When I discuss the theme of forgiving people who acted unfairly, I sometimes get this response:
What you are proposing is dangerous. It makes no sense to forgive. Forgiveness lets my guard down. I then am vulnerable to the abuses which I suffered before. No, I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.
The above statement, which is quite common, confuses what forgiveness is and what reconciliation is. Forgiveness is a moral virtue in which the offended person tries, over time, to get rid of toxic anger or resentment and to offer goodness of some kind to the offending person. Reconciliation is not a moral virtue, but instead is a negotiation strategy in which two or more people come together again in mutual trust.
All moral virtues concern the inner quality of goodness and the possible outward manifestation of it. For example, the moral virtue of justice has the inner quality of knowing what it means to give people what they deserve and the outward manifestation of being fair. If you sign a contract with a bricklayer to pay $1,000 for a new wall to be built, you first have the inner intention to pay for the work. You then follow through outwardly when you exercise the virtue by paying the bricklayer once the work is done.
If the bricklayer, for some unexplainable reason, leaves the United States never to return, and gives no forwarding address, you do not then exercise the outward manifestation of justice. You do not pay the $1,000. Yet, you have exercised the moral virtue of justice because you have the inner quality of fairness and the intention to pay.
It is the same with forgiveness. You start with the inner quality of a motivation to rid yourself of resentment and the inner intention to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, then you do not exercise the outward quality of forgiveness directly to that person. Yet, you still can have the intention to reconcile if the person substantially changes and the interactions become safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offending one to other people.
In forgiveness, if a person continually verbally abuses you, you can have the inner quality of struggling to rid yourself of resentment as well as the inner quality of intending to be good to the other if that other substantially changes. Yet, if that person shows you by continued verbal abuse that there will be no apology, no making amends, then you do not exercise the outward quality of forgiving, at least not toward the person directly.
As you forgive in the above circumstance, you do not reconcile.
Suppose now that you decide to make the following rule for your life: I will not forgive if I cannot reconcile. What, then, are the implications for your own inner world, for your own psychological health? In a recent blog post ("8 Reasons to Forgive"), I argued that one of the reasons to forgive is “to become emotionally healthier. Forgiving can reduce unhealthy anger.”
A growing body of research shows that as people forgive by exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness by trying to be good, within reason, toward an offending person, then the forgiver can reduce not only in anger but also in anxiety and depression and improve in self-esteem and hope (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2015). There are more reasons to forgive than this one, but this one can make a substantial difference to the forgiver’s health.
Why would you not want to become healthier? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you may be inadvertently depriving yourself of a second chance at a healthy psychological life and even at a healthy relational life with others (not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.
The offer of forgiveness can be unconditional, not at all dependent on the other's response of any kind, including an apology. Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is conditional, dependent on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways, change, and even apologize.
How we think about forgiveness matters a great deal. If we make the philosophical error of equating forgiving and reconciling, then we are allowing the effects of an offending person to live within us for a long time, perhaps even for a lifetime if the psychological wounds are deep enough.
Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you so choose, even if the other refuses to apologize.
Enright, R.D. & Fitzgibbons, R.P. (2015). Forgiveness therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.