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What to do about a spouse you can’t forgive

Research by Florida State University psychologist Nathaniel Lambert and colleagues showed that when partners in a romantic relationship prayed for the other, they tend to forgive them.

In other words, the prayer sparks forgiveness in the person doing the prayer. Further work by the same researchers showed that this effect extends beyond romantic relationships.

The scientists conducted two studies. The first experiment involves two groups of people. One group was asked to pray once for their romantic partner’s wellbeing.

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The other group (the control group) was asked to describe their partner, talking into a tape recorder.

The researchers then measured forgiveness. They defined forgiveness as “the diminishing of the initial negative feelings that arise when you’ve been wronged.”

Their results showed that those who prayed for their spouses harboured fewer vengeful thoughts and emotions toward their partners. They were ready to forgive and move on. That was the effect of one prayer.

For the next study, the researchers considered two things. If one prayer could be so impactful, they wondered what would be the effect of praying over a long time.

Also, they wondered if thinking positively about your partner had the same effect as praying.

In the next study, they asked a group of both men and women to say a prayer for a friend every day for four weeks.

The other group was asked to reflect on their relationship and think positive thoughts about their friends; also for the same period.

Further, for the second study, they added another variable: Selfless concern for others. This means that they used a tool to measure not just concern for one person, but concern for people in general.

The researchers speculated that prayers will increase selfless concern for others, then the selfless concern would, in turn, boost forgiveness.

And that was exactly what they found. They also found that thinking positive thoughts didn’t have the same effect as praying.

But why? Why is this simple spiritual ritual so effective? The psychologists reasoned that when we are in a relationship, we usually have shared goals and desire the well-being of our partners.

But when one person commits an infraction or does something that we perceive as sinning against the relationship, we turn the focus on self. This means that we are no longer selfless – at least as far as the relationship is concerned.

However, when we pray for others, the focus is again turned toward others instead of ourselves. This way we can be selfless and forgiving.

We can find equivalents in the religious texts. For example, it appears that praying for the wrongdoers was a shortcut that the messengers of God used to forgive those who wronged them.

We read the prayer of Jesus (may peace be upon him) who said “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they are doing.”

Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) used to pray for those who attacked him. There was a time he visited Taif to get the people of the town to answer his call, but they responded with stones. They stoned him until they broke his teeth. What did he do? He prayed for them.

Accordingly, if you have a child, a spouse, a friend or a parent who has been unkind and whom you want to forgive but you find it difficult to forgive due to the gravity of the offence, simply say a prayer for them. Here is a good start: “Dear God, grant success to X in this world and the next.”

Dooba is a newspaper columnist

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