This month, we feature videos of a Greater Good presentation by Fred Luskin, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. In this excerpt from his talk, Dr. Luskin explores how to cope with the pain of a fight, and still see the good in the people we love.
One of the things that made me a forgiveness teacher was this couple that I worked with a long time ago. I remember the wife telling the husband that he had to stop acting a certain way because it reminded her of her father. And she had had a bad relationship with her father.
So she was telling him to stop, because he said something critical of her. And it wasn’t enough for her to just respond to his criticism. She wanted to stop him because it brought up childhood wounding, and she had mentioned to him many times that her father was unkind.
Now, what I saw on her part was phenomenal insensitivity. On her part. Not his. Because she was blaming him for her not having healed. From my point of view, she owed him an apology along with the request to stop his criticism. Like, “Honey, I’m really sorry. I had this painful childhood that I haven’t gotten over so I’m extra raw and sensitive, I’m asking for your help.” But she didn’t put it that way. Instead she said, “I’m triggered, and you need to stop.”
Of course, he had a responsibility. He could have been her friend as well, and said, “Hey, I know how hard this is on you.”
But she wasn’t being his friend at all. In our psychotherapeutic world, we tend to see her point of view as more normative than his. But I don’t think it is normative. I think when we carry our wounds with us, and we don’t apologize, or at least make amends for them, we’re committing a form of violence. A very low level violence, but we’re still committing a form of violence.
All of forgiveness work is about us, not them. And all of forgiveness work is to widen our hearts. It’s not to change somebody else. It’s to recognize that part of the problem is that we bring to our relationships a Grinch heart – a heart that’s a couple of sizes too small, that makes us more demanding than is necessary, that makes us insensitive to the flaws of the people we have chosen to love.
What makes an intimate relationship so important and special is that you’re willing to endure their bad qualities too. That’s the space we offer people. It’s not like when you enter into an intimate relationship you’re going to be able to say, “Well, I’ll take this stuff that they bring that’s pleasant but I’m still going to disregard what’s not so pleasant.” That’s not intimacy.
Intimacy does involve taking what’s pleasant, but that’s no big deal. Most of us are willing to take what’s pleasant from people. It’s a rare person who will choose to take what’s unpleasant from another person. It doesn’t mean we have to be abused or mistreated, but in an intimate relationship we’re going to get the full person.
So the question is: Are you willing to put up with your partner’s bad qualities? If you’re not, leave. But the bad qualities are the test of the relationship; your commitment is to their bad qualities. You don’t have to commit to their good stuff. You just do that, that’s pleasant. If somebody wants to cook me dinner, how much of a commitment does it take to show up? Right? Or having my laundry done. I can deal with that. I can show up for that any time you want.
But, if they’re defensive in a fight, for example, that’s when your commitment comes in. That’s where the choice comes in. They’re going to be defensive; that’s who they are. Maybe you can help them, maybe you can’t. They’re going to bring their issues all the time. But are you willing to forgive the fact that they bring these particular issues?
Because one thing is for sure: You are going to be with somebody who brings issues. When you choose a partner, you’re just choosing which issues you’re willing to negotiate with.
That’s a much more mature perspective, one that is grounded in a kind of existential forgiveness: I forgive the fact that my partner is flawed. I forgive the fact that they had childhoods, which wounded them, and I forgive the fact that they had experiences that may require my forbearance to serve them. That’s what a relationship is.
What’s a deal breaker?
It’s guaranteed that you will be hurt by the people you care about. The question is: Have you learned to grieve your losses? To feel the pain of disappointment without having to make somebody our enemy? Relationships involve pain. They also involve good stuff—but they’re painful. They require work. You are trusting another human being all the time. They’re going to let you down.
There comes a time when we just have to ask ourselves: Is this a deal-breaker or not? If it is a deal-breaker, you have the prerogative to end the relationship, not talk to them, doing anything you want within legal bounds. If it’s a deal breaker, you’re saying what happened is sufficient enough to fracture the relationship.
If it’s not a deal-breaker and you want to maintain the relationship, then you have to use skills that repair, fix, maintain the relationship.
It’s essential to know what your deal breakers are. But it’s also important to know how to soothe yourself and practice repair in the relationship if you choose that some hurt is not a deal breaker. Most of us struggle to soothe ourselves; we rely on our partner for that. But when our partner does something that hurts us, and we’re dependent on them for soothing, it becomes really hard—it’s hard to have the one who nurtures us be the one hurting us. If we haven’t found a space in our hearts to soothe ourselves, it’s quite difficult.
People are going to hurt us. People are going to cause us pain. But if that hurt is not a deal breaker, how can we ensure it doesn’t completely screw up the relationship?
One way is to not count every single time we’ve been hurt. As a forgiveness teacher, I notice most of us don’t fight fair. For instance, if we have been hurt by our partner in, say, 2003, and we never got over it, then they hurt us again in 2006 and we never got over it, and they hurt us again in 2009, I’m not sure it’s fighting fair to bring up 2003. Just because we didn’t get over it, that’s not their problem. We stayed because it wasn’t a deal breaker, and then we didn’t repair it well.
Running from vulnerability
Here is what I have found is the nub of this experience. What we don’t like is that when we trust somebody intimately—let down our guard, take off our clothes, make ourselves intimate—we’re opening ourselves up to pain because we are unprotected and they’re seeing us naked, physically and emotionally. And we don’t like the fact that once we choose that, we are now more raw and hurtable. And when our partners remind us of the consequences of that choice, we try to punish them. Our reaction is, “You hurt me!” rather than, “Wow, I’m much more hurtable because you matter so much to me. I’m less guarded.”
What we don’t like and what none of us want and what we’re running from is our vulnerability. Accepting one’s vulnerability is an essential part on this path of forgiveness.
The only thing we can trust other people to do is act like themselves. There is no way we can trust them to act in the way we want them to act. Trust people to behave in the way that they have behaved. That’s what real trust is. Don’t trust them in a fantasy where they behave the way you want them to behave rather than the way they want to behave.
The only thing we can control is our own internal process of grieving. What we’re grieving at some level is our loss of control. So in relationships, it comes down to these basic questions: Do we look more for our partner’s good qualities or do we react more to the stuff that triggers us? And do we spend more of our time armoring up to make sure they don’t hurt us—or do we spend more time actively looking for their good?