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How to Forgive Your Ex-Partner in Order to Transform a High-Conflict Relationship

Bob Livingstone is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCS 11087) in private practice for 22 years in San Francisco, California. He holds a Masters Degree ...Read More

My last blog, titled High-Conflict Divorce: Why Forgiveness is Essential, discussed the horrible effects that children experience while immersed in the war with your ex. It also focused on why forgiving each other is essential for your child’s healing.

It is clear that many high-conflict divorce parents have no idea how to begin a forgiveness process even if they desired to do so.

Here are some dos and don’ts for parents:


The Don’ts:

  • Don’t begin a forgiveness discussion by making wounding statements like: “You act crazy when you are around the children;” “You always put yourself first and I am sure you don’t care about the children;” “You spend too much time turning the children against me;” “You are passive-aggressive and I am sick and tired of it;” “You call the children too much when they are on my time, you are trying to control them and me.”

    These statements may be accurate, but are totally inappropriate if your goal is to foster a spirit of forgiveness. Making a personal attack opening statement will do nothing to cause your ex to believe you want to work in a cooperative fashion. What use do these negative statements have? They can give you a sense of empowerment, which is a good thing, but not in this setting. After lobbing one of these character attacks, you may feel a sense of release akin to punching a concrete wall.
    The immediate result feels relieving and powerful, but you may have a broken hand that is in pain for weeks. There is a ton of emotional hurt on both sides and this hurt often turns to anger where the attempt to injure the soul of your ex easily comes to the surface. High-Conflict Divorce couples tend to repeatedly use the same wounding statements over and over again. I think this happens for the purpose of one parent desperately wanting confirmation of his victimization from the other parent. This confirmation is unlikely to ever happen, so it is important to find other ways to let go of this pain. Self-help groups or individual therapy may be helpful.
    The parents often viciously attack the other parent in a therapy session in order to persuade the therapist to take their side in whatever dispute they are verbalizing. It doesn’t help the healing process for a therapist to side with anyone here. The parents want acknowledgment that that their position is correct and the other parent’s view point is distorted.
    Nothing will be helpful to your child’s shattered self by pursuing this aspect of the war. If one parent “wins,” she will experience temporary victory only and then fall into the emptiness state.

  • Don’t have unrealistic expectations about these forgiveness sessions. Don’t expect that he will admit that he cheated on you even though you have good reason to believe this is true. Don’t expect she will be one hundred percent trusting of you; not even fifty percent. Don’t dredge up an issue about the past unless you are both in agreement that discussing it will be important.

  • Don’t try to “win.” Winning can mean getting your way about some parenting issue. It can also mean that you have crushed your opponent, I mean the other parent of your children. In the end you don’t end up winning anything and you shouldn’t treat the relationship with your ex like you are in full combat mode.

The Dos:

  • Agree that the hatred you have towards each other is adversely affecting your children.

  • Instead of pointing out your ex’s role here, talk about how you are responsible for this broken relationship.

  • Agree to discuss issues that are preventing you from having a positive co-parenting relationship with each other.

  • Agree to disagree. It is very common for high-conflict divorce parents to have totally different versions of the same events. Therefore it is important not to dwell on these worn out stories. It is time to move on.

  • Agree on what the goals of meeting are and what you would like to accomplish.

  • Include the following session rules: No character attacks, do not interrupt the other person when they are talking, no disrespectful speech, no raised voices and no blaming.

  • Practice active listening when you are not clear what your ex is talking about.

  • You both need to agree on the therapist you will be working with. It is important that this therapist has a deep understanding of the dynamics of high-conflict divorce.

  • Expect that this will be a very difficult and laborious process where you need to be continually self-aware and while keeping the needs of your children first.

Keep Reading By Author Bob Livingstone, LCSW
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