Relationship Rx: Forgiveness

Often wonder what really makes some relationships more successful, healthy and long-lasting … while others seem so troubled and even beyond repair? BeWell spoke with Frederic Luskin, PhD, the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects, to hear more about his theories on the essential link between forgiveness and love.

How do you first know a relationship is in need of repair?

I am a forgiveness teacher. Nobody comes to see me because their partner is too nice, or because they are too giving. No, I only hear about how couples drive each other crazy. Sadly, people in relationships have a lot to complain about, even if nothing blatantly awful has happened.   

What do we all need to better understand as we strive to improve our relationships?

Whether you are at the beginning of your relationship, the middle, or struggling at the end, you will need to realize that your partner is a flawed human being with difficult traits, and, if you want to be successful in love you need to learn how to forgive those flaws. Practicing forgiveness as early as possible will give you and your partner the best chance to make your relationship a lasting and healthy one.   

According to surprising research, couples who do not acknowledge each others’ flaws at the very beginning of their relationship have a hard time staying together. We’ve all met the new couples who constantly gush about how perfect their partner is, and how lucky they are to have found each other. The positive and loving feelings are healthy and good, as long as you are aware and accept that your partner will have traits that can drive you crazy (when the endorphin high starts to wear off, that is). Couples who are able to see each other clearly and realistically from the beginning end up with a stronger love that stands the test of time.   

… so being “in love” isn’t enough?

There is one inevitable problem of the endorphin rush we feel from a new love: it will only last one to three years. People who are not aware of forgiveness often become bitter when the rush wears off and they begin to truly see each other without the rose-colored chemicals. When this unhappiness lingers it turns into contempt, and feeling contempt is the beginning of the end. 

How can one prevent that downward spiral in a relationship from occurring?

I suggest creating a “relationship-deal-breakers” list — even before your first date. Deal-breakers are things your new companion does that are not acceptable under any circumstances. He or she could drink too much for your liking, lie repeatedly, be unwilling to share expenses, or may not be as affectionate as you like. If you are dating someone who has one of your deal-breaker qualities, you should first make sure you are correct, get support from trusted friends and then talk it over with your companion. If the situation does not resolve after such attempts, you should move on. It is important to note that for some, ten annoying qualities equal a deal-breaker and the game is over, while others can be with someone who has ten equally annoying qualities and have a successful relationship.

If I find someone who has no “deal-breaker” issues … then what?

For qualities and situations that are not on your deal-breaker list, you should practice forgiveness. Successful long-term couples practice it, and therefore I suggest that newly dating people should as well. If you accept your partner’s flaws and are able see their good qualities from the beginning, you are better able to decide if he or she is right for you. Forgiveness does not mean you like everything about your partner; rather, it means you understand your partner is not perfect, and your job is to love who he/she is, not who you want him/her to be.

Can you summarize why forgiveness is so constructive?

When you practice forgiveness you will have less anger, be able to appreciate your partner’s good points, accept them as they are, and ultimately have a long-lasting and healthy relationship — annoying qualities and all.  

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.

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