Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman
Rabbi Simcha and Chaya Feuerman PR

Attitude Surgery – How to Become a Forgiving Person 

Listen to Michael’s story, and see if you can draw inspiration from his challenge:

Michael absolutely despised his father-in-law, who Michael believed was the most narcissistic and self-centered person he had ever met. In his opinion, his father-in-law was the reason for every wrong thing in his life and his wife's life (though she would never admit it).  

Now his father-in-law has become old and frail – and his wife wants to have him move in with them. 

This is Michael's worst nightmare. The thought of having his father-in-law around 24 hours a day is driving him mad.  Meanwhile, all his wife can say is, “For better or worse, he is my Dad and I love him. I cannot abandon him.”  Michael knows his wife won't budge on something like this. She will have her way no matter what.

In a private counseling session, out of his wife's earshot, I proposed a radical thought: “Michael, have you ever considered just letting go?”  

Letting go?  What do you mean?”  

I explained, “Some things in life can't easily be won. Think about your situation here.  No matter what you do, you will lose.  If you have a tantrum and bully your wife into dumping Grandpa into a nursing home, she will feel constantly guilty and never forgive you or herself.  If you take him in, you will have to grit your teeth every time he does something hurtful or annoying to you or your wife.  No matter what you do, you are bound to suffer.”  

“You're right,” Michael agreed, “and that's why I’m so furious. I’m trapped and it's hopeless.”  

“There is a way out,” I told Michael. “It is inside your own head. You can't change the situation, but you can change the way you feel.  Try to see your father-in-law as he is right now: a relatively harmless old man who needs his daughter's care.  Yes, he can be abusive, and true, you feel he doesn't deserve to be treated so well by his daughter.  But this is what your wife wants.  Honor her wish to be a good daughter and be generous-hearted toward her. You have no choice anyway – so you might as well go along and be a hero. After 120 years, when your father-in-law passes away, your wife will never forget how you stood by her and supported her.  She knows full well how hard it is for you.”  

“Of course you're right,” Michael admitted. “But I don't know how to do it. I can't let go. I am constantly in a rage.”

Michael has a good point.  How do you change a feeling?  How do you let go?

There are three steps to changing your attitude and becoming more forgiving.

1.    See Control as Merely an Illusion

2.    Use Frustration to Create Passion

3.    Become Inner Directed Instead of Outer-Directed

We will also share a number of ideas about the world and about people which can help you develop a broader perspective and make you a more forgiving person.

The Illusion of Control 

Thinking that we can control people is the defective attitude that leads to anger and obsessive thinking.  Consider which of the following situations will make you more angry:

  •     You forget to lock your front door.  During the day, the entire contents of your house were stolen. The place is a shambles.

  •     A tornado hits your neighborhood and blows your house down.  The entire contents of your home are lost or destroyed.  The place is a shambles.

In both situations you will feel distress and grief.  The loss is enormous.  But in the first situation, you will likely feel rage as well.  Why?  

Rage comes from instinct. Just as we discussed in regard to revenge, there is an animal part of our brains which operates out of a survival reflex. Anger and rage come from the  nervous system. Their purpose is to arouse and focus our attention against perceived threats.  

But the anger system only becomes activated when there is a sense that we can control something.  Otherwise, the organism saves its resources, hoping it can weather the storm. 

In the situation where the person left the door unlocked, anger kicks in because he felt it was preventable. The organism is aroused so as to heighten its early warning system.  Next time, he won’t forget.

In the case of the tornado, a feeling of resignation is the stronger emotion, because there was little that could have been done now or in the future to protect the organism or his family.  Better to conserve resources than waste it on anger.

There is a story about a rav in a small town which illustrates this point:

As the rabbi of the small town, Rabbi Plony was the final authority on all religious and civil matters.  Just as the rabbi decided whether the chickens were kosher, if there was a dispute between business partners, the rabbi was called upon to arbitrate as well.  

Yankel the butcher brought the lungs of his prize cow to be inspected by the rabbi to see if they were kosher.  The rabbi gently informed Yankel that the cow was treif, causing Yankel a terrible financial loss.  But Yankel was a good man of faith, and he accepted the rabbi's word and Hashem's judgment. Yankel thought to himself, “If Hashem wants me to have money, He will find another way to send it to me.”

The following week, Yankel came to the rabbi with his business partner.  They had a dispute over several thousand rubles.  The rabbi listened carefully to each person's side of the story, and then consulted his sacred texts to determine the correct ruling.  

Once again, the rabbi had bad news for Yankel: His partner was correct and Yankel owed him the money.  Yankel became furious.  He hurled accusations against the rabbi, suggesting he was dishonest and incompetent in his knowledge of Torah law.  

After listening to Yankel's tirade, the rabbi said, “Yankel, most of the time you behave in a moral and faithful manner. Last week, when I told you the cow was not kosher, you accepted this as the will of Hashem even though it was a severe financial loss.  Today, when I told you that according to Torah law you must pay your partner, you became angry with me.  What is the difference?  In both cases, I tried my best to rule in accordance with our tradition – I mean you no harm nor wish you any ill.”

Yankel replied, “The difference is simple. If Hashem doesn't want me to have this cow, I can accept that.  I owe Hashem plenty for all He has done for me over the years, so if He takes a cow from me every now and then, I could let that slide.  But my business partner is another story.  I can't stand for him to get one extra penny!”

In regard to the cow, Yankel was able to accept and let go.  He did not feel any illusion of control because it was out of his hands.  But when it came to a business matter and a rival, Yankel was not able to let go.  The illusion that he could control matters was too strong. For his business partner to win, while he lost – that was unfair, and Yankel was unwilling to accept that it was out of his hands. That is why he went into a rage.  

We have an obsession with fairness in relationships that is quite unrealistic. Although it is a cliché, truly most things in life are not fair.  Not everyone has the same benefits, pleasure, health or intelligence. But while we all do not have the same exact and equal life circumstances, we all have a decent chance to bring goodness into our lives.  This goodness we seek will not come by weighing and measuring what we give and comparing it to what we receive.  

Think of several athletes competing for an Olympic gold medal.  There probably will be one or two who are more advanced in physical prowess, coordination and stamina than their peers. In one sense, it is unfair.  

Fortunately, life is not a contest in the same absolute sense as an Olympic competition.  In our relationships, if one person “wins,” the other is not a loser.  Perhaps you have to put in more work and effort and receive less benefits than your spouse, so it's not “fair.”  This is not important.  If you are kind and caring without reservation, good things will always come your way.  

One important attitude to change is the illusion of control and the need for fairness. Do your best to obtain the things you want; engage others and ask them to help you.  But do not indulge yourself in the toxic thought that you must have something and that you deserve it.  This attitude will bring your grief and anger.  

When your spouse disappoints you, hurts you, or does not do what you want, it will be painful. Such emotions cannot be erased, nor should they be erased – because you will need to find a way to share them with your spouse.  

However, anger will only be present if you believe you can control the situation. Forget that. A great marriage is built on a foundation of mutual giving, not control.

An Antidote to Power Struggles

Some problems in relationships stem from each spouse being absolutely terrified and unwilling to cede control to another person.  In fact, there is no system known to man that works well with two leaders. Starting from the institution of monarchy through today's democratic governments, power and decision making are parceled to specific individuals who have the final say in their specific area. Power is not successfully shared on an equal basis. There have been a few recent experiments where corporations tried to have two co-CEO’s. They ended in failure.

Spouses need to agree on certain areas of dominance, whether they are along traditional lines or are atypical. One spouse should be given the final authority and responsibility in a particular area. This spouse should listen attentively and thoughtfully to the other spouse’s concerns, trying to accommodate his or her needs.  However, in the final analysis, one spouse is the decision maker.

Here is an example of how one couple handled this, dividing up power and authority along lines of natural talent and expertise:

Shalom and Chanie decided that each person should be respected for his or her knowledge and sensitivity in a particular area. So they agreed that financial decisions would be in Shalom’s domain, while nurturing, parenting and discipline would be in Chanie’s domain.

Shalom told us, “It’s not that I think Chanie is ignorant when it comes to money, or that I am a dolt when it comes to parenting. It’s just that someone has to ultimately make a decision, and it is logical for me accept that Chanie may be more attuned to subtle nuances of parenting issues because of mother’s intuition, just as Chanie should assume that since I am an accountant by trade, I may know a bit more about what makes sense financially.”

Chanie told us, “Sometimes I don’t like the way Shalom decides to spend money.  I think he is a bit too cheap.  However, I can accept it because he does really listen respectfully to my concerns and tries to work with me. Besides, when it comes to chinuch and parenting, he listens to me.”

Use Frustration to Create Passion 

If you ask most people what increases love, they will suggest various combinations of compatibility or similarities.  The assumption is that the more one person is similar to another, the closer they will feel.  It is natural, then, for us to expect the people whom we love to behave like us.  

Love may indeed come from a sense of sameness or shared experience. But where does passion come from?  Do you remember the early days of your courtship, when you were  both entranced with each other?  It was the feeling that you wanted him or her – but could not get it.  Passion comes from desiring something that you cannot fully obtain. Mishlei (9:17) tells us, “Stolen waters are sweet.”  The Gemara (Shabbos 140b) tells how Rav Chisda instructed his daughters to enhance their husbands’ desire by strategically withholding certain pleasures until a later point in time.

Love grows stale when it becomes boring and predictable. Why do people get bored of their spouses?  Why does love and passion wane over time? The irony is that while we want the people we love to be just like us, when we manage to control and predict everything they do, we become bored and restless. Real passion comes from the aching feeling of unfulfilled desires.

The implications of this are vast. Once you begin to work on ferreting out any illusions of control, the fact that you cannot always get what you want will reignite your interest. You will see your spouse with new eyes. You want his or her affection; perhaps you need it and must have it – but you can't force it. When you stay in touch with that feeling, the passion becomes powerful.  

The feeling of danger and risk, the realization that you may not get the love you want, does not have to be frustrating. It can be a sweetly delicious feeling of helplessness, yearning and anticipation. When your spouse actually does respond to you with love, it will evoke powerful feelings of gratitude and attachment.

Every time your spouse frustrates you by not doing what you want or thinking the way you think, push away those destructive, controlling impulses. Instead, look at him or her with new eyes and respect.  Here is someone you cannot predict or control.  You will have to use your charms to court him or her.

Become Inner Directed 

A moral person behaves in accordance with his or her principles, not based on outside pressures.  Truly great individuals have distinguished themselves in history by behaving in accordance with their moral sense instead of the outside world's expectations.

Love is not just an emotion. It is also a decision. If you marry someone, this person becomes your top priority. Making this person happy, showing him or her love, being generous and caring should be an automatic, almost contractual obligation. Just as most consider fidelity to be a non-negotiable responsibility in a marriage, consider being kind, forgiving and generous toward your spouse as a similarly required duty of marriage.  

When you look at your marriage this way, you are on the road to becoming a great and moral person whose behaviors are in sync with personal principles.

Every day, remind yourself that you have a  moral obligation to be kind, generous and forgiving to your spouse.  Remind yourself that this is not linked to how he or she treats you, or how you feel.  It is just the right thing to do.  Upset that you're not being treated fairly? That shouldn't be relevant – because that shouldn't affect your moral obligations.  Being forgiving, kind and generous is its own reward.  The more you do it, the more you will discover that it isn't dependent on what you get from others.  

An inner-directed person is always a winner because success is not defined by the outcome or based on expectations. Rather, success is defined as living in accordance with your principles.  This will bring you to a level of deep satisfaction and peace.            

Rabbi Simcha Feuerman, LCSW-R and Chaya Feuerman, LCSW-R maintiain a psychotherapy practice in Queens and Brooklyn, NY.Simcha specializes in high conflict couples and serves as president of Nefesh International and Director of Operations for OHEL.Chaya specializes in trauma and addiction and is  EMDRIA certified in EMDR and IFS level II trained.They can be reached at simchafeuerman@gmail.com or cyfeuerman@gmail.com

link to publisher website:   https://www.israelbookshoppublications.com/store/pc/Marriage-911-44p788.htm

Join our official WhatsApp group