A couple of weeks ago, I revisited the topic of contrition (see: Contrition Revisited) and the crucial role it plays in the mending of broken relationships. But contrition alone is not sufficient to rebuild a healthy and loving relationship. Contrition must necessarily be accompanied by repentance. The two are inextricably interconnected. And just what true repentance entails from a psychological perspective is worth some further discussion.
Repentance is not so much a feeling or sentiment but rather a process. It’s the process of honestly and thoughtfully reviewing one’s past actions, one’s motivations, sentiments, and underlying “issues,” and committing oneself to the task of “turning away” from old, negative patterns and making a conscientious effort to adopt and reinforce very different, healthier ways, thus becoming a new and better person. It’s an arduous process. And like all difficult endeavors, it can rarely be accomplished alone. That’s why when someone claims they’ve turned over a new leaf but have not actively engaged in some kind of constructive guidance or rehabilitation program, their promise of reform is likely to prove quite empty.
Unfortunately, too many times, aggrieved parties in dysfunctional and abusive relationships forgive their relationship partners when those partners have not yet demonstrated repentance. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. It’s benefit is primarily to the victim, not the victimizer. The purpose of forgiveness is not to let the wrongdoer “off the hook,” but rather to rid the wounded party of the lasting impact of the hurt they sustained and the additional damage that can be done by letting a wound remain open and fester. But forgiveness in the absence of repentance is not only unwise but also dangerous. When you “let go” of the hurt done to you and blindly resume trusting in the absence of repentance, you only open yourself up to renewed and perhaps deeper wounding. It’s bad enough that even those sincerely working on personal reform will occasionally “slip” and hurt you again, but it’s sheer folly to put your trust in someone unwilling to shoulder the burden of true repentance.
As mentioned earlier, repenting always involves “turning away” from unhealthy, destructive ways, and turning one’s mind, attention, and energy toward healthier alternatives. And as anyone who’s ever done it can testify, breaking old, bad habits and replacing them with new, good ones is a very difficult task. That’s why most sincerely repentant folks seek out some kind of therapeutic or spiritual guidance. Now that’s not to say that the very weakly repentant won’t abuse the guidance process by making the whole endeavor more for “show” than for substance. But even a person strongly committed to reform would have a difficult time achieving it on their own. So, they’ll typically “use” whatever therapeutic process they might choose as both a support and guidance vehicle for change. In the end, the best indications that someone is repenting is not that they’re engaged in a therapeutic process but rather that their ways are indeed changing. Someone shouldering the burden of change not only demonstrates the sincerity of their contrition but also honors the therapeutic process as well as the relationship they purport to want to save. The actions that accompany such reform speak louder than any words and testify to the quality and sincerity of any love they profess for the partner they have wounded. And because merely turning over a new leaf is generally insufficient to repairing the damage someone’s bad behavior has done to a relationship, those actions must always necessarily a person’s humble acceptance of the obligation to do whatever it takes and for as long as it takes to regain a partner’s trust. Contrition, repentance, and acceptance of the duty to make amends go hand-in-hand.
I’ve counselled many couples whose relationships was marred by betrayal and infidelity. One particular situation sticks in my mind. A man came to see me at the behest of his wife who’d caught him red-handed trying to arrange a romantic liaison with another woman online. He readily admitted this behavior but blamed it on a momentary weakness because his wife had not “been there” for him sexually or emotionally during a time of duress. And he insisted he was sorry, that he would never abandon his wife or family, and that he’d rather just put the whole affair behind him and move on but would still be willing to see me because he knew his wife wanted him to do so. He didn’t mention that this latest affair was just the most recent in a long string of similar incident, several of which progressed far beyond the point of trying to arrange a tryst. And he didn’t tell me of all the other acts of betrayal he’d engaged in over the years, or the kinds of deceptions and manipulation tactics he’d used for years to keep control in the family while regularly reneging on his commitments. I told him I certainly couldn’t visit with someone simply to placate someone else. I also told him that as I saw it, there were huge character issues in the family, all stemming from each selfish person’s unwillingness to allow their lives to be guided by a higher governing principle or set of principles. Needless to say, he was neither amenable to my interpretation of problems nor the solution I proposed. One of the family members came to see me years later. It seems everyone was in some sort of counseling, many at the behest of relationship partners, and they’ve all been having the same kinds of problems and dealing with the same kinds of issues despite being involved in therapy for 15 years or more. This family member wondered what it would take for anything to really change.
The story referenced above is not only a testament to both the power and limitations of therapy but also to the importance of true contrition and repentance. For when true repentance is present, a person can use just about any guidance vehicle you can think of to help accomplish the goal of personal reform. But when a person is neither contrite nor repentant, no amount of therapy is capable of making a difference. Therapy provides the tools. It’s how a person can go about the process of improving their life. But the decision to do better and be better is a matter of the heart. It begins with “metanoia” or a change of heart and mind – a change inextricably bound to the experience of contrition and the process of repentance. In my book The Judas Syndrome, you can find numerous other examples of the crucial role contrition and repentance play in restoring health to relationships.