannot do anything to redeem oneself, what difference does it make if one continues on doing whatever one feels like? And when you feel bad, you feel like doing bad things. It’s also about hope – without hope of redemption, why would one change one’s ways? If we can, on the other hand, achieve forgiveness and a clean slate, a new start, there is still hope, we can hope we will become GOOD, deserve the love of God and of the others.