Ask Dr. Forgiveness

I will be getting married soon. My husband-to-be has had a rocky relationship with his father and there is anger there. Should I ask my fiancé to forgive his father before we are married or am I better off staying out of this?

You ask if you should “stay out of this,” but the reality is that you are in this. Both you and your husband-to-be bring certain patterns to your marriage, some of which will be gifts and others of which will be challenges for each of you. Your fiancé’s anger with his father could be one of those challenges, if the anger is intense and consistent. We all get angry and so my point is to discern if his pattern is something in need of change. If so, his forgiving his father would actually help his and your relationship.

I recommend that you do some pre-marriage work in which each of you explores some of the unhealthy patterns which you have learned when growing up. Each of you should forgive and help the other in the forgiving. In this way, you are not singling out your fiancé as having some kind of unique problem. Your working on this together could strengthen your bond.

The issues of marital partners forgiving people from their family-of-origin are discussed in the book, The Forgiving Life.

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I sometimes just don’t feel like forgiving. What do you suggest when I feel so “blah” about forgiving?

Forgiveness includes our feelings, but it includes so much more than that. As a moral virtue, it includes all that the other moral virtues, such as justice and patience and kindness, include: one’s will to engage in the virtue, one’s thoughts, and how one behaves.

When your feelings are “blah,” please focus on your will to forgive. Your will usually is stronger than your feelings. Also, try to focus on your thoughts (“I forgive Person A for…..”). Try to cultivate thoughts of the inherent worth of the other person, seeing him or her as worthwhile, not because of what was done to you, but in spite of this. Finally, try to behave in a forgiving way even if you do not feel like it. A smile or a kind word to the person is a step in the forgiving direction.

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My mother seems to suffer from excessive guilt. Now that I am adult, she keeps asking me to forgive her for how she parented me when I was a child. I actually see no big deal here. So, do I tell her that I forgive her, even though I don’t think she did anything wrong?

Your mother seems to need your reassurance that you love her and that she is a good person. Her standards for herself are higher than yours in judging her parenting skills. If it were me, I would say something like this: “When people forgive others, they see the others as worthwhile and of great value. Mom, you are of great worth and of infinite value to me. When people forgive others, they love them. Mom, I love you without condition. Now that I have shown the attributes of forgiveness to you, may I make a suggestion? I think that you should forgive yourself for anything you think you might have done that is still causing you guilt. I want you to have peace regarding how you raised me. I think you did a wonderful job of that.”

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When I forgive someone, am I supposed to have no negative emotions at all any more?

Sometimes people think that they have not forgiven if they have some residual anger. I disagree with this. We are all imperfect in our forgiving and when we are treated very unfairly, it is not uncommon to have some anger left. The key is this: Are you in control of your anger or is the anger in control of you? When we forgive, our anger is reduced to manageable levels. After we have forgiven, there still may be room for more forgiving, so please be open to that. At the same time, please do not falsely accuse yourself of not being a forgiver if anger re-emerges from time to time. When that happens, do more forgiving if the anger builds to uncomfortable levels.

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Isn’t anger a natural part of reacting to injustice? When we forgive, do we suppress some anger?

Anger does seem to be a natural part of reacting to injustice. We need to remember that anger can be felt and expressed along a continuum. If the anger is short-lived and not extremely intense, then it can be useful in energizing a person who then strives to correct the injustice. When the anger becomes extreme, both in its duration and its intensity, forgiveness can be one effective way of controlling that anger. Forgiveness exercised in the right way (by not denying the injustice and not denying the angry reaction) can actually reduce the anger. When this happens, the anger is not suppressed, but instead is diminished.

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The Missing Piece to the Peace Puzzle

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