Ask Dr D; ‘I can't forgive’
P: I don’t quite know how to say this, I’ve been practising all the way in the car. It might sound ridiculous to you but the real reason that I am here is that I’ve realised only recently that I just can’t forgive and if I don’t do something about it I will destroy my relationships and probably myself in the process.
DW: That is quite a realisation. You say this understanding about yourself is recent. What precipitated it?
P: Before I tell you that, let me tell you a bit about myself. I am 34 and only recently married. I think the fact that I married quite late also relates to this problem. We have no children. I am the oldest of four. The other three are boys. My parents live around the corner from us. I work as a laboratory technician and have been with my company for seven years.
DW: It sounds like you’re successful at your job…
P: Oh yes. I really enjoy it. I wish I was as successful in my relationships.
DW: You say your relationships are affected because you are not able to forgive.
DW: What happened recently?
P: A couple of months ago my husband seemed less available than usual on his cell phone. He also started coming home late. The reasons were always to do extra work and fear of retrenchment. I was never sure if he was telling me the truth even then.
DW: So you couldn’t trust what he was saying. I’m sure you wanted to believe him but there was some sort of an alarm.
P: Yes. Funny, I had no reason. He had never lied to me, not that I knew of but I could not control the suspicion.
DW: What did you do?
P: I didn’t say anything but I checked his cellphone. I felt bad doing it but when I found several calls from the same number, I was devastated but in a strange way felt justified. Of course I called the number which was answered by a woman … it was awful. I actually couldn’t say anything and just put the phone down.
DW: You felt as if your worst fears were confirmed.
P: (Nods) It took three days before I said anything to David. Do you know what he did? He put his arms around me and said that that was the woman in his team that he had been working with on the special project, that there was nothing between them, that he loved me and I was welcome to listen to him have a conversation with her right now!
DW: That was an unexpected response. Did you accept his explanation?
P: I so wanted to but there is this thing… there has always been this thing… It happened with my brother, with my sister inlaw, with my best friend.
DW: Tell me more about this thing?
P: Okay. So. How do I explain it? Every time I have been let down I can’t let go.
DW: So there are two things deeply affecting you. You may feel let down or betrayed - whether true or not and also it sounds like if you have been let down, you can’t forgive.
P: Exactly. Like this time with David, he has tried to reassure me by calling me often and coming home earlier. He initiates sex even though I know he is tired. Shame … what is wrong with me? He is such a good guy really, I just can’t help my imagination.
DW: What happened with some of your other relationships?
P: My best friend, for example broke my trust … she definitely did. I told her I had had a miscarriage vey early on, I was really traumatised. It was a private thing and I didn’t want anyone else to know. The following week I got a call from another friend asking how I was.
Susan did apologise saying how worried she was about me and that it was not meant to be gossip. But for me that’s it! I will never trust her again and I can’t have a friend whom I can’t trust.
DW: You sound angry but you look sad. Do you miss her?
P: Of course I miss her and I miss my brother Jake and I miss my other sister
in-law Elana and although I don’t really miss my old boyfriend, in fact make that three, I do hate the way those relationships ended in a heartbeat.
DW: So you have ended many relationships with people whom you care about.
P: (Becomes tearful)… and I hate myself for it but I can’t help it.
DW: What about sustained relationships, ongoing meaningful relationships?
P: My parents, both of my parents
DW: Those relationships are very important to you. It sounds like you’re close to them and they live around the corner… but have you never ever felt let down? Have you never had to forgive or sort out hurt? Has it always been all good?
P: Yes, no, well now that I think of it there was a time when it wasn’t good with my father.
DW: Go on
P: This is hard to talk about. I think I’ve blocked it out, boxed it up … ‘cos I love my dad so much.
DW: You love your dad but you do remember feeling differently.
P: You know what, I loved him but hated him too. I was only nine and I knew stuff (cries).
DW: You knew things about your dad which challenged your love.
P: I had to protect my mom. My mom never knew. She still doesn’t know and she will never know.
DW: You have a really painful secret and …
P: My dad was having an affair for a long time. Actually with one of my mom’s friends. I saw it. I saw her leaving the house. I heard phone calls on the way to school. Once I was out with my dad and they met at a coffee shop. And he made me promise, promise and promise that I would never tell. He said if I loved him I would never tell …..
DW: That is a huge burden an unfair burden that you have been carrying your whole life.
P: (Nods) Look it’s over, they are old now. They are very much together. It’s the past…
DW: But for you it’s not the past is it? How do you think this might have affected you? Do you think it could be affecting you now?
P: I know I can’t forgive. Whew, I suppose I have never forgiven my dad ever …
DW: You were scared at nine about loosing the love of your daddy. You would do anything anything to keep that love. You also learnt that people lie and betray and act as if nothing is wrong…
P: That is so true! You know what? I think what I do is leave before I get annihilated again. I think that it is better to turn it in than find out that I have been let down or betrayed.
DW: So in that way you don’t give yourself a chance. You leave just in case… you confirm the probability of a betrayal by leaving.
P: I do.
DW: There is no meaningful relationship where mistakes are not made, where at times you don’t feel recognised enough or you are let down. Relationships grow, develop and are strengthened through facing and dealing with these issues.
P: I know this and I have to act on it. I honestly don’t want to mess it up with my husband.
DW: So what do you think you need to prevent that happening and possibly loosing one of the best things that ever happened to you?
P: A number of things. I have to have a conversation, the most difficult conversation of my life with my father. We cannot have this “open secret”. I know and I’m sure he knows too what happened and I want to talk to him.
DW: What will you say?
P: Not only was it wrong but more importantly it was unfair, totally unfair to me as a child to blackmail me with love… He has to understand and then, you know what I think? I think if he does and I will make him … I can begin to forgive. There is too much good not to love him but I have to face the bad!
DW: That’s the most important thing to understand that good and bad co-exist and that you do not throw away meaningful relationships… It’s a tough process though.
P: I’m determined to do it!
DW: It’s a hugely courageous step something that will change your life.
P: I will never tell my mom. Why should I? There is no reason. My freedom will come from confronting my dad.
DW: What about your husband?
P: I have to remind myself where all this mistrust and suspicion comes from. I also have to let him understand. He is always willing but be even more willing to offer me the reassurance that I need.
You know what, I might even phone my old boyfriend … only kidding!
Two weeks later:
That one and a half hour session propelled me to take action. I honestly had not made the connection between what happened with my father, his betrayal of my mother and my triangulation into it all those years ago and the fact that I was consistently ending important relationships in my adult life.
I had the conversation with my father that night and it was amazing! He was in denial at first, in shock actually but I would not let him off the hook. He literally begged for forgiveness. I’m excited by this feeling of liberation and truly believe my life will go forward differently.
Pam was insightful, aware of the effect of her own actions on her life and ready to take responsibility. The movement in one session was astounding as she was so mindful of the potential of her destructive thoughts and behaviour regarding her marriage. With minimal but focused exploration and interpretation, she uncovered the most painful of memories. Usually it takes some time to sit with a memory, explore the circumstances and feelings long before envisaging a reparative action plan. Not so for Pam. She wanted to move on and she did.