Focus on feelings helps couples to forgive

The same type of emotion-focused therapy that helps individuals let go of negative feelings or forgive those who hurt them can also help spouses and partners forgive affairs, says York University psychology Professor Leslie Greenberg.

Left: Leslie Greenberg

“There are hardly any treatments for couples which are oriented toward specific betrayals such as affairs, and the focus has never been on understanding the forgiveness process,” says Greenberg. “However, we’ve now shown that emotion-focused therapy is effective for treating couples – promoting forgiveness and reducing marital stress and psychological symptoms.”

Greenberg is one of the primary developers of emotion-focused therapy, a psychotherapy technique that emphasizes understanding and changing negative emotions. In contrast, cognitive therapy focuses on changing thoughts and beliefs.

In a 2002 study, Greenberg and his colleagues studied individuals who had suffered injuries ranging from emotional to physical abuse and found that those who were treated with emotion-focused therapy had much better results than individuals who were treated with psycho-educational therapy. The emotion-focused treatment helped people to imagine their injurers in role play dialogues and to confront them with the hurt and anger they had caused. This enabled them to hold the injurers accountable for the harm done and to let go of the negative feelings and even forgive.

“People in the individual, emotion-focused therapy treatment did better on all outcomes. They forgave more, they had a reduction in psychological symptoms, and they let go of their unresolved bad feelings more,” says Greenberg.

 A study of 20 couples has shown the same kind of positive results, says Greenberg. The couples who took part in the study suffered from unfinished business that they had not been able to resolve with their partners for at least two years. The old wounds came from affairs, abandonment, invalidation, deception, or as the result of alliances or triangles in which friends or family members came between the couple. In this study, more than half of the injured partners reported forgiving their partners and most made significant progress toward forgiveness.

 “We helped the couples deal with the hurt, pain and anger that these injuries had caused, rather than trying to bury the anger,” says Greenberg. “We know that couples’ relationships usually don’t change and often get worse without treatment, and we know that using emotion-focused therapy works. We just don’t know exactly how it works to promote forgiveness.”

In order to find out what steps are necessary in order for forgiveness to occur, Greenberg and his colleagues are looking for couples to participate in a larger study. The emotional injury project will offer 10 therapy sessions to couples who, after two years or more, continue to experience negative feelings that have resulted from injuries such as a betrayal, abandonment, or shattering of trust.

For more information contact Vasanthi Valoo, Psychotherapy Research Clinic, at ext. 33766 or e-mail