The trauma, confusion and heartache of betrayal often get worse before they get better. When your trust shatters, it can leave you spinning for a long time. After a while a kind of desperation sets in to find a way out of the pain.

In the ensuing quest to recover as quickly as possible, you will soon discover, as I did, an apparently straightforward remedy. Most everything you read, from self-help to depth psychology to the wisdom traditions—and just about everyone you talk with—will advise you similarly.

When you have been badly hurt by someone, in order to heal, you must simply forgive, let go and move on.  Just forgive and you will have the magic remedy that will wipe away the brokenness, stop the pain, and give you back your life, or so you are told. What could be more obvious! Encouraged by this chorus of well-wishers, I was inspired, and forgiveness became my new quarry, the sought-after Holy Grail.

Premature Forgiveness Only Covers the Problem

Striving to forgive too soon, or maybe ever, depending on the circumstances, turned out to be a self-defeating quest. Even if we imagine we have arrived at this saintly state of mind, premature forgiveness almost guarantees we will bypass our own suffering.  When what we need to do to move forward is to embrace, not bypass, the pain.

I speak from experience, because, believe me, I tried to forgive.  I fervently included forgiveness practices as part of my regular meditation and prayer times. Sending the man who left me loving kindness and wishes for healing, acknowledging his pain, and detailing my own transgressions became an integral part of my routine, second only to brushing my teeth.  In addition, I spent two years daily working the exercises in A Course in Miracles—the primary focus of which is forgiveness—as well as meeting weekly with a support group.  Despite all these efforts, I still felt horrible.

My traumatized state of mind repelled my exertions like oil does water.  My psyche would have none of this forgiveness nonsense, and demanded more potent medicine.  Outside the time of sustained attention on my practices, and sometimes even with a fierce focus on them, my mind kept reverting to resenting, blaming and hexing him for what he had done. Frankly, trying so desperately to forgive only showed me how far I was from being the spiritual, kind, forgiving person I imagined myself to be.

Forgiveness Grows in Mysterious Ways

When we take forgiveness to heart as an ideal—and who doesn’t want to be a kind, forgiving person?—we may naturally, anxiously, skip over the distressing thoughts and feelings that our soul is calling us to traverse.  Before true forgiveness can emerge from the ashes of broken trust, we need to wrestle with and listen to the messages in our own suffering. This means it may take many years of acceptance of our resentful, miserable, unforgiving selves before the heart softens and forgiveness comes quietly, almost magically, to fruition.

For most of us shattered trust brings with it a call to the work of complex grieving. We must grieve before we can forgive, and there is no timetable for that grief. True forgiveness, as a station of the heart, not simply a movement of the rational mind, becomes then an ideal to aspire to rather than an accessible way of being in the world.We may wish to forgive, even set an intention to forgive, but like so much else that involves our depths, forgiveness grows underground in mysterious ways that are not in our hands.

Meanwhile, let’s direct some of that loving kindness toward ourselves as we pass through this dark night testing and stretching of our hearts.

Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.

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