Forgiving the Ex, Part III
In my last post, I proposed that states require or recommend that angry, divorced parents participate in forgiveness interventions. While many people are probably skeptical of the law’s ability to cultivate forgiveness between divorced parents, lawmakers have already attempted to facilitate forgiveness in other contexts, for example, victim offender mediation (“VOM”) in criminal cases.
During a VOM, the victim has the opportunity to tell the offender how his crime has impacted his or her life. The offender is then given the opportunity to express his feelings and reasons he committed the criminal act. Many crime victims who participated in VOM have been able to forgive their offenders for acts ranging from petty thefts and vandalism to horrendous crimes such as rape and murder of a loved one.
Some of the factors that have made VOM successful as far as enabling crime victims to start healing might apply in the context of divorce. First, just like crime victims, divorcing spouses often feel that an injustice has been done to them. Second, similar to crime victims who have benefitted from telling their attackers how their crimes have negatively impacted their lives, divorcing spouses want their spouses to know just how deeply they have hurt them. Third, in VOM, the opportunity to listen to the attackers’ reasons for their behavior has helped victims forgive. Listening to a former spouse express his feelings and reasons for his hurtful behavior might similarly enable a hurt spouse to feel compassion and empathy, necessary elements of forgiveness.
One might argue that the lessons of VOM are not applicable in the divorce context because, unlike criminal law, in divorce there is no clear victim or wrongdoer. However, the majority of states that retain fault-based divorce (along with no-fault divorce) do not necessarily see it that way. Historically, states have classified some divorcing spouses as wrongdoers and their partners as victims. By making certain acts—such as adultery or extreme cruelty—grounds for divorce, the law has signaled that certain behaviors violate social norms of acceptable marital behavior. Spouses who violate these norms are treated as wrongdoers.
VOM’s lessons might be useful even when neither party is to blame for the breakup (for example, when spouses simply fell out of love or grew apart) or both are equally blameworthy. When spouses have hurt each other, each is likely to feel angry and resentful. To illustrate, even when the decision to divorce is mutual, the wife might blame the husband for not trying harder to make the marriage work while he might resent her for not being more attentive to his needs. These parties need to forgive just as much as the husband whose wife had an extramarital affair. A process that encourages divorcing parents to tell each other how much pain they have caused each other and to listen without interruption might cultivate mutual forgiveness regardless of who hurt whom the most.
I am not suggesting that the experiences of divorced parents are analogous to those of crime victims. Nor am I suggesting that the VOM model would be appropriate or effective in the context of divorce and post-separation parenting. Rather, I am merely using VOM to show that lawmakers have facilitated forgiveness and psychological healing in other contexts. Once we acknowledge that cultivating forgiveness between divorced parents could benefit them and their children and that lawmakers have assumed this role in other contexts, the question might no longer be whether the law can or should cultivate forgiveness, but rather how it should do so.