Sooner or later we are going to be told that we have to forgive.
Friends, family members, therapists, pastors, counselors, or our LGBTQ spouses themselves tell us that we can only heal if we forgive. We’re told that we can only move forward if we forgive.
You are still riding that roller coaster, wondering where the next drop will occur where you summon all your strength to just hang on and wish it were over. You may be struggling with depression, and deep pain and anger. Then there are the day to day issues of taking care of children, getting to work on time, preparing meals, paying bills.
You’ve been gobsmacked and thrown down hard. Getting up and beginning to heal is an all-out effort.
“Though society pressures you to forgive the person who wronged you, the truth is that forgiving may be the worst thing you can do,” writes Deborah Schurman-Kauflin Ph.D in Psychology Today. “Many religions and therapies focus on forgiving a perpetrator so that the victim can ‘move on.’ The goal is to make sure that the victim does not become fixated on the hurt. This element is critical because if you become completely obsessed with your victimization, you will not be able to function. That is a fact. Fixating freezes you.”
“However, forgiveness is not something that just happens,” continues Schurman-Kauflin. “Some people find it helpful to release their anger while others find the idea disgusting. I have dealt with my share of parents of murdered children and victims of sex crimes. Though many find a way to move forward in life, forgiveness truly eludes them. This does not make them bad people. This just means that it is not healing for them at this time.”
Yes. Forgiveness is important. Forgiveness takes time. Forgiveness does not come right away.
Forgiving does not mean forgetting. It does not mean agreeing to remain in a relationship that damages you continually. It doesn’t mean that everything goes back to the way it used to be.
Sometimes our spouses, children, friends, family or counselors demand that we forgive. Here are some classic demands that people who have contacted the Straight Spouse Network have heard:
“You’ll just have to forgive me. You can’t go on being all angry like that. It’s for your own good.” (note the implicit veiled threat in that statement.)
“You chose to not forgive dad, so we choose to not forgive you for everything you ever did.” (Maybe what you did is difficult for your adult children to forgive, but true forgiveness is not a barter or exchange.)
“Please forgive me and we can go back to the way things used to be, I promise.” (But, maybe the way things used to be weren’t really so good after all. And can you trust someone’s promise when they lied to you before?)
“I can’t help you until you can forgive your wife. Maybe then you’ll understand it’s good for her to be honest about her sexuality.” (Find a counselor who understand why it is good for YOU to be honest about your feelings and helps you deal with them.)
“Christians have to forgive. Jesus said so. What kind of a Christian are you anyway, if you refuse to forgive?” (Many straight spouses find that their religious faith sustains them. Some find that statements like this mean that they are being rejected.)
If someone wants to be forgiven, then forgiveness should be requested, not demanded, and not extorted. It should be requested with an understanding that it takes time. It may take a long time. Healing, safety, security, all need to be established before true forgiveness can be freely given.
If we say we forgive in order to receive help, maintain family relationships, comply with the wishes of a counselor or clergy, avoid further abuse, and then the circumstances which wound us continue, we will be trapped by our own words.
Sometimes other people are really uncomfortable with the truth of a straight spouse’s experience. It can be difficult to be around us when we are more angry than we have ever been in our lives, and the anger remains for a long time. It can also be difficult for others to appreciate or acknowledge just how deep, profound, and smoldering that wound is. We have to learn how to manage our anger, and we often need to seek help from others to take control of our feelings. That doesn’t happen if our anger and reactions are continually suppressed or held up to criticism and judgement.
Picture this – you are knocked down and break your leg. People respond to your calls for help by getting you to the hospital. You get medical treatment setting the break in a position for it to heal. Perhaps you need to remain off your feet. Then you take guided steps, with the help of a cast, crutches, a walker. Eventually you walk again. Then you can run and jump again. Family members take up extra chores, people bring in meals since you cannot cook or do much housework.
Now picture this – you are knocked down and break your leg. People respond to your calls for help by telling you that the best thing for you is to get on your feet and take a few steps and push yourself, no matter how much it hurts. If you show that you can cooperate, then we can get you to a hospital. And if you don’t heal, it’s your own fault.
That’s the difference between asking for forgiveness and demanding it.
That’s the difference between freely giving forgiveness and complying with a demand.
That’s the difference that promotes healing, not rewounding.
When met with a demand for forgiveness, a response that has worked for some straight spouses is to say “in time, perhaps.” That says you are not there yet but don’t discount the possibility that forgiveness may happen at a later date. If you feel that you can never forgive, say so. “I don’t see that happening now or in the near future.” Then tell others what you need from them. Affirmation. Understanding. Time. Lots of time.
Straight spouses who have forgiven their LGBTQ ex husbands and ex wives say that it is the most liberating thing they have done for themselves, as they move forward in a life they never expected. But few have done this instantly. It takes time, growth, and support.
By Bart David
Almost two years into this journey, I’ve come to the conclusion that the decision to forgive or not to forgive can be one of the most personal and powerful a straight spouse can make. While it is a completely reversible decision, it can be a turning point for personal health and development and for the relationship with the gay spouse or ex-spouse. Although every straight spouse is faced with that decision at some level, forgiving or not forgiving shouldn’t be seen as a necessary step, an ultimate goal, or a guarantee of continued peace of mind or amicable relations with the gay other.
My first experience of forgiveness in the context of TGT (Editor’s note: TGT is straight spouse online abbreviation for The Gay Thing, meaning the whole experience of a spouse’s disclosure or discovery) took place a little more than a year ago, three months after my STBX (Soon To Be Ex) and I had separated. In the months after separation, I felt growing anger and resentment directed at her, and deeper pain within myself. I wasn’t able to even look at her without feeling a little queasy. This culminated when an image of my wife’s face, overcome with boredom (to put the nicest term to it) during physical intimacy, arose in my mind. For two weeks I struggled with that image pretty much by myself and sank deeper and deeper into the resentment, dredging up painful things and chewing on them mentally. Talk about giving up space in your brain! Finally, I arranged for a session with my therapist (a hero of mine for twenty years now. He’s kind enough to return the opinion). Towards the end of the session, he asked how I would present myself to another woman, how would I describe myself and I rambled on for a little bit, but reached a stopping point fairly quickly. He asked if I’d meant to say it all that way. “What way?” I asked.
“The first words out of your mouth were ‘I’m not boring.'” I wasn’t even aware that I’d said that. And though I started to tear up a bit at the point he was making, that I am not, nor do I believe that I am boring, I felt a freeing, physical shift in my gut at the realization.