“Without forgiveness life is governed by … an endless cycle of resentment and retaliation.” —Roberto Assagioli
Sometimes the actions of another take on a personal meaning, an affront to one’s sense of what is right. It is not unusual to start thinking in more primitive ways, along the lines of “don’t tread on me.” After such a perceived insult, you might notice thoughts like, “I’m going to teach him a lesson,” or, “I won’t let her get away with this.”
On the other side of this interaction, if you have impacted someone badly, whether wittingly or not, it is possible to get swept up in justifications and self-righteousness (often forms of entitlement). You may think things like, “She’s not the boss of me,” or, “After all I’ve done for this family, he shouldn’t mind me doing something for myself.”
Once the internal (or external) dust settles, we are faced with the bigger picture: we want to deal with others more skillfully, that these relationships are too important to get stuck in divisive thinking, and that there are others involved. In this reality of interdependence and interconnectedness, we may reach for forgiveness. But what does forgiveness really mean? We describe it with phrases like “turning the other cheek,” “letting it go,” and “forgiving and forgetting,” but what if it’s not as simple as that? Or, what if you try this approach, yet feelings of resentment and anger linger anyway?
Due to its historical contribution to American culture and also relevance for those brought up with religion, let’s acknowledge the influence of Christian definitions. In the Bible, forgiveness is portrayed as a choice by personal will to defer to God and release the wrongdoer from the wrong, having faith that God will deal with the injustice. Forgiving other people is a condition of receiving forgiveness from the Lord: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. Matthew 6:14-16.”
This may be an appealing approach to deciding to forgive, and it may even be possible at times. But what about those times when the repercussions are too involved, or the forgiveness does not feel authentic?
Therapeutic definitions of forgiveness add in skill, understanding, relationship repair, and ongoing process along with this intention or choice to forgive. For example:
- Forgiveness involves a dialog either with an internal figure or the actual person (not solely your conscience or higher power) reflecting on the interpersonal dimension and impact of experiencing harm or hurt involving another.
- It is not about releasing the wrongdoer from consequences (though that may happen) as much as moving on emotionally, and digesting the experience with understanding and compassion toward your own suffering and that of the other person.
- It often involves a dialog between parties that may extend over time and aims for learning about underlying motivation (e.g., emotional needs and differing dreams for life), practicing skillful communication, and articulating implicit assumptions about values, relationships, and behavior.
- The dialog aims toward common ground and agreement about how things will change or differ going forward, including individual refinement of how to navigate this situation or relationship. We need to understand and forgive ourselves when we make a mistake or play a part in someone harming us.
- If common ground and safety are not possible, forgiveness may involve letting go of hurt feelings and moving on from the relationship.
I have met with couples where one person spent significant money on a personal purchase (a vehicle or clothes) without consulting their partner, when that money was set aside for a child’s education or a shared vacation they have talked about. As you may imagine, there can be significant emotional needs on both sides of this issue: for autonomy to go after what one wants or for security to depend on a partner for support with shared goals.
How will this couple deal with the repercussions in their lives and relationship? How can they work together, rather than getting stuck in a cycle of attack-defend? Can feelings of regret and compassion help to find a path forward that mends the rupture?
These situations call for a sensitive and nuanced dialog, rather than an abstract (general or impersonal) exchange of ideas and positions. It is helpful if the one who created the rupture can apologize out of genuine learning from their mistake—not that he or she is a bad or wrong person, but maybe that he or she can see the approach or communication was faulty. If we ask for forgiveness without feeling entitled, it may take awhile or may not happen that our partners’ feelings change.
From the opposite perspective, when asked for forgiveness, can you take steps towards sharing your feelings and expectations going forward, to be assertive and willing to move on? Will you allow the other person to see how you have been hurt, and give the opportunity to show that he or she cares?
If this sounds challenging, like an investment of scarce time and energy, consider that forgiveness is a significant part of happy relationships and marriages. For example, in a study of more than 7,000 married couples by psychologist Kristin Mouttet utilizing Dr. David Olson’s couples typology, 87% of couples considered highest in satisfaction and predicted longevity had high scores in forgiveness. On the other hand, less than 1% in the lowest category of relationship satisfaction reported a healthy capacity to forgive and move forward. In other words, forgiveness is a necessary skill for building close, happy, long-term relationships, and our family of origin experience may limit our knowledge of the available response options.
When someone grows up in a family that is authoritarian—inflexible about roles and who is in charge— it may too difficult for that person to handle disagreements in adult relationships. Do you think things should be handled the same way they were in your childhood family? Was power shared? Did leadership roles rotate?
Someone who grows up in a chaotic family that has difficulty making decisions or taking action may pay too little attention to ruptures in the relationship. This passivity can invite dominant patterns from others out of the idea that someone has to make decisions.
If any of this is familiar, think about what you want to carry on from your childhood family and what you want to avoid repeating. Consider embracing the dialog and aiming for both you and the other party to feel good about how you talk, rather than aiming for a particular outcome.
This goes for internal dialog as well. Ask yourself, can I learn from my mistakes? Can I understand what I was thinking, feeling, and needing that made me approach that situation the way I did? Knowing what I know now, how do I wish I had handled it differently?
Understanding and compassionate inner dialog goes a long way toward self-forgiveness. Many decide that the process of forgiveness and the release from hurt or anger are worth care and the time it takes to work through it.
How did your childhood family deal with conflict? Were ruptures acknowledged and repaired? What helps you open up to ask or grant forgiveness? I encourage you to delve into the following resources and to share your questions and comments below.
- Fairchild, Mary. (2013). What does the Bible say about forgiveness? Frequently asked questions about forgiveness. About.com. The New York Times Company. christianity.about.com/od/whatdoesthebiblesay/a/bibleforgivenes.htm.
- Larson P. J., & Olson, D. H. (2012). Prepare-Enrich Program: Overview and New Discoveries About Couples. familyandcommunityministries.org/fcm/index.php/fcm/article/view/9/17.
- McKay, Matthew & Fanning, Patrick. (2000). Self-Esteem: A Proven Program of Cognitive Techniques for Assessing, Improving, and Maintaining Your Self-Esteem (3rd Edition). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
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