A second part of learning to forgive involves understanding how we construct a script or story over time about our hurt or betrayal. All our experiences with other people involve a variety of experiences, good and bad, but mostly neutral and even mundane. When we have trouble forgiving someone, we put on a selective filter and select out only those elements of the experience that support our perception of events. Typically, this perception involves recalling the most negative aspects of the other person and their most hurtful actions. We filter out anything positive about the person. Then we select out only the most virtuous and innocent aspects of ourselves, and filter out any personal shortcomings. Thus we arrive at a story about righteous indignation. Bolstered with that story, we seek out confirmation from other people. We look for past “warning signs” that the grievance was fated to occur. We rehearse the story to ourselves subvocally, adding emotional intensity to the story each time.
Luskin says we construct a “grievance story.” This phenomenon has been noted by others as well, however. John Gottman, a psychologist who studies marital failure, says that couples who are heading for marital failure, typically construct a “distress-maintaining scenario.” Instead of forgiving partners for past wrongs, they harbor and nurture resentments. They withdraw from their spouses and rehearse these scenarios over and over in their minds until they feel sufficiently justified to pursue divorce. They literally “rewrite history,” going back over past events and re-interpreting them as an omen of their partner’s future betrayal. Janet Johnston and Vivienne Roseby, researchers who study parents and children caught up in vicious post-divorce conflict also found that these parents could not forgive but in fact, constructed “inner scripts” in which they selectively filtered out events to support a stance of righteous indignation, and that they often rewrote history.
Listen to your own story. How have you selected out the parts which serve your need for righteous indignation?
How have you re-written history? How have you sought to get confirmation from others, by looking for more evidence, telling the story to people who will agree with you?
Consider revising your story. What part of the problem can you take responsibility for?
Luskin, F. 2002. ibid.
Also: Gottman, J. 1994. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, and How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Fireside. Johnston, J. & Roseby, V. 1997. In the Name of the Child: A developmental approach to understanding and helping children of conflicted and violent divorce. New York: Free Press.