Marina Cantacuzino the founder of the Forgiveness Project explores learning to forgive when relationships expand or end.
Beth had been happily married for 13 years when she met, David, a divorced father of two who she fell in love with. All of this was known to Beth’s husband, who she continued to love. For a number of years, therefore, Beth had what is known as a polyamorous relationship, sharing her love openly and equally between both men. Never planning to leave her marriage, she knew that in time David might meet someone else but she imagined that if he did, this mythical woman would also be polyamorous and that love would continue to be shared out equally amongst all. In the event, David did meet and fall in love with another woman whose name was Katie. But, hardly surprisingly at the start of a new relationship, Katie was not going to share her man with another woman and asked David never to see Beth again. David agreed.
So where does forgiveness fit in here? This is not a conventional triangle situation; everyone went into each relationship with their eyes wide open. There are no betrayals or deception– just the ever bubbling mess of human interactions that make daily life sometimes hard to circumnavigate.
“I felt very hurt, excluded, powerless and sometimes very angry,” explains Beth. “But very quickly I knew the only way through was to learn to forgive David for having promised me so often that our love would always endure. But mostly I had to forgive myself for behaving in a totally irrational manner, for being nasty to David about having to make a decision that in the end excluded me, and also to forgive myself for having broken promises too. I had told David, frequently, that I’d be cool if he met someone else – but I wasn’t. Of course my husband, who witnessed my huge despair at losing David, must have wondered whether I would have collapsed to the same extent over him.”
Beth’s story shows how forgiveness in relationship is often the only resolution to a painful breakup. “It has helped that David didn’t stop the dialogue,” she continues. “Although we haven’t seen each other since, we’ve carried on communicating via email and I’ve been able to work through some difficult feelings. In the end I was able to feel genuine compassion for Katie and realise that if I had been in her shoes I may well have felt and done the same thing. It also helped that David found my anger (transmitted through spiteful emails) by and large forgivable. He was hurt by them and for a while they jeopardised any future friendship we might have, but in another way they helped because they made me see the very destructive nature of revenge. Hurt people hurt people. The moment I slid into blame I caused untold damage, not only to David but mostly to myself, and I knew very quickly I couldn’t stay in that place of hate for long. It felt unbelievably dark and destructive.”
When I reflect on this story, it is evident to me that forgiveness is a movement of compassion. Throughout my interview with Beth she spoke of a shift: “I had seen Katie first as a weak person desperate for a rock in her life, controlling David’s free spirit, but soon my heart went out to her. I’d always thought my love for David was unconditional but now with this ultimate test – I’d found it wasn’t. I had to learn to be unconditional by simply allowing myself to let go and to understand Katie’s needs. At this point I no longer looked at David as responsible for helping me deal with the problems in my own life.”
Forgiving oneself means taking responsibility for one’s own contribution to a painful or awkward situation. Without some awareness of one’s own vulnerability and fallibility it would be impossible to connect to another as similar to oneself.
Beth continues: “I don’t see taking responsibility for yourself in a moralizing way with connotations of self blame, the shift is more subtle and involves a recognition and owning of oneself as not the generous, calm, zen-like creature I wanted to be. The path is hard – with much agonising along the way.”
Letting go is a huge part of forgiveness but rarely does it happen overnight. It’s about letting go of expectations, letting go of the desire to make another person ‘mine’, of the relationship special only to me, letting go of expecting another person to behave as you would. Beth also realised that this move to possess or to claim is the very antithesis of the true polyamorous relationship – where everything is out in the open and people take pleasure in, and even benefit from, their partner’s other relationship(s). The late Anthony de Mello, author of The Way to Love, puts it like this: “The final quality of love is freedom. The moment coercion or control or conflict enters, love dies.”
Forgiveness is recognising that our righteous anger to others is not a result of what they do, but rather the effect of their behaviour on us, our position in life and our relationship to ourselves and others.
Marina Cantacuzino’s background is journalism and in 2003 –- in the lead up to the Iraq War — she started collecting personal stories of atrocity and violence that drew a line under the dogma of revenge. The stories led to founding The Forgiveness Project, a charity unaffiliated to any religious and political group, which explores forgiveness and reconciliation through individual real-life stories, and promotes alternatives to violence and revenge. Marina lives and works in London, UK.