Case Study By Frederic Luskin, Ken Silvestri, and Jed Rosen
Learning Forgiveness Peacemaking skills for couples
John Gottman, in his often-cited marital research, found that 70 percent of the problems that couples complain about are present from the beginning of their relationship. Too often, these problems devolve into years of criticism and contempt--which, Gottman found, destroy marriages in the long run. Fortunately, Gottman and other researchers have discovered that, even when partners can't change each other, they can forgive each other. In fact, forgiveness, even in the absence of behavioral change, is a key to sustaining a successful long-term relationship. Since apparently unchangeable characteristics and behaviors are found in most relationships, why not help couples learn mutual forgiveness as an indispensable skill for creating and maintaining goodwill, even if they can't realize their most utopian vision of blissful partnership?
A series of research studies called the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, an extensive, long-term exploration of the healing properties of forgiveness, has explored many difficult issues, ranging from forgiving a child's death from political violence to the letting go of resentment over infidelity. The projects found that people who were taught how to forgive showed statistically significant improvement in physical and emotional well-being. Within couples, the projects defined forgiveness pragmatically as making peace when one partner didn't get what he or she wanted from the other, encompassing injuries as slight as repeatedly leaving a window open to those as grave as causing a child's death.
The findings of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects have more recently been organized by the authors into a therapy approach with individuals and couples. Frederic Luskin conducts training for therapists around the United States and Ken Silvestri and Jed Rosen, each with 25 years or more of clinical experience, have worked to incorporate the teaching of forgiveness skills into their practices. In our clinical work, we've regularly been surprised that clients coming to us have often been to therapists who don't know how to help them forgive and, as a result, have remained stuck in seemingly irresolvable emotional tangles. The following case illustrates a model incorporating aspects of cognitive disputation, narrative therapy, gratitude practice, positive emotion enhancement, and stress management that's designed to help people discover what it means to forgive.
Don and Sara had been married for 25 years and had two children. Ten years before coming to therapy, Sara had told Don about an affair she'd had during the first year of their marriage. She'd quickly discontinued the relationship, but was so plagued by guilt that, 15 years later, she felt compelled to reveal her secret. Don had been stunned by the news, and his hurt and anger hadn't subsided. He couldn't get past his feeling that his wife had permanently humiliated him. Despite the passage of time, he continued to blame her for shattering his trust in and commitment to her.
At the point they came to therapy, Sara's guilt over the affair had morphed into bitterness and resentment toward her husband. She now saw Don's anger as only an excuse to punish her. She complained that his unrelenting criticism had destroyed her self-confidence as a wife and mother. For the past year, she'd refused any sexual relationship with him. "Don says he wants intimacy with me, but he never stops reminding me of the affair," she said. "How can I get close to a person who's so pissed at me all the time?"
Their relationship was characterized by shifts from warm friendship and cooperative parenting to verbal abuse and screaming fights, resulting in polarized standoffs. In one therapy session, Don turned abruptly on Sara: "I can never stop thinking that in those first two years, when I was busting my ass each day …