Practical Tools for Forgiveness

Practical Tools for Forgiveness
We have shown you that refusing to forgive is against Jewish law and bad for you physically and psychologically.  How then do you change your feeling of being hurt or staying angry at your spouse?   Start by accepting that this behavior leads to no gain and only pain for you. Understand, you will be happier if you spend even a portion of the effort you are expending to stay angry on forgiving instead.
An old adage, which Mat’s father religiously practiced, was never go to bed upset or angry at anyone. Our rabbis obviously mandated such behavior. In the prayer prescribed before going to sleep chazal (our great rabbis) wrote: “Master of the universe, I hereby forgive anyone who angered or antagonized me or who sinned against me…whether he did so accidentally, willfully, carefully or purposely; whether through speech, deed, thought or notion…”[1]
If you go to bed hurt, angry and upset, you might wake up that way. Every morning when we get up, G-d gives us back a cleansed and refreshed soul.[2] Why would you want to defile it with anger and hostility?
Again, there is no exception for staying angry at spouses and there shouldn’t be. Why, really why, shouldn’t a person go to bed peacefully after forgiving their spouse ? We want (actually, need) G-d to forgive us. Our spouses should get the same consideration.
What if you don’t forgive, should you still say this prayer? You bet. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that saying things you do not believe helps you believe them.[3] Say the prayer and you will be more likely to believe it.
We know there are those who do not believe in this forgiveness before bedtime.  One prominent rabbi who we respect greatly argued that forgiveness before bedtime was not wise since it led to endless conversations. We wholeheartedly agree that lengthy conversations of grievances before bedtime (or, for that matter, any time) are a bad idea. However, no one said that forgiveness required lengthy conversations. Just forgive!  The usually wise Gottman Marriage Minute opposed a requirement to forgive before bedtime because some people need more time to “process”. “Process” all you like but it does not mean you need to stay angry.
The insights of rational emotional therapy[4] and cognitive behavioral therapy[5] are very important here. A fundamental premise of these therapies is that we don’t get angry because of the way things are but rather our underlying beliefs about them. Here is an easy and true example: A husband brings home roses for Shabbos. How will his wife react?  Susan will be thrilled because her husband never brings home flowers and she is so touched. Chava is upset (true story) because she believes that a husband should bring home expensive orchids or jewelry. Notice, in both stories the fact is the same. The husband brings home roses. Yet, the wives react entirely different because one wife sees bringing home roses as an act of love while the other sees it as not as good enough.
It is your beliefs about the actions of your awful, horrible, terrible spouse that are causing you pain. Pain happens when the world does not meet our expectations. The stronger the expectation, the more severe the pain. Thus, if we think: How could  my spouse do that to me? The pain will be quite severe. And the more times I repeat that to myself, the more I will hammer that pain into my brain until it almost seems automatic. Thus, it seems as if I go from thinking about the event to pain almost automatically but that is false. If you look inward, you will see that you believe something like: If she really loved me, she wouldn’t have been late or if he really cared about me, he would have taken the garbage out or not been so tightfisted or not stayed so late at work or…Our ideas cause the pain.
You are treating behavior as symbolic. There is absolutely no evidence that your spouse thought the perceived unforgivable action had anything to do with how much they loved you. There is absolutely no evidence that your spouse was late, didn’t take out the garbage, was tightfisted or stayed late at work to hurt you. It is not that these behaviors are good or that they shouldn’t be addressed. However, maintaining your anger will not get you the results you want..
Try this instead:  If you think: “it would have been better had my spouse not done X but he is a good person who can make mistakes and I know he is trying and he does many good things for me”, you will find that the pain will be far, far less and you will be able to address it with your spouse in a rational manner.
Moreover, often a refusal to forgive arises because you have a rule and your spouse violated it. But, just perhaps, your rules are not the only rules. What if your spouse has her own set of rules that make sense to her? Why must your rules govern? And even if your rules are right, if you understand these are your rules and just because your spouse violates them, it does not mean your spouse is bad, awful, evil or a fiend.   As we mentioned, you need to see the behavior in a holistic framework of your spouse’s actions and see that this one action (or series of actions) is one (or a few things), she does badly when there are many things she does right.
Let’s go back to Ramban’s brilliant insight we quoted before: “For when you reprove him he [the person who wrongs you] will either justify himself to you or repent and confess his sin and you will forgive him.” The Ramban accepts the possibility that the person who wronged you will “justify himself”. Thus, our spouses usually do not do things with no reason whatsoever. They have justifications that appear good and sufficient to them. The Ramban seems to be saying that we can accept the other person had a justification and we can move on. How utterly refreshing.
The necessity to forgive is not meant to be a license to wrong your spouse and seek forgiveness. We know of one couple where the wife’s perception is that the husband does the same wrong things day after day, refuses to change and expects to be forgiven. While we still think the wife should forgive, the husband really is shirking his marital and moral responsibilities.
We have done a lot of talking about why you should forgive so we trust you have disputed your old irrational beliefs and fixed them. Now, it is time to cement these changes in your brain.  Resolve out loud that you are going to change. Try this. Say out loud with feeling “I am going to help myself, my family and serve Hashem by forgiving X.” (insert the name of your spouse). Do it ten times out loud. Emphasize different words in the sentence each time. So, “I am going to help myself, my family and serve Hashem by forgiving X.” “I   am going to help myself, my family and serve Hashem by forgiving X.”   “I am going to help myself, my family and serve Hashem by forgiving X.” You get the point. Do this for a few days.  After a few days, substitute this: “I am going to help myself, my children and my entire household by being smart and overlooking anything X does that I used to get bothered about .”  Make sure that you also forgive your spouse in the prayer before sleep that we discussed above.
Remember that the mistakes of your spouse actually may have made you a better person. This is a tool we learned from Tony Robbins we have used with adults at Yizkor (the memorial service for the departed that is said on certain Jewish holidays). We have people think of good facets of their own personalities-things such as independence, resilience, courage, creativity, kindness. We then ask them to think of how those things might have been an adaptive reaction to flaws they felt they perceived in their parents. Thus, a woman who is creative may have nurtured that skill because her parent left her alone for long periods with nothing to do. A child of an alcoholic may be stronger because the child had to learn to fend for themselves earlier.
As opposed to being angry at the parent, we ask the now adult child to forgive the parent and actually thank the now deceased parent because the child has grown and developed in a positive way in reaction to the parent.  The same rule can apply to spouses.
We know, for example, several women who have started thriving businesses in response to what they felt was the cheapness of their husbands. We know other spouses who became better parents because they felt their spouses failed in this area. Now, ask yourself: How have the traits and actions of my spouse made me a better person? Think hard about what you have gained. Recite to yourself: “This marriage has made me gain strength at X.” You will feel better.
Yizkor should remind us of something else. People die and they do so unexpectedly. The worst houses of mourning are those where the mourners had unfinished business with the deceased. The pain of never making up and moving on haunts people. You don’t want that to be you, with that empty, angry feeling. Forgive, make up, move on.
Finally and for extra credit, look to the example of the Biblical Joseph and his brothers which serves as both the first example and the apotheosis of human forgiveness. Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers. Yet, after he becomes second in command in Egypt and could have them tortured or killed, he reconciles with them and explains he bears them no animus as it was G-d that sent him to Egypt. (Bereshis Ch. 45). What is happening to you is what G-d wanted. Let it go.
[1] The Expanded Artscroll Siddur-Nusach Ashkenaz 289 (Mesorah Publications 2010)
[2] My Jewish Learning, Body and Soul, available at; The Expanded Artscroll Siddur-Nusach Ashkenaz 18-19 (Mesorah Publications 2010)
[3] Martine, et al, Cognitive Dissonance Induced By Writing a Counterattitudinal Essay Facilities Performance on Simple Tasks but not on Complex Tasks that Involve Working Memory, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 46, Issue 4, 587-594 (2010) available at
[4] University of Birmingham, Principles of REBT, available at
[5] Leahy, Cognitive Therapy Techniques 40-41 (Guilford Press 2017)

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