6 Steps To Forgiving Your Former Spouse For Good

By: Terry Gaspard
: October 31, 2016

Are you finding it difficult to move beyond feelings of anger, bitterness, and resentment after your divorce? If so, you are not alone. Many people find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of hurt feelings after divorce. They may believe that they’ve been wronged by their former spouse and find it difficult to get beyond their painful experiences. It may surprise you that one of the most beneficial tools to help you along the journey toward emotional healing is forgiveness.

According to divorce expert Deborah Moskovitch, forgiveness is not the same as forgetting what happened, condoning your ex-spouse’s actions, giving up claims to a fair legal settlement, or reconciliation. While forgiveness may have benefits for others, it first and foremost can help you. She writes, “Forgiveness involves letting go of negative thoughts, feelings, or behaviors toward an offender (in this case, your ex-spouse) and taking a more positive approach.”

Forgiveness is one of the most misunderstood concepts because many people believe it means forgetting what happened or condoning bad behavior. The truth is that achieving forgiveness allows you to turn the corner from feeling like a victim to becoming a more empowered person.

Letting Go of Baggage

What does forgiveness really mean? What I’ve come to realize is that forgiveness is more of a perspective and a practice rather than one action. Forgiving is one way of letting go of your old baggage so that you can heal and move forward with your life. It’s about giving yourself, your children, and perhaps even your new partner, the kind of future you all deserve – unhampered by hurt and recycled anger. It’s about choosing to live a life wherein others don’t have power over you and you’re not dominated by unresolved anger, bitterness, and resentment.

Many therapists consider forgiveness a critical aspect of divorce recovery, but they suggest that acceptance is a worthy option in some cases where an individual is not ready to enter the process of forgiving their former spouse. This often happens in cases where a partner feels betrayed or abused for a variety of reasons, or their ex refuses to engage in the healing process. 

In her groundbreaking book How Can I Forgive You?, Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., explains that acceptance is a responsible, authentic choice to an interpersonal injury when the offender won’t participate in the healing journey or apologize. While Dr. Abrahams encourages readers to muster up the courage to forgive others who have wronged them, she also says that forgiveness that isn't genuine is “cheap,” so not worth much. She writes, “For those of you who have been wronged, I encourage you to take care of yourself, be fair, and seek life-serving ways to cleanse your wound.” She suggests that while genuine forgiveness is a worthy goal, acceptance is the middle ground between unforgivable hurt and cheap forgiveness.

Forgive for Good

According to forgiveness expert Dr. Fred Luskin, there are many reasons why people have difficulty letting go of the past and forgiving others who they believe have wronged them. In his book Forgive For Good, he posits that you may take on the pain of others' mistakes because you take their offenses personally. Then, some people create a grievance story which focuses on their suffering and assigns blame. For instance, you may retell the same story of feeling taken advantage of by your ex. Dr. Luskin explains that individuals heal best when they are able to acknowledge the damage done and shift to an impersonal perspective.

Holding on to a grudge will keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forward with your life. Luskin writes, “Forgiveness is not a focus on what happened in the past, neither is it remaining upset or holding onto grudges. You may have been hurt in the past, but you are upset today. Both forgiveness and grievances are experiences that you have in the present.”

Six Steps to Forgiving Your Ex (adapted from Dr. Luskin’s model): 

  1. Gain awareness of the emotions you experience about your past hurt. It’s normal to feel hurt or angry but denying these feelings will keep you stuck in the past. Taking an inventory of your relationship can help you move past pain and find peace. Your focus needs to be on learning from the past rather than repeating it.
  2. Be aware that forgiveness is for you, not the person you want to forgive. This mindset can help you focus on your healing, and find ways to soothe your hurt feelings. This might include writing a letter or release to your ex who injured you, even if you don’t mail it. Your release might read something like: “I release you from the pain you caused me when we used to argue.”  
  3. Make a choice to feel hurt for a shorter period. Challenge your thinking and identify any unrealistic expectations you hold for yourself and others about a timeline for healing (that ultimately lead to feelings of disappointment or distress).
  4. Focus on those things that you can control. You can’t control the past but you can make better choices today, such as letting go of hurt feelings. 
  5. Accept that people do the best they can and attempt to be more understanding. This does not mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others; you simply come to a more realistic view of your ex-spouse. As you take stock, you will realize that most people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest. Developing feelings of empathy toward your ex will help you forgive for good.
  6. Think like a forgiving person. Avoid holding a grudge and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect. Keep in mind that forgiveness is for your own good. In fact, you don’t even have to tell your former partner that you have forgiven them.

Crafting a New Story

Forgiving others and ourselves is infinitely terrifying yet necessary for achieving healthy relationships. It’s about being willing to acknowledge that we’re capable of being wounded and to risk exposing ourselves. It also means we’ve stepped out of the role of a victim and are taking charge of our lives. If this process seems impossible, it may be due to feeling ashamed. In fact, experts believe that shame and the fear of being vulnerable are tied to an unwillingness to forgive ourselves and others. In her landmark book Daring Greatly, Author Brené Brown writes: “Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.”

Adopting a forgiving mindset means you’re breaking the cycle of pain and giving up the belief that your former spouse should suffer as much as you do. One powerful way to do this is by creating a positive intention – a way of transforming a grievance story into a positive goal. For instance, my positive intention is, “I let go of the pain from my divorce and forgive myself and my ex.” Crafting a new story for yourself can free you from being stuck in the past and allow you to take control of your life.

Let’s end on a quote by Roberto Assagioli: “Without forgiveness life is governed by an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.”