It's hard to let go when a significant other hurts you, but scientists say there's a formula for forgiveness. It just doesn't come easy.
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We all have that one ex who was a terrible human being, the one that cheated, lied, broke promises, ghosted or hurt us in other ways. Kim Horne, a painter and decorator from London, is all too familiar with this, "My girlfriend—or fiancé at the time—cheated on me. I found out on her sister's wedding day and I found out it was with someone I knew."
Sometimes this sort of thing can, understandably, get stuck in our craw for a few months, a year, or maybe even five. But there comes a time when forgiveness seems like a better option than keying their car.
Forgiveness is hard to define. Sure, it's in the dictionary, but psychologists have written entire books on exactly what forgiveness is. Some say it's an emotion or internal attitude, others think it's an attitude that needs to be expressed outwardly, or even an action. Some think of it as a process, like Plato thought of love.
Professor Kathy Belicki, a psychologist who specializes in forgiveness, noticed that the unique act is hard to define. She and a colleague set about asking a lot of people what they all thought forgiveness was. "We found many, many, many different definitions—the point is that it is what people live it out as," she says.
Belicki found that a better approach than defining it herself was to understand what people meant when they talked about forgiveness. "We started to document the common forms," she explains, "and then looking at the outcomes associated with each of those."
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The good news is that, according to this approach, forgiveness includes reasons like, "I'm going to show you what a morally better person I am by forgiving you and telling the whole planet," Belicki says.
Forgiving someone to come off as the better person seems worthy at best and disingenuous at worst, but Belicki disagrees. "One of the things I've been taking a stand on is: Let's stop telling each other what true forgiveness is. Because even in a religious context, for example, Christian scripture teaches very strongly that you must forgive; there's no place where it says, 'Oh by the way, this is what forgiveness means.'"
However, there is bad news. The way that you forgive your terrible ex—and the reasons for which you forgive them—have a massive effect on how you feel. In a study conducted by Belicki in 2010, "people who forgive to make themselves feel better—for a practical goal like 'I work with this person' or a nastier goal like 'I want to have something over on this person'—don't tend to be happy," she explains. "It's a paradox because people who are forgiving to feel better are consistently not feeling better."
Many articles and advice columns about bad break-ups say that forgiveness is for your own benefit, and not for the person that you're forgiving. But if you try to forgive your terrible ex so that you can feel better, it's almost guaranteed not to work. In one Taiwanese study, researchers found that those who forgave out of obligation still scored higher on anger-related measurements such as blood pressure and facial expressions than who forgave out of moral principle.
"The people who forgive as a gift to their ex or to humanity, and people who forgive for a principle—those are the people who feel better," Belicki says.
The easiest path to both kinds of forgiveness that pour out from you towards the offender or towards the world is empathy.
Kim Horne found that her attempt to forgive her fiancé to save the relationship was unsuccessful. "I decided to go back to her and try and make it work but it didn't. I couldn't let go of the bitterness and I was angry all the time. I basically didn't trust a word she said to me. It dissolved in about a year."
But the biggest surprise of all is that you don't actually need to bury the hatchet with your ex to initially get over them. Heartbreak is a kind of trauma, especially in a relationship where you were treated badly, and Belicki's own research has found that you can move on from trauma without forgiveness. "Trauma has two magic ingredients for recovery," she explains. The first: "You get over it by facing it and struggling ahead."
The second ingredient is words. "Talking to people [about how you feel] is lovely because you get social support and that is such a healing thing," Belicki says. "But also just writing it down helps—not what happened, but how it affected you."
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Horne's experience tallies with this. "I've definitely moved on; I don't think I've forgiven her. I've met someone else that I really love who is so much better for me. I realized that my previous relationship was a childish one, and I kind of feel sorry for the girl now."
According to Belicki, the kind of altruistic forgiveness that really leads to long-term happiness is costly, and involves letting your terrible ex know that you've forgiven them. The best route to this form of forgiveness is putting yourself in somebody else's shoes. "The easiest path to both kinds of forgiveness that pour out from you towards the offender or towards the world is empathy: imagining why this person was the way they were."
One of her colleagues, Dr Wanda Malcolm, uses a technique where people have imagined conversations with the person they're trying to forgive. They literally pretend to be the perpetrator, and sit in another chair when speaking as them. "I hate the unreality of it," Belicki adds, "but it's a path to empathy."
If forgiveness is personally costly and doesn't necessarily heal you, then what's the point? Belicki says that there are tangible benefits for people who forgive in this way: "More serenity, less anger, sadness and fear. I've demonstrated better mood and less avoidance of the offender, more joy, less vengefulness." One study discovered that people literally perceive things to be less of an uphill struggle if they feel forgiveness towards someone who has wronged them.
In fact, the expert on forgiveness warns that the kind of altruistic forgiveness that ultimately leads to you feeling better is no easy task. It means making yourself vulnerable, and it is painful and difficult. "The kind of forgiveness that makes our jaw drop are the risky sacrificial types of forgiveness, and not everyone has to do that. If you've been injured, you don't owe the planet anything. It's perfectly fine to say, 'I'm just gonna take the steps to get me past this and get my life back on track.'"
At the end of our conversation, Belicki describes the circumstances of a woman in the Rwandan genocide who had lost her entire family and was betrayed by her best friend. She had to hide from her killers in a closet and almost starved to death as a result. "She came to this place of absolute forgiveness," Belicki says. "She's been very active in promoting forgiveness of the genocide. She pauses. "If somebody can forgive that, then everything is forgivable."