It’s hard to go a few days without reading something about the power of forgiveness. Indeed, it has become a spiritual axiom that forgiveness is the key to inner peace. This strikes me as odd, because I see forgiveness as the understudy to remorse. Unless we are open to the examination of our own transgressions first, we are asking the cart to draw the horse.
To put it more bluntly, unless we are willing to own our own shit, forgiving our partner’s crappiness is not nearly good enough. Learning to say “I’m sorry” though has proven to be a monumental undertaking. I know it sounds easy to just spout the words. I know that early in our relationship I would say them as a form of damage control, as in “Im sorry, get over it!” But, far from opening a heartfelt exchange between my wife Marcia and I, that is surefire way to shut the door on an actual loving interaction.
In my experience with Marcia, true sorrow, or remorse, comes from really feeling how my behavior (or lack thereof) impacts her. The more I can allow myself to see that I’ve hurt her in some way, the greater access I have to remorse. I’ve learned that there are essentially three types of incursions that, when owned, lead me to feeling my genuine remorse. Let me elaborate on these, in order of severity.
First, is the everyday thoughtlessness that exists simply because I am routinely self-absorbed and forget that Marcia actually exists. So, I may get myself a snack without asking her if she wants something. This first type of relational faux pas is highly amenable to change. In other words, I’ve gotten better over the years.
Second, are the repeated “mistakes” that keep rearing their ugly heads in the context of a committed relationship. These recurring mess-ups can challenge the sense of trust in the partnership and lead us to wonder whether our partner is purposively screwing with us. Let me give an example from my own “oops, I did it again” repertoire. I have a habit (a pattern I developed long ago in childhood) of not sharing my inner world with Marcia. From her vantage point, I just disappear from the relationship. It is hardwired in me to withhold my needs, worries, and even sometimes the good stuff – like desire. This hurts her and leaves her feeling lonely. While I am getting better, this oft repeated mistake is dying a slow death. We might refer to these serial screw-ups as “characterological mistakes.” They are part of our character, but really not an aspect of our deeper, truer nature. It’s been said that to make a mistake once is human, to repeat it often is character. Instead of promising to be better, self ownership of our repeatable mistakes is our best shot at emotional repair. “This is a hard habit to break and I’m trying, but I know it hurts you. I’m really sorry.”
Third, are the kinds of injuries we inflict on our partner that emanate from our negativity. These are the hardest ones to own because none of us wants to admit that we have a creepy, dark aspect to ourselves that actually wants to cause hurt. But, if we are honest, we all possess a part of ourselves that wants to punish, shame, scare, withhold, or diminish our partner. This is because in some ways we don’t feel good about ourselves. I have a part within me that can derive pleasure at poking fun at Marcia’s foibles. I can also hold back the truth of how great I think she is. This purposeful withholding is motivated by negativity. When I can acknowledge the existence of these “lower self” aspects of my personality I make room to feel remorse and to say “I’m sorry” from a truer, deeper place. To admit our negative impulses is one of the greatest challenges we have in relationship. But when we do, our relationships actually become lighter.
These three components of how we hurt our partner, I have come to believe, exist in every one of us. You can forgive them in your mate only after finding the remorse for your own hurtful ways. You can do this!