ERP 123: Forgive For Love With Dr. Fred Luskin [Transcript]

ERP 123: Forgive For Love, With Dr. Fred Luskin

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Welcome to The Empowered Relationship Podcast, helping you turn relationship challenges into opportunities and setting you up for relationship success. Your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, is a licensed psychologist and relationship coach who shares valuable tips, tools and resources for you to dramatically improve your relationship.

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Hi, thank you for joining today’s podcast episode. Today’s episode is 123, Forgive For Love, With Dr. Fred Luskin. I am always so grateful to spend this time with you on the Empowered Relationship Podcast talking about relationship, how to expand our capacity for love, and growing in intimacy and connection, as well as being able to handle, being more resilient in the challenges, perhaps even using what gets activated for growth and development, and creating stability and security in our love connection, be it a marriage partnership, long-term relationship. That is the goal on the Empowered Relationship Podcast.

I always appreciate hearing from you; if you have a question or if you would like laser coaching, if you would like to be on this show and receive live, laser coaching, you can find the ways to submit a question and ask to be on this show on my website, which is Click on Contact and you can find the details there.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking about a promotion that I have going on right now, and I’m gonna be giving it for, I believe, only one more week. That is a 20% discount on my Connected Couple program. So stay tuned, towards the end of the episode I’ll give you the code and talk a little bit more about how you can find that information.

Let’s get started with today’s episode – again, this is 123, Forgive For Love, With Dr. Fred Luskin. Dr. Luskin founded and currently serves as Director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Projects. He is also Senior Consultant in Health Promotion/Wellness at the Stanford University Health Center and Department Chair in Clinical Psychology at Sofia University. At Stanford, Dr. Luskin teaches classes on Positive Psychology, The Art and Science of Meditation, Forgiveness, Wellness, Flourishing and The Psychology of Storytelling to undergraduate and graduate students.

To many organizations all over, Dr. Luskin conducts numerous workshops and trainings in relationship enhancement, stress management, emotional intelligence and positive psychology.

Dr. Luskin is the author of the best-selling books “Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness” and “Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Happy Relationship.”

I am super excited to share Dr. Fred Luskin with you today, as he was a professor of mine and I believe deeply in his work.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: One of the things I really love about your work is that it runs such a spectrum, right? You help people with the more positive aspects of life, but also your work touches on very deeply serious, painful, and it has such utility in many different settings. Then the other thing that I really love about your work is that you distill such a seemingly huge construct into very simple terms.

I actually did a research project in my masters program on forgiveness – I think it was like a 25-something page that was a full-on research paper, and I don’t even think after that point I could have told you a clear, concise definition of forgiveness. It felt like everybody had their own definition, and I feel like you do such a great job at that.

Dr. Fred Luskin: You know, Jessica, thanks… And when you talk about forgiveness, distilling complex information and making it possible for people to understand, that was the charge that we set for ourselves in the Forgiveness project. We really understood that this was a complex, misunderstood subject that both the denial of it in the therapeutic realms and the making it mysterious in the religious realms – both sides took it away from something that was just doable. So we spent a good deal of time talking about processing, practicing a bit, how do we make this simple? How do we  make it so it’s worth doing?

What we did – and what I did – was take very simple psychological constructs and just adapt them a little bit towards forgiveness, which had never been done. But the whole point was – I remember that we’d say to each other that KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) – that’s crucial to our intention.

I’ll go to all sorts of places – I recently gave a talk in San Francisco for a bunch of mediators, and I’ve given talks to church people, and doctors, all sorts of people, and the reason that, again, you responded, but what we try to do with the Forgiveness Project was make it simple and applicable, so that it doesn’t take some sophisticated, fancy interpretation.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right, that’s difficult to apply, right? If it’s not digestible and being able to integrate it, it’s really hard to practice. So for people that are not familiar with the Stanford Forgiveness projects, can you help — how do you guys define forgiveness?

Dr. Fred Luskin: The definition we’re at now is even simpler than the one that you would have read in the book that I wrote. We now define it as making peace with the word No. That’s in the book, but it’s not quite as certain as it is now… Forgiveness is when a desire of ours is thwarted. Even if we don’t recognize it’s a desire, we know that it’s a desire because we have such outrage when it’s thwarted. And forgiveness is the antidote or the alternative to a hissy fit when a desire is thwarted. So you could say that your husband cheated on you – and I’m not advocating that… Unless some people want their husband to cheat on them because they don’t like their husband and then it’s an excuse to get rid of the bum… But generally speaking, people don’t want their partners to cheat on them; underneath that is a kind of desire system that “My husband should be faithful and I could trust him” and all that stuff. That’s all fine, but when that gets violated, it’s natural to have a reaction; I just shortened that into a hissy fit, but it’s a colloquial way of putting it. And then after a while, that hissy fit needs to resolve itself, and forgiveness is the process of resolving that hissy fit, of going from upset, angry, depressed – even rightfully so – to back at peace. That’s all it is – it’s an internal cognitive affective storytelling process of going from reactive when what we want is thwarted, to again, returning to a state of equilibrium around our life.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right. I love how just peaceful and succinct you describe that… Yet, Fred, I have to say – I remember in one of the classes that I took from you, I think it was like one of the first or second lectures, I remember most of the students in the class trying to poke a hole in what you were describing… “Well, what about this?”, and trying to throw out the most severe grievances that they could think of, and I remember your demeanor never shifted, and that it actually applies to every aspect or thing that people were coming up with.

Dr. Fred Luskin: Jessica, I have worked with people who have had their children murdered, I’ve worked with people who had family members killed at 9/11, I’ve worked with families who were wiped out in Sierra Leone, in the violence; we’re about to start a project in Libya… The number of ways that human beings are horrific to each other is pretty close to endless. When it comes to one person’s experience, nobody wants anybody in their life harmed. Nobody. And it’s unimaginably painful to sit in a group of people who have had members killed; it’s almost shocking to recognize how often this happens in this world.

There’s a level of compassion and understanding as an overlay, but when you’re looking at one person, whether it’s “Somebody cut me off in traffic” or “Somebody murdered my child”, it’s still the same basic problem that I couldn’t get what I want; the same issue is at play, and that issue haunts human beings all the time.

The question is not “Is that good/pleasant?”, it’s awful; the question is “How long does it take for our brain and (I’m gonna say) our soul to recover from that? Because it’s gonna be upset and disrupted horrifically. But the forgiveness thing is bringing it back… Bringing it back from all the ways that we argue and fight and complain, until that gets soothed enough that you don’t need to fight basically your own life to be in that life.

So yes, people used to all the time ask me about the Holocaust. I remember it’s not quite as much because forgiveness is a little more out there, but people would say all the time “Well, could you forgive Adolf Hitler?” I remember thinking to myself “Well, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know, I’ve never met Adolf.” And I don’t mean this dismissively, just I don’t know. Most people would not have asked that question if they had known that I personally had had relatives killed in the Holocaust, but that’s a regardless question.

So some of the times I would respond to people “You know, if that’s too big for you (which it might be; just too horrific), forgive everything else.” Don’t use that as an excuse not to forgive, but say “This mountain is too high for me to climb; I can’t climb Everest, but I can climb Mount Marcy in New York. So climb Mount Marcy. Go ahead. That’s one answer.

The other answer is that even though the thing that happened is mind-boggling horrific, the truth is there are many people who have actually had that direct experience of having family members murdered in the Holocaust, and moving ahead with successful lives. And there are people who have had worse experiences happen to them in other parts of the world, and we can’t allow all of these atrocities to form a foundation of “We’re never gonna get over this stuff.” That’s even worse.

Again, my mother did have family members killed in the Holocaust, but if you bring the family members from [unintelligible 00:14:25.05] the Japanese raped 300,000 women in the span of two or three months, or the [unintelligible 00:14:34.27] about a million people killed in eight weeks, and the Holocaust, and the Russians, where Stalin killed 10 or 20 million of his own people – if you brought all that together and you simply said to each group – “Yes, this is too bad to let go of”, there’d be no room left. We’d simply weave a web of endless pain and hatred, and that’s not sustainable. It’s not sustainable for a world, which is why I believe that [unintelligible 00:15:15.18] said “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” It’s for each of us – without forgiving the stuff that we think continues to harm us, we don’t have the same amount of future; we’re still living in the past.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right, and as this relates to relationship, taking it more specific to the romantic marriage or partnership, this can be incredibly toxic to have this framework that it’s completely damaged and not able to recover from whatever the grievance was.

Dr. Fred Luskin: I have this image in my head… A long time ago – probably 30 years ago I had a friend who was just about to start dating a woman, and he was talking to me about all the baggage that she had; he was a little concerned, and I’m gonna say… I don’t know how old he was, but he was somewhere in his early 30s, I’m gonna guess, and he was a little anxious because of all the baggage that she had, all the bad relationships, maybe she was married once before… But the image that came into my head was two people, him and his woman, facing each other, with each having 12 pieces of luggage between them. So he’s looking out behind his 12 pieces of luggage, and she’s looking out behind her 12 pieces of luggage, and between them are 24 pieces of luggage and they can barely see each other. That’s the damage.

If you hide behind your wounds, first of all people can’t see you, and you really can’t see them. So what a terrible way to hold your relationship.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right. As you said a moment ago, the quote of “How do we have a future if we can’t even see each other?”

Dr. Fred Luskin: You do relationship work, so you know what it’s like, and it’s striking to me because doing the work that I do, I’ve met so many people… But probably the largest single category of people who have come to my forgiveness classes are women post-40, whose partners have either found a younger model, abandoned them, lied to them, cheated to them, drank – whatever it is; and then they’re stuck at 48 or 52 or 54 or whatever it is, without the partner, with more responsibility for the children, and often very bitter. They placed a bad bet on this guy. And I see that there’s a quality – and I’m not saying it’s not heart-wrenchingly painful, but I see the bitterness, and it’s very hard to get under that bitterness to ask simple questions, like “Well, what were you doing with that person?” or “What were the signs that you ignored?” or how did you think even the simplest thing that if 50% of relationships end in divorce, you live in a culture that doesn’t do relationship well, so how can you be that shocked when it happens to you? Just probing questions of personal responsibility, and how hard that is.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Do you find that people are able to respond to you, or is it — I mean, I imagine it depends; like you were saying, there’s an interim phase of hissy fitting that’s actually normal and healthy and natural, and that it has its process. But then at some point there gets to be a almost ruminating or perpetuating the story and reliving and holding on to that pain and this bitterness, so to speak… What makes it hard to be for people to be receptive to those questions? Can you speak to that?

Dr. Fred Luskin: I think there’s some data that looks at — I can’t remember if it’s just divorce, but certain kinds of modest trauma; not surviving a terrorist attack or being in a plane crash, but modest, normal trauma… It suggests that if you’re still very angry six months after the experience happened, that’s a bad prognosticator; anger is meant to be a kind of short-term defense against both seeing your complicity, or starting to work on your own reactivity.

I think along those lines, so if I meet somebody who is two years out from when hubby walked out and they’re pissed, I don’t think that’s that adaptive. If they’re three months out from when hubby walked out, that seems to me perfectly within a sweet spot. So if somebody is three months out, I cannot challenge anything about it because that’s normal grief. If somebody is a year and a half out, I would challenge that a lot. So part of it is just proximity to the experience.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Gotcha. And I’m almost listening to your friend and I’m — as you’re talking about the couple, the memory that you had of this gentleman talking about his concerns and the luggage… When you were talking about that I was like, oh, I wonder if vulnerability isn’t a — I imagine there’s some components that are involved in forgiveness, and I guess I was imagining some vulnerability tha twould require just really accepting and being seen fully, without trying to hide, conceal and all that.

Dr. Fred Luskin: I’ll answer that, but I’ll add two other things. I think the whole issue is about vulnerability, Jessica. It’s one of the things that I now understand deeply as key to this whole issue that I didn’t understand that much then. We’re all vulnerable to so many things, and we wanna keep that awareness from our consciousness. So one of the ways that we keep our awareness from that is first of all we ignore it. Secondly, as the cognitive psychologists talk about, we have all these cognitive distortions; we invent rules for other people, we invest fantasies about how life is supposed to be… Because we don’t want to face our lack of control and influence over things, and that is legitimately terrifying.

So when somebody’s husband or wife or partner has an affair, it triggers into this deep well of fear, of lack of control and of deep vulnerability, and I believe the less well put together we are, the harder it is for us to handle that. So what we do when this vulnerability is triggered is we react as we should with grief and outrage and fear, but if we’re not careful, we identify the whole problem in the person or event that hurt us, rather than seeing that we’re always vulnerable, that our partner can always leave, or if they don’t leave, they might die, of if they don’t die, they may lose interest in us, or they may get sick.

This world, as the Buddhists have shown, is so much less stable than any of us think. So the problem when forgiveness comes is we’re unwilling usually to sit with our vulnerability and use that to hold the specific pain of the experience, and instead we spend all of our energy making whatever happened to us [unintelligible 00:24:53.09] That’s where the whole focus goes, it’s all projected outward, and therefore we can’t actually address the problem. It’s to some degree developing resilience and depth inside of us to handle how many times life will confront us with these kinds of issues. So I think that vulnerability is key to this whole piece.

The other two things that I was gonna add to you is that in terms of relationships, human beings make two central mistakes. One, when they commit to somebody, they’re committing to their good points and their bad points. This is an amazing error that we all make. We think we’re just committing to their good points, and somehow they can eliminate their bad points. I remember once reading a book by a nun who was talking about how she could handle the life in a monastery – and I would wonder that too, because that would be beyond my ability, but she said “When I took the vows as a sister, I realized that I was agreeing to everything that happened in the future.” That’s too strong for me, but that’s what a marriage is. You’re not just agreeing to the pieces that you like, or the nice parts of your partner, or the easy stuff; you’re agreeing to the whole enchilada. I do not believe that we do that with any understanding in our culture.

And the second piece that’s a huge problem in this whole issue with relationships in general is every single human being is deeply flawed, and what we’re actually looking for in a relationship is somebody that we agree to take on the flaws of… That we actively understand that everybody has flaws and we’re choosing to be with this person’s flaws. Those are the underpinnings of relationship. When you haven’t done that, when things go wrong, your reactivity is so much greater and so much less centered than if you’ve understood those two points.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: So well said… I love it, I love it. And so much of this seems probably so interconnected, because as I’m listening to you I’m like “Acceptance seems like such a –” I know you’re talking about acceptance, but I’m just using the word “acceptance” – do you like that word for…?

Dr. Fred Luskin: Well, of course.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay. And you know, if I think about a relationship, and you’re talking about flaws that a partner may have and coming to terms with that and not trying to fight them or control them or try to change them, that when it comes to things that — I’ll just use myself as an example… If it comes to things that are impacting me, and things that I’m not a fan of or I’m not okay with, then that probably invites a level of needing to accept boundaries, or for me to be able to take care of myself rather than feeling like he is doing it to me. I don’t know, does that ever come up, or is that kind of an extraneous component to forgiveness? What do you think?

Dr. Fred Luskin: Again, whenever they do questions or surveys about what makes successful long-term relationship, forgiveness is always on that list. And it’s more basic than I think you’re describing it in terms of boundaries. Those are all things that need to be worked out, but the deeper question and the deeper preparation is “I’m joining with a wounded, imperfect person.” That’s the absolute bottom line of relationship. That every person that I join with is flawed and wounded and imperfect; that’s one piece of it.

The other piece of it is I’m flawed and wounded and imperfect, so I’m not gonna see them clearly, because I have wounds and flaws and imperfections. So you’re dealing with two people who have the capacity to drive anyone crazy, and their own almost assessment, visionary flaws that don’t even see the world accurately.

What is even deeper than what you’re saying is a very basic, implicit, compassion forgiveness that starts at the beginning with “This is hard. It’s a real challenge for two people, and I have to understand that from the beginning and be gentle towards us both.” It’s not just defining boundaries or working stuff out; that’s essential too, but it’s not as important as what I’m saying, and one of the things that I found is when I talk to older couples, not couples your age, and even older than my age, is they understood the flawed nature of their spouses implicitly, and loved them anyway. They understood something that was lost in the generation or two, in terms of our sense of entitlement.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a consumeristic kind of — I know that sounds really bad… But we want to have our marriage or our relationship provide something for us, and I love what you [unintelligible 00:31:21.10]

Dr. Fred Luskin: Well, it should. It should provide something for us, but what it also needs to provide for us is training and for us to grow as people who can love. What we emphasize in our culture is assertiveness training, getting what you want training, how to fight training, and that’s different than I believe the deeper qualities that allow us to really grow, which is self-control, compassion, forgiveness, kindness… Those are the skills that aren’t as much talked about, and I think those are more important. If the figure-ground of those is switched, then you can negotiate boundaries more skillfully.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I totally hear and I totally agree with what you’re saying, because the way I’m feeling it is if I can move from that underlying center point, my questions, my approach will be very different if I have that compassion, that we’re both human, we’re both fallible and we’re both trying, and that if we can have that awareness and move through, from that place the orientation is so different.

Dr. Fred Luskin: And I’m not saying it’s easy, but I believe at some level of my being that marriage and relationship can be used as spiritual practice for us to grow in our own dealing with reactivity. Now, that doesn’t mean that you let your partner abuse you or drink themselves to death or hurt the kids or any of that stuff, but most relationships that’s not what they fall apart on. They fall apart on more – and you know this – arguing about money and sex and control, and all that is fine if there’s a little bit of pixie dust which I call forgiveness mixed in from the beginning, which is “I forgive you for being your pain in the ass self.” You hear what I’m getting at, right?

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I do, I do… That on the onset there’s an awareness around “I’m saying yes to all of you”, and even maybe even a sense of humility that we’re both gonna misstep, and that even before it even happens we can perhaps have this mindfulness around accepting that and having some grace in that.

Dr. Fred Luskin: The practice that I do in almost every class that I do is for people who are in any kind of long-term relationship, which I’m gonna say is like anywhere around five years and out, is “Can you believe that somebody can actually put up with you?” How is that possible? Look at all the ways that you are selfish and annoying and disrespectful, and all the things we all are, and just think somebody is willing to come home to you. If that isn’t enough to make you kiss the ground with thanks, you’re not seeing things.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: [unintelligible 00:35:12.12] “I wanna call my husband and just thank him.” For sure, for sure…

Dr. Fred Luskin: But you see what I’m getting at – it’s a flip in orientation from kind of self-absorbed narcissism, to seeing the relationship from a forgiving point of view. It’s a basic take on it. Can I just hold some degree of humility, so that I have this outlook, that except for major deal-breakers or a decision that this person simply isn’t right for me, I’m gonna do my best to be gentle around their flaws, which are numerous.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, and as you’re talking, Fred, I’m listening and I’m like “Okay, so this is probably preventative, right?” That if there isn’t this entitlement, then some of the upset will be prevented from this outlook. Is that what you see?

Dr. Fred Luskin: Right. And the last piece that I will talk about is, again, related to forgiveness in couples – it’s really a decision. Sternberg’s triad discussion of what makes a successful relationship, that one piece is friendship, one piece is passion and the other one is commitment… And the commitment piece is essential for a long-term relationship. And as part of commitment, forgiveness is one of those parts of commitment. It’s just part of that furniture – if you’re committed to somebody, then at an existential level you’re offering forgiveness, because you have to, first of all.

But the key piece is to remember that until and when a deal-breaker comes, or you know, “It’s just not the place for me anymore”, the commitment requires some degree of forgiveness; that’s just what commitment means.

I see how badly we are educating people about really what it takes to maintain a long-term partnership; that’s my old person kind of lament about all this.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Right. I feel like this is extremely helpful even for me, and I’m swimming in this all the time and I definitely — even in the curriculum of my program I have forgiveness situated towards the two thirds, and it comes from being able to clear and make amends and really come to peace. These principles are there, but it’s not on the front-end.

Dr. Fred Luskin: Exactly.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Okay, Fred, so how can people come and get to know your work more, get in touch with what you’re up to?

Dr. Fred Luskin: I’ve written two books on forgiveness – “Forgive For Good” about general forgiveness, and then “Forgive For Love” about the topic that I just brought up to you, forgiveness in couples. Those are very full descriptions of my work.

Those books have been helpful to so many people, because again, Jessica – you heard me speak a decade ago at school… I’ve really tried to make this simple.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yeah, and I will make sure that those books are on the show notes and they also know you have some videos on YouTube.

Dr. Fred Luskin: Actually, probably more than a hundred videos of me on YouTube.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: I love it. Well, thank you so much for sharing with us today; I know this is incredibly important, and I know that people will get a lot of value from this episode.

Dr. Fred Luskin: It was fun to chat with you all these years. Thank you so much!

I was reflecting on the comment that I made in the interview about situation forgiveness in the Connected Couple program towards the two-thirds mark, and after I thought about it a little bit more I realized module one actually deals with our expectations about marriage and relationship, as well as our significant other, and looking at our beliefs, be it conscious or unconscious, about what relationship should really be like, and our paradigm around what to expect, and really looking at the developmental process and creating a roadmap. So I believe that forgiveness and this orientation that Dr. Fred Luskin is inviting us into really fits well with that.

I hope you have found value in today’s interview with Dr. Fred Luskin. Again, you can find the links to his books, as well as other topics mentioned, on today’s show notes. Again, this is 123, Forgive For Love, With Dr. Fred Luskin. And my website is; you can find the show notes and podcast episodes on the link titled podcast.

If you are inspired and motivated to take action in developing your relationship, so that you can experience more connection, more love and happiness with these principles, check out the Connected Couple program. You can find the information by going to, and you’ll find all of the details there. And for one more week, you can use the promotion code of 20% off by putting in the code “fall2017” in the checkout cart.

If you have any questions or wanna find out if this program is a good fit for you, you can e-mail me and we can hop on a call together. I’d be happy to discuss more details with you. Again, my e-mail is

I wish you all the best, and until next time, I hope you take great care.

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