After separation and during the divorce process, you likely have become angry, resentful, and hostile towards your spouse. When our relationships become threatening, such as a damaged marriage relationship, we protect ourselves by forming a negative image of the other person. This negative image helps us live on with our lives, without experiencing psychological disintegration. In other words, if I believe my spouse is at fault and a horrible person, life is more bearable. As a result, our view of the event, relationship, and all the negative beliefs we use to help us cope become imbedded in our minds. Your spouse’s views, ideas, and beliefs which were clever and wise are now simple-minded and faulty. What used to be unique and special about your spouse is silly and foolish. Your thoughts continue to deepen as a reaction to your anger and even hostility toward your spouse.
During this process, we avoid looking at our contribution to the failed relationship. When we hurt, we distance ourselves. Part of the divorce is the very physical separation between yourself and your spouse. This physical separation makes it very difficult to hear any disconfirming information about your spouse. Your ex-spouse can no longer explain his or her beliefs, attitudes, or actions, because you are no longer together. Instead, you are surrounded by others who will likely encourage your beliefs, attitudes, and actions, not those of your spouse. You seek out friends and family to reassure you that it was in fact your spouse’s fault. The more you process your view, the more your view, even if it is faulty, becomes a part of your reality.
Although this behavioral pattern is comfortable, it leaves you with a painful past and an inability to create a new lasting future. You must decide whether you wish to reconcile your relationship with your ex-spouse so that you can co-exist in a mutual understanding of what went wrong. In the dissolution of your marriage, you might have been at fault, your ex-spouse at fault, or, more likely, a combination of both your behaviors. You must be completely honest with yourself and identify your responsibility for the failed marriage. Have you misused your marriage relationship causing your spouse to suffer? Have you been hurt because your spouse violated your trust? First, you need to be responsible for any harm you caused your spouse. If, on the other hand, you were the one that was faulted, you need to acknowledge your pain and hurt but with the specific purpose of letting it go. If you want to reconcile and have a healthy future, you can no longer be a victim. Be honest about the areas you have harmed your spouse and areas you have been hurt. Consider speaking with a friend or a counselor to help you through this process.
To complete the reconciliation process, you really need to work with your spouse, who will also have to go through these steps. If he or she is willing, then you will be ready to discuss your discoveries, acknowledge your hurt, and if at fault for any behavior, ask for forgiveness. If your spouse will not agree, you will still receive the benefit of forgiving yourself, your spouse, and releasing yourself to a positive future through the first step of the reconciliation process.
Suppose your settlement or trial results are exactly what you wanted. You have the parenting plan you desired. You are paying or receiving the support you thought was the fair amount. Now that the divorce is done, what are you going to do next?
Often divorce clients are consumed with the divorce process. They have had very little time to process or consider what their future is going to look like after the divorce. During the separation and divorce process, however, they’ve become very angry, bitter and resentful of their ex-spouse. Sometimes anger forms because a spouse expects the other to act in a certain way. We say things like, “he should have,” “she failed to,” and “he should never have.” Imposing unrealistic expectations on our spouse, we then hold them to a standard that he or she is doomed to fail. When they do in fact fail, we hold on to the alleged offense and allow the anger and frustration to take power over us, continually reminding ourselves of his or her fault embittering us.
Divorce is hurtful. As a divorce litigant, you have been hurt. Likely it’s a deep hurt because your spouse betrayed you, gave up on your marriage, or couldn’t forgive you for some of your wrongs. And even with a big win at settlement or trial, or even a peaceful and agreeable mediated agreement, the anger and hurt is still there.
Anger is harmful. It has the appearance of making us feel powerful, but leaves us feeling frustrated and powerless. Forgiveness is your willingness to release the past, the anger, the bitterness and resentment. It means separating forgivable people from unforgivable actions. When you forgive, you give yourself the chance to move past the hurt and to a healthy future. You offer yourself the chance to heal.
You might be wondering: how can I forgive my spouse, if she hasn’t apologized? Or why should I forgive him? What he did is unforgivable. These are common misconceptions about forgiveness. Forgiveness does not mean you condone your ex-spouse’s behavior. Forgiveness is an opportunity to free yourself from the heavy burden of carrying hurt and anger from the past experience into the future. By holding onto anger, you allow your ex-spouse to control your future happiness. You become a victim to that anger. Without forgiving, you are caught in cyclic hatred. For example, you might seek revenge, resulting in escalated tension and anger between you and your spouse. Forgiveness frees you from escalation and from the bondage of anger.
It’s hard to know how to forgive or what to forgive, especially when all you can feel is anger towards your ex-spouse. One way to overcome the anger is to identify what specific act caused you to be angry at your ex-spouse. Was it an affair? Was it her inability to listen to you? Was it his failure to pursue his career in the manner he promised? Once you have identified the act, identify what this means to you. Did the affair make you feel unloved? Did you feel disrespected because she did not listen to you? Or did you feel uncared for because he did not pursue his career to provide for you and the children? Once you have identified the act and what it has caused you to experience, you can move on to forgiving your ex-spouse for this act.
Now that you have identified the act, you must decide whether you wish to forgive your spouse. Are you willing to let go of the past and no longer hold on to resentment? At the most fundamental level, forgiveness is a heart process. It begins with a personal desire to be released from the past. You have to make the decision whether or not you will begin this journey.
Forgiveness also takes time. You might start the process today, but have to work the process daily, in your mind, emotions, and spirit, before you have finally released the grudge you are holding.
There are some steps you can execute to assist you in forgiving your ex-spouse. First, it is easier to forgive when you understand why the offender did what they did. Consider why your spouse behaved in that manner. Did you have a role? What was that role? Understanding why is not the same as excusing the behavior. Explanation helps us put the offense into perspective, making forgiving the offender easier. If you put your pride at issue, you will find it difficult to forgive. You will find yourself adding trivial wrongs against your ex-spouse rather than understanding why the offense requiring forgiveness took place. We add injustices to an ex-spouse’s wrong because it makes us feel better. Our ex-spouse becomes so very wrong and we become so very right. Prevent yourself from doing this. Remind yourself of reality and do not focus on trivial matters. Don’t try to keep score of who hurt whom and who caused the most injury. Forgiveness is about letting go, not weighing wrongs.
As you venture through the forgiveness process, do not forget that you might need to forgive yourself. You may feel guilty because you blame yourself for the failed marriage, or feel at fault for failing your children. You are entitled to forgive yourself. In the same manner you extended forgiveness to your ex-spouse, you need to forgive yourself. Acknowledge your wrong, explain why you did the wrong, and allow it to remain in the past. You are no longer subject to that offense.
Forgiveness is a process and you may need to go through these steps several times before you have fully forgiven your ex-spouse, another family member, or yourself, either entirely or for a specific wrong. Holding on to the past and the pain will only cause you more frustration. It’s time to let it go.
If you are contemplating divorce, in the midst of a divorce, or already have a divorce decree in hand, you know pressures of the legal process do not compare to the emotional turmoil you are experiencing. The emotional pressures can be quelled when you give a meaningful and complete apology. It has the effect of freeing you from the weight of the divorce, help heal you and the person you offended, restore your relationships, and even provide you direct legal benefits to your case.
Apologies: The Need to Give and Receive.
During the divorce, you process a variety of thoughts and emotions in attempt to understand what lead to the dissolution of your marriage. You conclude that some of these failures were your spouse’s fault and others were yours. Many were a result of both you and your ex-spouse. You may struggle with the shame and guilt you experience for the affair you had or the misuse of your family’s money. You may feel guilty that your marriage failed. You may have even come to terms that this guilt is not going to disappear when the divorce process is over. You are haunted by the thought of having on-going contact with your ex-spouse and you can’t imagine co-parenting for the next ten years in any healthy way or being at your children’s celebrations with your ex-spouse in the years to come.
These are heavy and weighty issues many divorcees feel. A meaningful and complete apology, however, has the power to heal, relieve you of the humiliations and grudges, and help you establish a more healthy future relationship with your ex-spouse. An apology can take you from desiring revenge to a place of acceptance. It has the power to make your situation better and reduce the anger and resentment your ex-spouse has towards you and you have against your ex-spouse.
But even for what is undoubtedly our own fault, most of us find it very hard to apologize. It’s hard to admit we were wrong to anyone, especially to an ex-spouse. We worry that if we did apologize, we would feel weak and our spouse would feel superior to us. In fact, there is no guarantee that once we put ourselves at the mercy of our spouse that we will be forgiven. If our spouse does not forgive us, would it only result in injury to our pride and self-esteem?
The Apology Risk
Apologies are not easy, but the benefits likely outweigh the risks and your fears. And without an apology, you are likely to face additional short-term and long-term consequences. As you are probably aware, the divorce process can be very nasty. Spouses are pitted against each other to fight for important issues such as time with their children, ownership of the family home, and division of the family estate. An insulted spouse may be too hurt to discuss settlement options and may express his/her anger in litigious tactics. Even in mediation an insulted spouse would find it difficult to trust the other spouse enough to reach a mediated settlement or forgo tit for tat strategies.
An apology, however, can prevent this antagonistic behavior and heal the damaged relationship between you and your spouse. Apologies heal because they satisfy at least one - and sometimes several - distinct psychological needs of the offended party. Those needs are: restoration of self-respect and dignity, assurance that you and your ex-spouse still have shared values, and your ex-spouse’s assurance that the offense you are apologizing for was not his or her fault. For example, an apology that you are sorry you mismanaged the finances and did not save enough money as your spouse requested for the children’s college fund, demonstrates that you understand the value of your children’s education – a value both you and your wife share.
The apology process also allows you and your ex-spouse to keep the past in the past, and create a relationship based on the present circumstances, absent hate and revenge. This gives you an opportunity to deal with your ex-spouse on a more level playing field. Otherwise, the insult from the injury and the indignity your ex-spouse is experiencing can be a large barrier to compromise. It will affect you when you try to settle your case. It will have an emotional weight on you personally. And it will hamper your on-going relationship with your ex-spouse, particularly if you and your ex-spouse have children to raise together. On the other hand, a meaningful and complete apology has the power to keep your ex-spouse from being unreasonable in mediation and settlement discussions and using the courtroom to punish you. It will give you a healthier and redefined relationship for the future.
How to Apologize
The manner in which you apologize is crucial to the success of your apology. I am sure we each can recall countless examples of apologies that just didn’t work. For example, we’ve had our spouse, friend, or family member, apologize half-heartedly. Other times, we’ve received an apology so vague it was not clear if the person was in fact apologizing. We’ve also been recipients of conditional apologies, in which the offender says something to the effect: “I’m sorry if I hurt you,” leaving us questioning whether the offender even believed she or he had actually hurt us or done something wrong. Other times, the offender doesn’t even admit to his or her personal fault when apologizing. For example, the offender may say, “Mistakes were made,” rather than “I made a mistake.” We know from experience that these apologies don’t work because they leave us wondering whether the offender really understood what was done wrong, whether the offender would never do the same wrong again, and whether the offender was really sorry.
A Successful Apology
If you plan on apologizing to your ex-spouse, and you are going to put the work and effort to apologize, you want to make sure that your apology is going to be successful. A successful apology can be divided into four parts:
The apology acknowledges the offense.
The apology communicates remorse and the related attitudes of forbearance, sincerity and honesty.
The apology provides an explanation; and
The apology grants reparations.
(1) Acknowledge the Offense
It is crucial that you acknowledge your offense to your ex-spouse in adequate detail. If you are apologizing for an affair, you need to identify the affair. For example, “Jennifer, I’m sorry that I cheated on you during our marriage.” You do not need to go into the details, such as the activities you did with him or her. Details will likely only cause more hurt. Let’s use another example, what if the offense was mismanaging community assets. Acknowledging the offense might look like this: “Sam, I’m sorry for mismanaging the Fidelity account and using those savings for my gambling habit.”
You also want to make sure you apologize to the people you hurt. You can’t just be sorry and not apologize to the individual you hurt. If you don’t apologize to the person you hurt, the offended does not receive any benefit, and you will receive little back, especially the chance of forgiveness. It also makes no sense to apologize to the wrong person or only to one of the many individuals needing to hear the apology. You should take some time to identify who has been hurt by your wrong. It might not be your ex-spouse only; your children or another family member might also need an apology. If you do need to apologize to your children, make sure you are sensitive to your children’s age and present the information in an age appropriate manner.
In addition, your apology should acknowledge the impact these behaviors have had on the people you hurt and that your behavior violated the values you had established with them. Continuing our example of an affair, this part of the apology might sound like, “I know that my affair has hurt you and caused you not to trust me, or the sanctity of our marriage. I know my affair was a violation of our marriage vows.” Using our mismanager of the finances example, it might be stated as: “I know that mismanaging our savings has left us and our children with no savings and made it more difficult for us to pay for their schooling. I violated our agreement to save this money for our children.”
(2) Communicate Remorse, Sincerity and Honesty
Another element to a successful apology is that the apology must be sincere and genuine. When you are giving your apology, be conscious of your body language and tone. Are you looking directly at your ex-spouse when you give this apology? Is your tone soft with feeling or terse and sarcastic? Are your arms folded or on your lap?
Your body language and tone will impact how your ex-spouse receives your apology. If you are not sincere, it is unlikely you will be relieved of the shame and guilt you are experiencing and your ex-spouse is unlikely to believe your apology. Take the time to practice your tone and the body language you will use to deliver your apology.
(3) An Explanation
Without an explanation, apologies tend to be incomplete. Consider preparing an explanation for why you did what you did. Again, honesty and sincerity are crucial. Your explanation will put the offense into perspective for both you and your spouse. This helps with the healing process. It may help you give your ex-spouse the explanation he or she was looking for and end him or her from continually reminding you of this wrong or using this to justify his or her harsh litigation tactics or desire for “more” than his or her fair share. An explanation helps bring closure to the wrong and allows you both to move on.
(4) Grant Reparations
The final part of a successful apology is determining whether you need to offer your ex-spouse some form of reparations to restore the loss you caused. Be careful. You are not offering to restore a loss because you are guilty. This restoration is an effort to demonstrate to your ex-spouse that you take the grievance you caused seriously. Consider reparations if you were at fault for misusing the family’s monies, damaged the personal effects of your ex-spouse, or took valuable possessions or even family photos from the family residence before you and your ex-spouse had a fair chance to divide them. You might refund the lost money or allow your spouse to take back certain items you previously took. Reparations may not be available in situations like verbal abuse or communication failure. If your situation does call for reparations, plan ahead what reparations you will offer and present it as an offering to amend your wrong in a tangible way.
Where and When to Apologize
Now that you are familiar with the benefits and process, consider scenarios in which you can apologize to your spouse. A mediation setting is ideal for an apology. You can benefit from the more relaxed and cooperative setting in mediation than in the courtroom. Or you might use a more private setting such as a coffee shop. You might arrange this with your ex-spouse in advance. Your attorney may also have other ideas and be able to help facilitate this conversation with your ex-spouse’s attorney.
Take Home Message
Apologies have the power to provide you a healthy future as you move into a new chapter of your life. The process requires a degree of risk, but can relieve you of the guilt, pain, and suffering you have experienced and may continue to feel in the next days, weeks, and even years ahead. As you contemplate whether you will apologize and the manner and content of that apology, consider the degree of release and freedom an apology with your ex-spouse would bring. You have a right to experience that freedom again.
Dr. Invia A. Betjoseph is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, MFC 44618.
As a Psychotherapist, and a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, he provides Psychotherapy, or Counseling and Sex Addiction Treatment for Sexual Addiction and Pornography or Porn Addiction.
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