Forgiveness in Divorce

Is it necessary to forgive as part of the divorce? When this question is posed, most often, the client thinks that we are talking about forgiving the other spouse. What we are talking about is really a two part process.

Forgiving Yourself. Many clients come to our firm feeling embarrassed about their situation. Generally, the initial interview starts with general information gathering, such as the length of the marriage, the number of children, their ages, what is happening between the parties that brings one of them to a divorce lawyer. Many clients relate stories of serious communication difficulties and misbehavior on the part of their spouse, including infidelity over many years, alcohol or other substance abuse, emotional abuse and/or physical abuse and other impediments to having a happy, satisfying marriage. As they relate their stories, the clients often show increasingly greater discomfort and will express wonder at having stayed in spite of the many valid complaints they have. Sometimes in the telling of their stories to a sympathetic, experienced third party, they will realize that they have not only known about the serious problems in their marriage for a long time, may have enabled their spouse, and did little to remove themselves to a better place, until they lost hope that the situation would improve. Many will acknowledge that it was knowing the devil they had, rather than facing an unknown future that kept many of them in the marriage. And they frequently deal with their embarrassment through anger. The anger is most often targeted at their spouse.

What they are missing is that they are justifiably angry at their spouse. However, they are also very angry at themselves. This anger, until it is constructively dealt with, will get in the way of resolving the issues in their case. This is because they will be focused on retribution, which is backwards focused (what he/she did to me and how can I get paid back for what I endured) instead of forward looking (what I need for myself for my future to be secure). To get to that future focused place, the party needs to let go of this anger. In other words, they need to forgive themselves for having been part of this toxic relationship, sometimes for many years.

How to begin? First, it is best to work with a mental health counselor. Your attorney can assist you, but therapists are specifically trained to do this work. Hopefully, you will have health insurance to assist you with the cost. Best to work with the professional who has the specific training to work on the issue. Mental health professionals are the most skilled and cost effective professionals for this inquiry. Secondly, accept that marriage is a balance sheet. When the positives of staying in the marriage outweigh the negatives (meaning we are in the black), we stay. When the negatives outweigh the positives (meaning we are in the red), we think about leaving. In other words, you had good reasons to stay in the marriage at the time. Over time, the dynamics of your marriage changed and the negatives outweighed the positives. You stayed during the time when you needed the positives your spouse provided. Third, circumstances change. Your spouses problems may have become worse. You may have become more financially independent. You received new information, making you less tolerant of your spouse's conduct. Fourth, no one but you, your spouse and the professionals who work with you, who are required to keep the details of your marriage confidential, need to know the details of your marriage. The community does not need to know what happened in your marriage, provided that we work within the processes that afford you and your family privacy; mediation and collaborative practice or another means of settlement.

Forgiving Your Spouse. This may or may not be possible. Sometimes the betrayal or the level of bad conduct is so severe that forgiveness is not possible. However, as part of deciding that a divorce is necessary, you have already reached the point of acceptance. This means that your spouse is who s/he is and will not change to a significant degree. You have accepted that they will continue their objectionable behavior and that you can no longer tolerate it. Sometimes, acceptance of who your spouse is, is enough to move forward.

It is important to remember that you can control only one person; yourself. You cannot change your spouse. You can only control the reaction that you have to their behavior. That reaction can be that, "I no longer choose to be your spouse." Then move forward and work on developing the best settlement for your future that you can secure.