Jason arrived in my office with swollen eyes. He’s normally in good spirits, a twenty-four year old who is the image of youth and strength. Not today. He recently learned his girlfriend of two years cheated on him. He’s devastated. She wants to reconcile, but he’s unsure what to do. Knowing when to trust and open yourself up again versus cut off relationships is emotionally tricky. We do have rules to guide us on protecting ourselves – common sense sayings such as fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice shame on me – but there’s very little to guide us on forgiveness. Whether it’s a loved one, friend, neighbor, or co-worker… here’s a helpful approach I’ve developed. I call it the rule of threes. Here’s what I told Jason.
Rule 1. Don’t solicit an apology. Don’t fish for forgiveness or hint at it. If you do that, it’s meaningless. You’re doing all the work for someone else. If you get an apology, accept it – be gracious – but not overly forgiving. Hold back a bit. Realize that people offer apologies just to keep the peace or lower the tension or decrease their anxiety. So by holding onto your self-respect a bit more, stretching this process out, it sends a clear message that you don’t want this happening in the future. Be aloof, keep conversation and interactions shorter and wait. Respond to every other text, don’t rush to return emails or phone calls. Set fewer plans. This pulling back gives others an opportunity to think about your absence from their lives, your value, that you’re not easily accessible. Or as Jason said it, I don’t want to be seen as a chump.
Rule 2. Let time pass. Don’t forgive completely… not yet. You’ll likely get an inquiry or second apology. Hey what’s up, been noticing we’re not really as close anymore. You’re always busy… are we OK? This is good news. Now you know that the first apology was genuine. Your pulling back really matters to this person and they want to figure a way to get closer, return to your inner circle. Again, be gracious and tell them you appreciate this second apology or attempt to move closer. Tell them you’re feeling better, but you’re probably not 100% there yet. Stay aloof, and continue to wait it out. The space is important. It provides opportunities for the person to miss you.
Rule 3. Move on and truly forgive. Often a loved one or good friend will approach you yet another time and ask if things are OK between you. They might do something special for you out of the blue or try harder than usual to stay close. It’s time to forgive and forget. Let go of the past and start fresh.
While I was outlining these rules, Jason got a text from his girlfriend. He almost broke rule number one. He’s going to have a tough time juggling his anger with the fear that he might lose the relationship. He wants to respond to the text immediately. Tell her off or demand an apology. Or set up a time to meet and talk more about what happened. None of those steps would actually be helpful down the road. They would reduce his anxiety in the short run, but he’d soon be wondering if she’d cheat on him again. I remind Jason that he has to first have faith in himself, and believe he’s valuable before others – his girlfriend especially – will value him. He shakes his head, asks rhetorically why life is so hard, but to his credit shuts down his cell. I know he’s got a few weeks or months ahead of him that won’t be easy. If he sticks to this plan he’ll have a better chance that a good relationship between him and his girlfriend will develop or he’ll learn he deserves better. If so, as painful as that reality is, it moves him closer to being truly happy.
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