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How Can I Forgive You?: First Steps When Your Relationship is On the Rocks

Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

Ron, a counseling client in his mid-40s, got right to the point. “I blew it, and I want to make it up to Jen. But no matter what I say it’s not enough. How can we move on?”

No Magic Words

He’d made a mistake, a big one. He wanted to make amends, to bring back the closeness he and Jen had shared. He’d apologized, tried to be patient, tried to find the magic words that would comfort his partner. But what if there are no magic words?

Jen was felt betrayed, and she wasn’t ready to be comforted. “How can I forgive you when you can’t explain why it happened?” she asked.

Ron had no good answers yet. Answers would come later. Meanwhile he and Jen were caught like two people playing a life-or-death game of tic-tac-toe, where both people know all the moves, and nobody wins.

A Bad Decision

I should have known better, a few decades ago, than to scramble down a sandstone cliff. The rock was unstable, the tide at the bottom unpredictable. But the beach looked inviting and I followed my friends. I didn’t think it through until the beach started to disappear and we had to climb back to the top.

Of course a big mistake in a relationship is not exactly a cliff scramble, but there are some similarities. It was a bad decision. I should have known better. And there was no easy way out.

Ron was in that spot now, and as his counselor my job was to help him out of it. I needed to help him and Jen slow down enough to look at the terrain they were facing and map a path out. I had to understand Jen’s feeling of betrayal, and help her find words to talk to Ron not just about the anger, but also the hurt. And I needed to help Ron stay open and responsive even when the path forward seemed impossible.

Forgiveness is a Process: First Steps

When you’re facing a threat, your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. Your brain sends messages to your sympathetic nervous system. Your heart rate and breathing increase, thinking shuts down, and emotions run high. Conversations can feel rushed and urgent, and it’s hard to get to deeper feelings.

The first step is to slow down, physically and mentally. Forgiveness is a process, and a lot of it’s about showing up. So start calm. Take a few deep belly breaths and drop your shoulders. Create some safety by agreeing in advance when to talk, and how often. Agree on ways to keep the conversation calm.

The second step is to listen – really listen. When you feel anger and frustration, do what I do with my counseling clients: slow down and go deeper. Notice body sensations, like tension in your belly; and feelings, like anxious, sad, lonely, hopeless. For some people, this process leads into unfamiliar territory. Go slowly and take your time.

Sometimes You Can’t See the Path

The path up the Mendocino cliff got harder as I climbed. My friends reached the top and called words of encouragement. But they’d loosened some of the rocks and brush, and I kept slipping.

Then all my holds started to come loose at once – the rocks I was standing on, the tussocks of grass in my hands. One of my friends dropped to his belly and reached for me, telling me to grab his hand. But to do that, I had to let go.

I don’t know about you, but when I get scared I want to hang on. I want to keep my hands on something familiar, even if it isn’t working any more. My friend was asking the impossible: I couldn’t do it.

But in some small part of my brain I knew that my only hope was to take the risk. I had to fight my reflex, and let go. I had to trust.

It Feels Like Stepping Off a Cliff

For couples struggling to reconnect, the next step is to let go of old ways. And that’s risky.

There is a point in couples counseling where it seems like everything is on the line. When I ask partners to talk to each other from their vulnerability, it can feel like stepping off a cliff. There isn’t a right way to do it. There aren’t any magic words. The healing is in the willingness to hang in there and listen to your partner. It starts slowly, with one heartfelt conversation.

I helped Ron and Jen have that conversation, and many that followed. I helped Ron understand why Jen kept asking why, and what she needed from him. Now when Jen spoke, Ron really listened. He gave up his quest for the the right answer to Jen’s relentless questions. She had his full attention.

It Was That Close

I was already starting to slide back down the cliff. I had to take the risk. I took one hand off the tuft of grass and pushed up with my boots. I felt my friend’s hand close on my wrist as I grabbed his. The rocks fell away from under my feet, and the grass came out in my other hand. He pulled me up. It was that close.

It was that close for Ron and Jen too. At any point they might have turned away from each other, given up. It took a lot of courage for Ron to slow down and reach for Jen when he felt overwhelmed himself. And it took a lot of courage for her hear him and reach back.

It wasn’t what he said, as much as how he said it. Jen heard the sadness in his voice, the caring, the longing for connection, and for the first time she reached back. They had a long way to go, but now they were on the path together. Jen could finally begin to forgive.

Know When You Need Help

For most couples, repairing a relationship can feel like a scramble through unknown territory. You can go it alone, of course. But sometimes a guide can help – someone who can look ahead on the trail and help you avoid the most impassible routes, the slipperiest spots. In my counseling office, I use my experience to help couples start in a promising direction, or help slow them down if they start to slide.

Moving On, Finally

Of course when you’re on a cliff and the tide’s coming in, there is nowhere to move but forward.

But when your relationship is in trouble, you have a choice. You can stay on the sheltered beach below where it feels safe, but lonely. Or you can take a risk and climb back up, where the ground under your feel is slippery and the holds uncertain. Whether you do it alone or with a counselor, there is a moment where you have to decide to let go and take a risk, trusting that your partner’s hand will be there to pull you to safety. In my experience it’s well worth the risk. The view from the top is marvelous.

Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
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