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What Learning to Forgive My Ex-Wife Has Taught Me

Read about this author's experience of forgiveness after divorce.
It’s easy to believe in forgiveness romantically. There’re lots of good plots for that in movies and most of us have fantasized about our greatest pains being healed by forgiveness — either in the giving or receiving. I don’t know how often that happens. Perhaps, not much outside of Hollywood. What I know of forgiveness in my own life isn’t romantic at all. As a divorced father of three, I’ve had some time to think about and, subsequently, experiment with this.

When something as massive as your marriage dissolves, it leaves a hole. Where once the defining scenario of your life dwelt, there is suddenly nothing. It’s not actually a sudden process, but it still feels that way when it’s complete. Final. So something needs to fill that space — even if you’re not actively trying to replace it with anything, things slip in anyway. These things include anger and fear and anxiety and a sense of failure and dread and, always, anger again.

I tried to fill that space with other relationships and with career. I’ve mostly tried to put my kids there. They all work a little here and there. They get you down the line. But I’ve learned (recently!) that the hole remains until you do something to heal the wound. It was created in hurt and, as such, there’s really only one thing that can be done.

My pain, my anger and frustration — it belongs to me. I am justified in feeling it, and no matter how healthily or unhealthily I express it, it is still uniquely mine. While I hold it, it can teach me, but it can also keep me rooted in my pain.

We need to evolve — we need to move beyond our pain. I don’t see how this is done until we can freely give away our hurt. It’s probably as great an act of freedom as anyone in any place or time can make. If we are to heal, we need to give away what is rightfully and solely ours in forgiveness. The Latin root for that word means, “to give completely, without reservation.” It sounds like freedom.

But it also sounds terrifying when we need to actually do it. I’ve fought terribly with my ex-wife. I’ve been petty. I’ve allowed the past to color many of my interactions with the mother of my children. I’ve often cast judgment on members of her family. Absolutely none of it helped me heal and less than this helped my children adjust to a new life with two homes. I don’t know what hope I had that the situation might be more positive. And then, something changed.

She helped me one day, taking the kids when I was in a tight spot. When I went to pick them up, I saw a picture of her on the wall of her home. It was recent and she was visibly happy in it. I still remember what that looks like. My reaction stunned me. Before any chance to think and reconstruct and interpret the moment had arisen, I felt happy for her. It wasn’t a negotiated feeling — I wasn’t saying things like, “Well, if my kids will be there half their lives, I suppose I’d prefer her to be happy.” It was just a little smile that bubbled up from a place I’d not accessed in a long time. It immediately felt like a gift.

I started forgiving that day and I’ve been trying to do it a little at a time ever since. There was a time when we would exchange our kids and refuse to look at each other. Recently, we held a party for our twins’ birthday together. We’ve been speaking over the phone and texting plans instead of writing emails as though we were divorce attorneys.

Forgiveness doesn’t erase the past. And to be honest, I don’t think I believe in “forgive and forget.” I forgive because I don’t forget. Because I can’t forget. I willingly, freely, am giving my pain away with each successful encounter. I sincerely hope we become friends. We’ve 12 years before the twins turn 18. And who doesn’t need parents working together for many years after that, anyway?

The stories in the Bible show people being led from one understanding to a deeper one, and then a deeper one still. I’ll bet Peter felt pretty darned enlightened while he walked with Jesus. I’ll bet he often felt free, and yet there was so much more to learn. To unlearn. My story is like that — it’s a journey marked by moments of revelation, just like those people in the Bible. But mostly, the central messages of my faith are mysteries to me. I trip and fall into them more often than I find my way there on purpose.

I’m learning that the person I most need to forgive is myself, though I don’t even know if I can accurately define my offenses. I guess that part doesn’t really matter. Peter eventually had to die to most everything in his early life, most everything he felt was important. In this second half of my life, I hope I can give myself to much of the same.

The Good News is that there seems to be abundant grace for this stuff. Despite my own stubborn actions and a variety of life’s obstacles, somehow this path of forgiveness found me. I stumbled into it, just a guy fishing on the Sea of Galilee without any expectation of something different. No matter how dense I’ve been as it progressed, progress it did. I’m hopeful for what comes next and like to think I’m committed to it.

Admittedly, though, there’s still so much to learn and unlearn. I’ll need more revelation along the way.

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