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Finding It Very Difficult To Forgive

Question:

I am finding it very difficult to forgive my ex-wife’s shortcomings. I remember reading in a book by Dr. Wayne Dryer some years ago that forgiving someone/people from the your past is a key step in moving forward. As in AA it is also one of the 12 steps. What methods would you suggest I try so I can forgive her?

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Answer:

You don’t say what your ex-wife’s shortcomings are so it is hard to know if she has really transgressed against you, or if she just does things differently than you do and you can’t handle that. This is an important distinction to make. If she has not transgressed against you (e.g., by breaking a commitment she has made to you, as in having an affair) then she doesn’t require your forgiveness because in that case she would not have done anything wrong. What she would need is your acceptance of her differences. For purposes of responding to your question, I’m going to assume that you are a man who has problems accepting an ex-wife who hasn’t really done anything wrong. Feel free to write more if I’ve got it wrong.

If, in fact, your ex-wife hasn’t done anything wrong, but rather, you are just having difficulty making peace with the idea that she is a different person than you who makes different choices, there are a few things you can do to become more accepting.

I’d start by looking at how well you accept yourself. If you are harsh with regard to other people, chances are good that you are harsh with regard to how you judge yourself. What standards do you hold yourself to? How did those standards develop. What do you do to yourself when you fail to meet those standards? Maybe you had a harsh father or mother (grandparent, uncle, teacher, priest, etc.) who abused you into abusing yourself and others? More important than identifying what your particular intolerances are is figuring out whether they make sense to you as an adult. Is there a rational basis for why you think you must achieve a particular standard you hold yourself to? Or is your need to cling to such a standard based on anxiety alone (e.g., the desire to avoid feeling like a failure?). Many standards we hold ourselves and others to have no basis, and are merely manifestations of “neurotic” (e.g., uptight, anxious) behavior. Asking yourself these sorts of questions can be a good way to find the root of your intolerance and then test those roots to see if they are sound. If they aren’t sound, I suggest you do some mental belief “weeding”.

Another good exercise is to make yourself aware of the diversity of ways in which people solve handle particular problems or issues they confront. You may think that your way of doing things is the only good way to do them, but you’d be naive if you really believed that. There are many different good ways of responding to the world. All ways are reasonable enough so long as they are pleasing in their result and they don’t harm one’s self or others in the process. Do a wide survey of other people you know. Ask them how they solve problems and be amazed at the diversity of problem solving approaches you find. Then let the lesson sink in by understanding that your one way of doing things is no better or worse than most of the others.

Another exercise I can suggest is to work towards developing empathy for your ex-wife, and perhaps for yourself. Empathy is the ability to feel what another person must be feeling because you are able to see their situation through their eyes, taking on their unique perspective. Empathy requires that you become mentally flexible, and observant so that you can accurately represent in your mind the demands and stresses placed on the other person. To become empathetic means that you develop a high-resolution picture of the person you are dealing with, rather than the older low-res caricature you dealt with before (or worse, the narcissistic reflection of yourself superimposed onto the face of the other). When you become skilled at truly seeing other people as they are (and not as you need them to be), you will find it easier to accept the whys of why them make the choices they do. You may never approve or like the choices they make, but you won’t feel the urgent need to condemn that you seem to feel now.

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p>One final comment to make is that this is your ex wife. If she is not in your life anymore, there ought to be less need to obsess over her. To the extent that you can’t let things go, you may be dealing with a grief reaction that could benefit from professional help. We don’t know the timing of the separation, or the circumstances, but I’ll make that suggestion nevertheless.

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