I received the following in an e-mail:
“There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there.” A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one.
It’s true words said in anger create emotional scars; and it’s better if we don’t inflict wounds on each other, but if the wound happens, or happened in the past, it’s important to know the scars can heal. Think about a cut or wound in your skin: Your body starts to heal immediately, coagulating your blood to stop the loss, then developing a scab, under which new skin grows, until the scab is no longer needed, and flakes off, leaving a red mark, which fades, until there is little or no evidence of the wound. With a more serious wound, some therapy is needed, perhaps surgery and stitches, or plastic surgery to remove a scar. Our bodies are an unending miracle – able to accomplish things without our even noticing; things that biochemistry longs to be able to understand – never mind accomplish.
That’s a good metaphor for healing emotional wounds.
Emotional wounds, whether from words said in anger, or something even more hurtful, need to be cleaned for optimal healing. In the case of emotions, cleansing can come in several forms. A sincere apology (which means willingness to change) on the part of the person who lashed out, can help – but the best cleansing is one that doesn’t leave you vulnerable to someone else’s outbursts. In order to heal, you need to know you won’t be repeatedly wounded. Unless a true apology, with evidence of real change, is offered, then you must stand up for yourself, and tell the hurtful person that you won’t tolerate the behavior again (and be willing to act on it.)
Giving the other person an “adult time out” (retreat into cold politeness – withdraw from emotional attachment until you get a sincere apology) not only will demonstrate that you’re not willing to be abused, it will also send a signal to you that you’re taking care of yourself. That creates the emotional climate for healing to take place. Once you know you’ll take care of yourself, the wound heals, and you can then move on to forgiveness.
Forgiving Your Partner
No matter how much you care, and how hard you try, when you get close to each other, you will occasionally get hurt. Even people who are responsible and care about each other make mistakes, because no one can be 100% aware, and because it’s not always easy to understand what's important to another person. This emotional clumsiness can hurt, even when it's unintentional, so you need to know how to clear up the hurts when they happen. The power to resolve and let go of old hurts, while learning to protect yourself from being hurt again, is one of the most useful skills when it comes to intimate relationships.
Forgiving for Real
Forgiveness is not easy. When you have truly forgiven, there is no lingering resentment, because the problem is solved. You have learned how to heal the hurt and prevent its reoccurrence, so you can forgive and wipe the slate clean. Knowing how to express feelings and figuring out a way to prevent a similar hurt from happening again makes it possible to forgive each other.
The dictionary defines to forgive as "to give up resentment of" but my definition of forgiving is a bit different. Giving up resentment is nearly impossible when there are too many real injuries to forgive. It can also be unwise, because resentment is a reminder to be careful around this person or in this situation. Letting go of resentment without fixing the problem makes you vulnerable to being hurt or mistreated over and over again.
However, hanging on to resentment will not protect you or allow you to let go of the past and move on. As long as you hold onto resentment, you will feel like a helpless, hopeless, dependent victim of your past history. You do need to learn to forgive, but just "giving up resentment" is not sufficient. You need a new model of forgiving.
Steps to Forgiving
Forgiving needs to follow these main steps.
1. Understand why you’re hurt. It’s common to have hurt feelings and be disappointed but not know exactly what it’s all about. What are you feeling? Are you angry at someone? What did he or she do? Are you sad? Why? Taking the time to get clear about your disappointment and hurt feelings will make it easier for you to be clear with your partner, and easier for your partner to figure out what to do.
2. Know how to take care of yourself. It seems very logical that if someone else hurt you, then that person should fix it. But it doesn’t always work that way. If someone who loves you has hurt you, he or she either doesn’t understand how you feel, isn’t thinking clearly, or isn’t in control of his or her own actions. This can be true in minor hurts and major ones. If your husband forgets your birthday, or your wife makes an important social date on the day of the big game, there may be several causes. If the error was due to faulty communication or poor memory, you can take care of yourself by placing a calendar in a prominent location in your home and marking all important dates, perhaps with different colored pencils to indicate whose memo it is. Technophiles can put in on their Palm Pilots. If a date is on the calendar, there are no “forgetting” excuses. If the situation is more serious (she burns dinner when she drinks too much, he spends too much money on payday), then you have to take more serious measures. For situations like this, I recommend therapy. Go with or without your partner, and you will learn how to take care of yourself until he or she has better self-control. Until you know how to prevent yourself from being hurt again, forgiveness does not make sense.
3. Let your partner know how you feel. Once you are clear about how you were hurt or disappointed, you can be clear with your partner. Don’t accuse-- just speak in terms of your feelings. “My feelings were hurt when I didn’t know where you were at the party.” Or, “I’m disappointed because I wanted you to remember my birthday.”
4. Tell your partner what you think would fix the problem. When you offer a possible solution, your partner will have a clear idea of what you want. You can say, “When we go to parties, I’d like to you to let me know where you are, and I want you to understand why I feel bad if you don’t.”
5. Listen to your partner’s version of what happened. Often these problems are caused mainly by a difference in perception, so it’s important to understand how your partner saw the situation. This also keeps the discussion on a more even level, with both partners discussing the problem rather than one accusing and the other defending. You may learn that your partner even thought he or she was doing something you wanted. “You kept saying you didn’t want to celebrate this birthday, and I thought you meant it.”
6. Reach a mutual solution to the problem. If someone is very hurt, or very defensive, it may take a few discussions to resolve this problem. Remember that it is worth the time it takes, because it will prevent this from becoming a recurring problem. If you can’t solve it together after a few tries, see a counselor. Forgiveness skills are so important that you really need to learn them if you don’t have them already.
7. Have a forgiving ceremony. This can be as simple as looking into your partner’s eyes and saying “I forgive you.” What’s important is that you communicate that the air is cleared, the hurt forgiven, and the problem is over. You won’t be able to do that honestly if you haven’t done the previous steps.
You don't have to condemn your partner to be wary of their out-of-control or thoughtless behavior. Instead, you can recognize that both of you are fallible human beings, do what is necessary to fix the problems, and then forgive each other. When both of you take responsibility for fixing these mistakes in the relationship, your trust in each other will grow, and where trust grows, so does love. (C) 2008 Tina B. Tessina
Adapted from: "It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction" (New Page) ISBN 1-56414-548-4
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. http://www.tinatessina.com is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 11 books, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page.) Her newest books, out from Adams Press in 2008: Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage and Commuter Marriage. She publishes Happiness Tips from Tina, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog” http://drromance.typepad.com/dr_romance_blog/ and has hosted "The Psyche Deli: delectable tidbits for the subconscious" a weekly hour long radio show. She is an online expert, answering relationship questions at www.CouplesCompany.com and Yahoo! Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert and “Psychology Smarts” columnist for First for Women. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio and on such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news.