I was caught off guard recently when a client asked me an interesting question: “How do you know when you are ready to forgive someone?” While I didn’t have an answer ready, I found myself reflecting on this for quite some time. For example, what is forgiveness, really?
Psychologists define forgiveness as “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing the offense (1)”
Typically, I have thought of forgiveness as something that happens organically and can be lumped into the category of “time heals all wounds”. But in the context of abuse, addiction, adultery, or divorce, I can appreciate how someone may spend considerable mental energy asking whether they will ever be ready to forgive and, if so, how will they know?
The two salient points to appreciate here are found within the actual definition of forgiveness itself. First, forgiveness, at the end of the day, is less about them and more about setting you free, about releasing your spirit. The second being forgiveness does not equal condoning behavior. With this definition in mind and after giving my client’s question some serious consideration, I have come up with five signs that indicate you are ready to forgive, or perhaps have already forgiven, your ex-spouse and the circumstances that led to your divorce.
Five Signs You Are Ready to Forgive After Divorce
1. You think of lessons learned.
There will come a day when, rather than focusing on all that was lost, you will begin to see how much more you gained and learned. Perhaps you finally learned what you want in a relationship, not just what you do not want. Maybe, while divorcing a high-conflict person, you found your long lost self-respect and finally discovered what it means to have boundaries. Many people use pain to reinvent themselves, turn their lives around, and serve others. I, for example, developed a passion for better understanding the human experience, self-improvement, and coaching others through their divorce. Whatever this looks like for you, when your first inclination is to think of how much better off you are, it is safe to say that you are in a healthier place where forgiveness is possible.
2. You are more interested in your own life than his/hers/theirs.
My ex-husband will frequently FaceTime my children with his girlfriend both within earshot and in sight. Since I live in a small apartment it is hard to remove myself – try as I might – so that I don’t have to witness the conversation. It used to set me back considerably to see the happy new couple, hear about their trips and witness their loved up interactions less than a year after our divorce. With some time and considerable mindset work, this simply does not cut me to my core like it used to. I am way more interested in my own life, growth, and future than in over-analyzing the phone call I just heard. Do I still feel a fleeting pang? Of course, I am human after all, but my recovery is speedy and I am able to effectively refocus my attention where it belongs – to me and my children.
3. You wish them well.
Rather than attacking their character or demonizing them to anyone that will listen, you find yourself silently wishing them well. When you no longer secretly pray for his – or his paramour’s – misfortune, pat yourself on the back for not only being the bigger person, but also building some goodwill. Remember, this person inflicted some sort of horrific pain or betrayal upon you at one point. Anyone capable of this is not your person, full stop. This begs the question of why their ill-fated demise even matters to you because if they are not the one, then someone else is and that is where your energy is best spent. Wishing your ex-spouse good luck on his/her next chapter is a sure sign that you hold no grudges and are ready and deserving of your best chapter – which is yet to come.
4. You think of your children first.
Remember, anything that jeopardizes your ex’s happiness or success will probably trickle down to your children in some way. Within the container of anger, you could be Mother Theresa herself, but still want your ex to suffer. When the question of how this will affect your children outweighs the question of when your ex will finally get some long overdue karma, your soul has offloaded some dead weight. Thinking of your children’s well-being first is something that we would like to believe comes naturally as parents; but does not always happen when two parents hate each other. When you love your kids more than you hate your ex, you may still not be Mother Theresa but you may just be saintly in your ability to forgive.
5. Finally, you realize that it may not be the other person that needs forgiveness.
It is much easier to point fingers than to consider what your role was in the demise of a relationship. Even if your ex-spouse was a cheating, abusive, narcissistic demon, you hold some accountability for the choices that got you into your situation. Sometimes the person that needs your forgiveness most is not actually the perpetrator, but you. The sooner you accept responsibility for whatever you chose not to see, dismissed, tolerated or contributed to, the sooner you take control back. There were times I could not look at myself in the mirror, so ashamed was I of the treatment I accepted and the dysfunctional example we set for our children. Forgiving myself and vowing to do better, even on my own, was all the pardoning I needed to move forward.
How do you know that you are ready for forgiveness? You have faced your own worst critic, yourself, and are more invested in her/him than spending precious mental real estate on events and people that are where they belong, in your past.