Five Reasons Why Your Romantic Relationships Do Not Last

“Past hurts can lead to a lack of trust which can block intimacy.”

Sometimes there is a pattern that one begins to see in oneself: A relationship starts and is filled with hope, only to end all too soon. If this happens to you, may I suggest 5 reasons why this might be the case and make some suggestions for breaking the pattern?

The first reason why relationships may fail is that we all bring in what we might call “excess baggage” from our family of origin.  This includes both your partner and you. It may be a good idea, when the time is right, to gain insight into any hurtful patterns that either your partner or you have brought into the current relationship. For example, was it a norm to show a hot temper in the family? If so, this could be spilling over into your current relationship in that your partner (or you) never had such a norm which is offensive to the other. Solution: Try to see the norms that have formed early in your life, discuss those that are stressful to your partner or you, and make the necessary adjustments. Second, try practicing forgiveness toward family-of-origin members who have created some less-than-healthy norms for you (see Enright, 2012 for an approach to forgiving).

A second reason is that we can bring in this “excess baggage” from past relationships that have failed. The particularly hazardous issue is damaged trust. If you have had a harsh breakup, or even a divorce, there is a tendency not to trust a new partner even if this person is good to you. On a 1-to-10 scale, what is your trust level in general toward any potential partner? If the scores are below 5, you may need to work on trust. Here is what you can do:

  • First, try to forgive the past partner(s) for damaging your trust. 
  • Second, let trust now build up inch-by-inch in you as you forgive others from your past. Try to see the goodness in the new partner.
  • Third, bring out into the open your challenge with trust so that the new person can help you work this through. You may have to do all of this for your partner if there is a trust issue from the past.

A third aspect of “excess baggage” is low self-esteem or believing the lie that you are not worthy of a lasting relationship. This kind of low self-esteem can creep up on you until you are not even aware that your self-worth is low. On the 1-to-10 scale, how worthy do you think you are to have a happy, lasting relationship? Solution: Cognitively resist the big lie that you are not worthy. Second, forgive yourself if you have played a part in hurting past relationships because of either a lack of trust or low self-esteem.

A fourth point is this: Do not let yourself fall into the trap of defining yourself exclusively by the past. Solution: Be aware of who you really are as a person.  As you bear the pains of the past through forgiving, then ask yourself: Who am I as I forgive? Am I stronger than I thought I was prior to forgiving? Am I more compassionate than I had realized? As you do these kinds of reflections, it is my hope that you realize this: I have a lot to offer a good partner who can benefit from my presence and support.

A fifth and final point is this: Try not to let your new partner fall into the trap of defining the self exclusively by the past. This person, too, may need the strength of forgiveness with the renewed view that “I, too, am a person of worth who has good things to offer you.”

Perhaps it is time for a new start in relationships. Some of the 5 points above may help move you in the right direction.

Posted in Psychology Today January 17, 2018


References:

Enright, R.D. (2012). The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.


 

A New Approach to Reducing Depression

“Forgiveness therapy targets and reduces unhealthy anger.”

Jose Antonio Sánchez Reyes | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Psychological depression occurs in at least 25% of all primary care patients in the United States and yet only about one-third of these are diagnosed as depressed.  Mental illness is not an isolated issue but is associated with such physical compromise as obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer (American Psychological Association, 2017).  It is estimated that over 14 million people in the United States suffer from major depressive disorder (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, 2017).

The good news is that depression is a highly treatable disorder with medication and with such psychological approaches as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (recognizing and stopping maladaptive thinking and replacing this with more adaptive thoughts and behaviors),  Mindfulness Therapy (being present to the symptoms and not letting troublesome thoughts drift to the past or future), and Behavioral Therapy (engaging in rewarding behaviors).

A new approach, Forgiveness Therapy, focuses on a sequence that is not a common practice in contemporary psychotherapies:

  • Examine whether or not you have been treated unfairly, even cruelly, in the past.  Recognize this as unjust.
  • Realize that emotional pain is a natural next step when reacting to such unfair treatment by others.  After all, you have a right to be treated with respect, even if this does not occur.
  • If you do not find a solution to this emotional pain, eventually you may become angry at the situation and at the persisting pain.
  • If you do not find a solution to the growing anger or the emotional pain, then you might develop what we call unhealthy anger, the kind that is so deep that it starts to affect sleep, energy levels, thoughts, and behaviors (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).
  • If the unhealthy anger persists, this can develop more deeply into symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The takeaway message from the above sequence is this: For some people, depression is not the only issue to be treated. Instead there are three other, central issues too often missed with traditional therapies: injustice(s) that happen but are not confronted; the emotional pain that ensues; and most importantly for Forgiveness Therapy, the unhealthy anger that fuels the depression in some people.

If you only focus on current medication or current thoughts or current symptoms, you may miss the actual cause of the depression, which could be a build-up of the unhealthy anger caused by emotional pain caused by injustice.

Forgiveness Therapy starts by examining the injustices in your life that may be compromising that life now.  Some people are surprised to learn that they still carry the emotional wounds, for example, from being bullied on the school playground, or being belittled by a parent years ago, or not being given a chance in the workplace when just starting out.  It is this kind of injustice that has to be uncovered and identified as hurtful in the present.

Next comes the challenge of admitting the depth of one’s anger. The norms of contemporary society, that good people do not get deeply angry, can get in the way of this identification, but it is vital to go more deeply than these norms to see if, in fact, the anger is deep, lingering, and harmful.  When unresolved anger from the past mixes with contemporary challenges, then the anger can intensify, compromising one’s well-being and thus leading to depressive symptoms.

Forgiveness Therapy is not a substitute for medication or for the implementation of other psychotherapies such as CBT.  Forgiveness Therapy can come alongside these well-tested approaches and give you added strength to deal with the depression and to reduce it to manageable levels.  Forgiveness Therapy is not for everyone.  Some just do not want to consider the paradox of offering kindness toward the unkind.  This form of therapy needs to be willingly chosen by the client.  It is new but tested both scientifically and clinically, and it works.

Do you have injustices, even from your distant past, that are getting in the way of your happiness?  If you start the process of forgiving those who have been cruel to you, perhaps the depression not only will be managed but reduced to a degree that may surprise you.

Posted in Psychology Today April 6, 2017


References:

Five Forgiveness Exercises for Couples

“Healing the emotional and relational wounds for couples.”

Life is hard enough without the added layer of conflict with those who are supposed to be good to us, which can lead to resentment which can lead to misery.  One’s own inner conflict can spread to others and when a person is in a close relationship, it is all too easy for that inner conflict to become the other’s conflict as well.                                          

International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.
Current statistics tell us that such conflict is all too common today.  According to the American Psychological Association, about 50% of those who marry end up divorced and second marriages break up at an even higher rate. How can one start now to reduce the inner conflict that can lead to couples’ conflict?  I would like to suggest the following five forgiveness exercises, which can be started today, as a way of addressing both inner conflict, resentment, and misery and relational misery.
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The first ground-rule for these exercises is this: You are not doing this to change your partner.  Your task is to change yourself and to do your part to improve the relationship.  The second ground-rule is this:  Your task is not to pressure your partner into these exercises.  It is better if both of you are drawn to them, not cajoled into them.

With these ground-rules in place, let us go to the first exercise.  Together, talk out what it means to forgive another person.  You might be surprised to learn that you are not in agreement as to what forgiveness actually is because such a discussion of its meaning is rare.  Common misconceptions are these: To forgive is just to move on from difficult situations; to forgive is to forget what happened; to forgive is to excuse what happened; to forgive is to stop asking something of the other by no longer seeking fairness.  Yet, to forgive is none of these.  To forgive is to offer goodness to those who have not been good to you.  To forgive is to be strong enough to offer such goodness through your emotional pain for the other’s good.  Take some time to discuss each other’s views and please do so with respect.  Learning what forgiveness actually is takes time and effort primarily because we have not been schooled enough in this important concept.

The second exercise is to talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing the other’s wounds is one more dimension of knowing your partner as a person.  As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally, are bringing from that past into the relationship. Try to see what your partner is bringing from the past to your relationship.  Who, now, is your partner as you see those wounds, perhaps for the first time?

For the third exercise, together, and only if you choose this, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the process of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day.  You can find direction in the forgiving process in my  book, The Forgiving Life (American Psychological Association, 2012).  Walking this path of forgiveness takes time and should not be rushed.  Assist one another in this path.  Be the support person for the other.  Each one’s personal forgiveness journey is made easier when it is a team effort.

International Forgiveness Institute, Inc.

For the fourth exercise, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from your partner for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves.

Finally, the fifth exercise: persevere in your forgiveness discussions.  As an analogy, you do not become physically fit by four weeks or even four months of effort that then is abandoned.  You have to keep at it.  To become forgivingly fit, you need to set aside even a little time, perhaps 15 minutes a week, to discuss the injustices impinging on either or both of you, from inside the relationship, inside the family, or outside of it……..and then forgive and help the other to do so.  You do not have to let the injustices of the past and the current inner miseries dominate you or your relationship.  Forgiveness offers a cure for the misery and, at the same time, hope for a renewed and strengthened relationship.
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Posted in Psychology Today March 11, 2017


References:
American Psychological Association. Retrieved March 11, 2017. Enright, R.D. (2012).  The Forgiving Life. Washington, DC: APA Books.


Forgiveness: 3 Misconceptions

When I began 30 years ago to apply social scientific methods to the ancient moral virtue of forgiveness, my students and I ran into a rather large problem.  People were afraid to forgive.  When we probed this fear, we began to realize a common theme across the fearful.  They equated forgiving with automatically and dutifully going back into abusive situations.  “My spouse denigrates me.  If I forgive, then I go back for more……but I do not want to go back for more.  Thus, I will not forgive.”

It took us a while, but eventually we saw that to forgive is not the same as to reconcile.  Forgiveness, as with justice and patience and kindness, is a virtue, originating inside people as an insight (I can be good to those who are not good to me) and as a feeling of  empathy and compassion for the offending other, not because of the offense but in spite of it.  Forgiving behaviors flow from the insight and compassion.

Reconciliation, on the other hand, is a behavioral negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust.  You can forgive and not trust a person in their weak areas (you do not lend money to the compulsive gambler even though you can try to be good to the person in other ways as a sign of forgiving).  You can forgive and not reconcile at all if the other remains abusive.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.  This insight opened the door for social scientific work on forgiveness for us because to forgive is not to create unsafe situations for the forgiver.

We now turn to two, what I call, Modern Misconceptions, the latest critiques of forgiveness, particularly Forgiveness Therapy, a new form of psychotherapy which emerged from the research journey begun three decades ago (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015).  These Modern Misconceptions are quite different from the early misconception because they target forgiveness itself—not fear—and are highly critical of this potentially life-changing virtue, even if practiced well and with patience.

Modern Misconception 1 goes something like this:  You who advocate for Forgiveness Therapy or Forgiveness Education with students (Enright, Rhody, Litts, & Klatt, 2014) ask way too much of forgivers.  You ask them to bear the burden of their own healing and that is not fair.  They already have been hurt so why ask them now to struggle after forgiveness?

Two burdens are theirs: the original offense and now Forgiveness Therapy.  Yet, as with the equating of forgiveness with reconciliation, this Modern Misconception has an error embedded within it.  It is not at all an added and unnecessary burden to help a person, whose heart is broken, to forgive.

Take a physical analogy to make the point clear.  Suppose James pushes Jeremy to the ground, dislocating his shoulder.  Is it unwise now to ask Jeremy to enter into a rehabilitation process to repair the shoulder?  Is it an added burden we should never ask because he is hurting?  It would seem that the unfairness lies, not in the encouraging of medical treatment, but the reverse—discouraging it because it will be rigorous and painful.

Is it not the same with Forgiveness Therapy for those who choose it?  The heart is broken, yes, because of the original unfairness.  If the person chooses rehab of the heart—Forgiveness Therapy—isn’t this repair good even though rigorous and painful?  The Modern Misconception might keep people from rehab of the heart and so it needs to be challenged.

 Worldwide Land Disputesfrom" from Enterprise Land Surveying website
Modern Misconception 2 has emerged from my giving 13 invited forgiveness talks in an area of the world plagued by a land dispute that is disrupting individual, family, community, and political peace.  The misconception unfolds this way:  You say that forgiveness is good, but how will it get my land back?  It will not get my land back.  Therefore, forgiveness is weak and ineffective.  I will have nothing to do with it.

My response is to give a multiple choice question to the skeptic.  Which of these two would you rather have:

  1. You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you also live with a deep anger that disrupts your inner life and the life of those around you; or,
  2. You live for the rest of your life without getting your land back and you are free of the deep anger that disrupts you, your loved ones, and your community?

Which do you choose?  In every case across the 13 lectures, the skeptic ends up choosing answer (B), living without the debilitating  resentment.  It is at that point that the person is willing to explore the subtleties of forgiveness without dismissing it.  Such exploration could, in the long run, save lives from psychological devastation.  The error in Modern Misconception 2 occurs when the person focuses exclusively on the original problem (land dispute) without even realizing that a second, just as serious, problem has emerged because of the land dispute—resentment entrenched in the heart.  Forgiveness can cure this second problem while not being able to solve the original problem.  Without seeing this, the person rejects forgiveness as weak.

Misconceptions…..they can drive a person away from forgiveness or become a stimulus for more thoroughly exploring what forgiveness has to offer.  Left unexplored, the Modern Misconceptions could leave some people without a path of healing that could have been theirs……if only they had explored more deeply.

Posted in Psychology Today February 18, 2017


References:

  • Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R. (2015).  Forgiveness therapy.  Washington, DC: APA Books.
  • Enright, R.D. , Rhody, M., Litts, B., & Klatt. J.S. (2014). Piloting forgiveness education in a divided community: Comparing electronic pen-pal and journaling activities across two groups of youth. Journal of Moral Education, 43, 1-17.

How Do I Forgive a Cheating Boyfriend? Six Suggestions

.Betrayal can be very painful and difficult to overcome.  When the resentment builds, it is important not to let it have its way.  Otherwise, it could live within you for a very long time,  chipping away at your happiness, making you mistrustful of those who may be worth of trust, and spilling over to your loved ones.  This is why betrayal is such a challenge, particularly the effects of such betrayal that can take the form of excessive anger, anxiety, and depression.

Here are six suggestions that may be helpful to you as you consider forgiving:

First, you need not have forgiveness wrapped up in a day or a week.  Forgiveness is a process that takes time.  Be gentle with yourself as you begin to consider forgiving.

Second, to experience some emotional relief in forgiving, you do not have to be a perfect forgiver.  Even if you have some anger left over, as long as the anger is not dominating your life, you can experience considerable emotional relief.  For example, in a study of incest survivors, all of the participants started the forgiveness therapy with very low scores on forgiving.  After about 14 months of working on  forgiveness, as the study ended, most of the participants were only at the mid-point of the forgiveness scale.  In other words, they began to forgive, accomplished it to some degree, but certainly had not completely forgiven.  Yet, their depression left and their self-esteem rose.  Forgiving to a degree, but not perfectly, made all the difference in their emotional health (see Freedman and Enright, 1996).

Third, as you forgive, try to see the humanity in your boyfriend.  Is he more than the cheating behavior?  If so, in what ways?  Does he possess what we call “inherent worth,” or unconditional value as a person, not because of what he did, but in spite of this?  Do you share a common humanity with him in that both of you are special, unique, and irreplaceable because you are human?  This is not done to excuse his behavior.  Instead, it is a thought-exercise to see both his humanity and yours.

Fourth, are you willing to bear the pain of the cheating so that you do not pass it on to your brother or sister, to your classmates or co-workers, or even to your boyfriend himself?  Bearing the pain shows you that you are strong, in fact, stronger than the cheating and its effects on you.

Fifth, as you forgive, bring justice alongside the forgiving.  In other words, ask something of him.  What is his view of fidelity?  Does he need some counseling help to deal with a weakness of commitment?  Does he show remorse and a willingness to change?  If so, what is your evidence for this?  You need not unconditionally trust him right away.  Trust can be earned a little at a time, but be sure not to use this issue of “earned trust” as a weapon or punishment against him. Allow him to redeem himself as he shows you he can be trusted.

Sixth, and finally, know that there is a difference between forgiving and reconciling.  If he does not deeply value you as a person, if his actions show self-centeredness, and if this seems like a pattern that he is not willing to change, then you can forgive and not reconcile.  Forgiving in this case may not give you this relationship that you had desired, but it will free you of deep resentment and allow you to be ready for a more genuine relationship in which you are open to the true affection and care of another.

Forgiveness is hard work.  It takes time because it occurs in the face of great pain.  If you choose to try it, then forgiving is worth the effort to do the important rehabilitation of your heart.

Posted in Psychology Today March 18, 2018

References:
Freedman, S. R., & Enright, R. D. (1996).  Forgiveness as an intervention goal with incest survivors.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 64(5), 983-992.


Your Forgiveness Landscape

First, what is a “forgiveness landscape”? This is an expression first used in my book, The Forgiving Life, to refer to all of the people who ever have been seriously unjust to you. When people first construct their forgiveness landscape, they often are surprised at: a) how many people are on the list and b) the depth of the anger left over, even from decades ago.

When we are treated deeply unfairly by others, the anger is slow to leave. If we push that anger aside, simply thinking we have “moved on” or “forgotten all about it,” sometimes this is not the case. The anger can be in hiding, deep within the heart, and the only way to get rid of it is surgery of the heart—forgiveness.

Would you like to examine your own forgiveness landscape to see how many people in your life are still in need of your forgiveness? You might want to write down your answers to the following questions.

First set of questions: Think back to your childhood. Is there anyone who was very unfair to you and if so, what is your anger level now on a 1-to-5 scale, with 1 signifying no anger left over and a 5 signifying lots of anger when you reflect on this person and the actions toward you.

More specifically from your childhood, are there any incidents from your father that still make you angry? From your mother? A sibling?

What about from peers or teachers; is your anger still high when you recall the incidents?

Second set of questions: Let us now focus on your adolescence. Follow the pattern from the first set of questions. Then let us add any coaches, employers or fellow employees, and romantic partners to the list. Are there people who still make you angry in the 4 or 5 range of our scale?

Third set of questions: Who in your adult life has made you significantly angry, in the 4 to 5 range of anger? We can add partner, any children, relatives, friends, and neighbors to the list.

Now please rank order all of the people from those who least offended you to those who most offended you. Now look at that list to see your forgiveness landscape. There is your work, right there in the list.

I recommend starting with people lower on the list. Forgive them first because they in all likelihood are the easiest to forgive because the anger is less. As you work up the list, you will gain in your expertise to forgive, which is good preparation for forgiving those on the top of the list—those who are the most challenging for you.

You can find more on this way of forgiving in the book,
The Forgiving Life, which walks you systematically through this exercise.

Enjoy the challenge. Enjoy the journey of forgiveness, which can set you free in so many ways.

Robert

Generalizing from the Particular to the Universal

You know how it goes.  You go into a department store and have an unpleasant encounter with the person at checkout…..and you never go back there again.  The particular incident has given you a bad feeling for the entire organization.

You break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend and, at least for a while, you think that no one really can be trusted.  This one relationship makes you mistrustful of such relationships in general.

Generalization.  It can help us when the generalization is true and can distort reality for us when false.  For example, when we touch poison ivy in one woods, it is wise to avoid it in the next….and the next.  The effects of poison ivy generalize regardless of which plant we touch.  On the other hand, one boyfriend’s bad behavior does not predict another person’s behavior.  In this case, generalization closes down our mind and heart when there is no need for this.

When you are hurt by someone, you have to be careful not to generalize this to many, most, or all others.  Not everyone is out to hurt you.  Such generalization can form the unhealthy foundation for a world view that is pessimistic and inaccurate.  Has this happened to you?

If so, it is time to fight back against this.  Try saying the following to yourself as a way to break the habit of a false view of others:

I have been wounded by another person. For today, I will not let his/her wounds make me a bitter person who thinks negatively about people in general. I will overcome any tendency toward this by seeing others as having special worth, not because of what they have done, but in spite of this.  We are all on this planet together; we are all wounded.  Not all are out to wound me.

Robert