There have been many books written about forgiveness, emphasizing various aspects of a very complex concept. My purpose here is not to add to the voluminous literature on forgiveness but to offer some practical advice about it.
I disagree with those authors who, writing mostly from a religious perspective, state that you cannot heal without forgiving. After working with thousands of clients, I’m fairly sure that most forgiveness occurs as a byproduct of healing rather than a cause of it. Forgiveness is a red herring of a goal that largely impedes the repair process if attempted too soon.
Clinically speaking, forgiveness is almost never a viable topic before the repair process is complete and some degree of trust has been restored. The order of emotional milestones most likely to result in forgiveness goes like this:
- Personal healing
- Relationship repair
- Restoration of trust
It might sound surprising, but forgiveness as an intentional act is not necessary to rebuild betrayed relationships. I have seen a great many successfully repaired relationships with no one saying, “I forgive you.” The decision to consciously forgive is highly personal, a question you must answer within your own heart. The following discussion of the functions of forgiveness is intended to help you arrive at a decision that is right for you.
First of all, forgiveness does not mean condoning or excusing bad behavior. It does not relieve the offender of responsibility for the offense or of accountability for the negative effects of the offense. If you want to repair the relationship, forgiveness does not relieve your partner of earning back your trust through consistent reparative behavior.
Forgiveness means forgoing the impulse to punish, resent, and carry a grudge. If done in recognition of the harm inflicted on the self with consistent experience of impulses to punish, resent, and bear grudges, forgiveness becomes an issue of personal health and well being more than morality. That is how I approach it with most of my clients. I ask them to decide what is best for their health and well being.
Functions of Forgiveness
Forgiveness has two primary functions:
- Religious or spiritual
- Relationship detachment
There are ancient religious and spiritual components to forgiveness as a “soul-cleansing” process. It is beyond the purview of a psychology post to go into that element of forgiveness, except to say this: If your personal religious or spiritual beliefs demand forgiveness, it will be to your psychological advantage to consider it carefully since any violation of a deep personal value brings guilt, shame, and anxiety.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the psychological reality of “soul-cleansing.” But it’s the betrayer who needs to cleanse his soul, through consistent reparative and compassionate behavior. The betrayed needs to heal, grow, learn, and develop more viable defenses, but he doesn’t need to “cleanse the soul” for having been betrayed.
The other primary function of forgiveness is relationship detachment. In the psychological sense most relevant to intimate relationships, detachment from an emotional bond occurs at the point where you become able to think about your former lover without significant positive or negative emotion. In other words, you’re “over it.” That kind of forgiveness is described as bringing “peace.” Unfortunately, detachment through forgiveness is rare.
Intimate relationships typically break up with at least one of the partners feeling dumped or wronged, if not betrayed. Detachment under those circumstances comes at the end of a very long period of resentment. Over time, resentment turns into contempt, and contempt eventually turns into the final pre-detachment emotion of disgust. The literal meaning of disgust is to throw up an ingested substance the body experiences as harmful. And that is a good metaphor for attachment that goes bad. We get the former beloved “out of us,” like milk gone sour, through disgust.
You may recall this common detachment process in an earlier relationship, particularly a youthful one, for which you’ve gained objectivity through the passage of time. If you were dumped when you were young, you probably went through a period of intense grief, followed by resentment (“How dare him do this to me! She was outrageously unfair!”), followed by contempt (“She has a personality disorder,” or “He’s a sociopath,” or “Something is seriously wrong with her!”), and, finally, disgust, when you couldn’t stand to imagine ever having been intimate with that person.
Once the disgust stage passed, you could think of your former lover with little emotion, positive or negative. This process is always long and not usually simple, as so many people get stuck in the resentment or contempt stages without ever detaching. Forgiveness is a more elusive but far more positive way to achieve detachment.
The secret of forgiveness, regardless of whether you want to use it as a method of detachment or as a way to fortify your relationship after repair, is to focus not on the offensive behavior, but on freeing yourself of the emotional pain you experienced as a result of the behavior.
Unless you’re a saint or Mother Theresa, trying to forgive while in pain is like trying to put out a fire in an oilfield without sealing the wells. As long as the pain flows, any forgiveness you achieve will be nothing more than a temporary elevation of feelings that will sink back into a pool of defensive resentment or contempt as soon as the pain rekindles. If you’ve ever tried to forgive while you were still hurt, you probably ended up forgiving the same offense a thousand times, as the pain and resentment kept coming back, without mercy, until you finally healed the wound.
Because the most severe aspect of emotional pain is the sense of utter powerlessness it engenders, forgiveness has to involve taking back power over your emotional life. The format of explicit forgiveness I use with my clients is too complicated for a blog post, but at the end of your healing process, the subtext of forgiveness will be something like this:
“I forgive you for reminding me that I sometimes feel devalued, inadequate, and unlovable. I know that I am valuable and worthy of love, because I value and love others. Whenever I think of how you hurt me, I will value someone or something and show love to a significant person in my life, and that will remind me of how valuable and lovable, I truly am.”
Reclaiming power in this way makes forgiveness relatively easy, once you are completely healed, through core value work. As long as you feel powerless, forgiveness is all but impossible.
How Forgiveness Usually Occurs
If you make forgiveness a goal, it remains elusive, like a carrot on a stick — just when you think you’ve got it, it’s out of reach again. But when you focus on self-compassion and develop your core value, forgiveness sneaks up on you, whether in the form of detachment or, if you decide to repair your relationship, in full emotional reinvestment. If you realize that you’ve forgiven your betrayer, it will be after the fact (of detachment or full emotional reinvestment), not before.
It bears repeating: Forgiveness, in its implicit and explicit forms, is not about condoning bad behavior or letting someone off the hook for it. It’s about taking control of your emotional wellbeing.