Forgiveness usually only makes headlines when truly terrible things happen to people. A murderer goes on a rampage. A drunk driver kills a mother and child. A business is found to be polluting or making unsafe products. It makes the news when someone, somehow, can say "I forgive."
In my experience as the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, we have worked with people who have suffered from each of these awful experiences — and thankfully they are rare.
But after all my years of experience I have concluded that those rare and awful situations are not where the need for forgiveness is most acute. To me, forgiveness is actually most needed in intimate couples — people who love each other and yet struggle to stay together or keep their love alive.
Research and clinical practice show that forgiveness is one of the keys to emotional intimacy. It creates a safe space to deepen personal exploration and it allows each partner to share their broken parts.
In intimate relationships it is an absolute necessity, because heartache is inevitable when you deeply trust yourself to another. When we are in love with someone, we open our hearts and become emotionally vulnerable. Even one unguarded or unkind word from our partner can cause a wound to our hearts.
The reality is if you don’t want your heart to be hurt, don’t love. However, if you want a successful intimate relationship, learn how to forgive.
In the Stanford Forgiveness Project, we've worked with thousands of couples struggling to forgive wounds large and small. We've heard so many stories of abandonment, cheating, addictions, loss of affection, money problems, religious differences, boredom, sloppiness, nagging, and more. We've heard it all.
Here are the seven key steps to intimate forgiveness that we've found essential to create a lasting, loving partnership:
1. Honor your choice of partner.
The first step is to take responsibility for why that particular person is by your side. Remind yourself that the only reason your partner is with you is because you chose them out of the 7.5 billion people in the world.
2. Accept that your partner is flawed.
Remind yourself that every person you might partner with has difficult and annoying qualities. Research shows that a successful relationship depends on wisely choosing which flaws and difficulties you are willing to deal with.
3. Look for the good in your partner.
Make sure that you acknowledge and talk about how much you appreciate the positives your partner brings to your life. Keep a more careful accounting of their hurts and wounds that make them behave the way they do.
4. Be their best friend.
When you talk about his or her bad quality or behavior, do so with compassion. As their intimate partner, you know better than anyone the wounds, insecurities, and losses that lead to their unskillful behavior.
5. Accept what you can’t change and grieve your loss.
Make peace with aspects of your partner they can’t or won’t change. Understand that 70 percent of relationship issues do not resolve over the course of a relationship.
Instead of being angry with your partner, grieve the loss of your fantasy partner as you accept your real-life partner.
6. Recommit to your relationship.
If you recommit, do so with kindness. If you do not want to stay, leave with goodwill.
7. Be kind to yourself.
Relationships are challenging. In the story you tell of your partnership, please be gentle with both of you.
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