Written By: Ryan Howes PhD, ABPP
Ever said or heard this?
- “I can’t forgive as long as he’s in my life.”
- “She won’t apologize so how can I forgive her?”
- “Forgive? I'll never forget what he did!”
Three-and-a-half years ago I shared my forgiveness model which is just one of many, many ideas about letting go and moving on. Since then, several reporters have reached out to learn more about forgiveness (here(link is external) and here(link is external) for example). They tend to ask one common question: “How can you forgive if you’re not ready to let the offender back into your life?”
It’s evident that many people misunderstand forgiveness. They assume that forgiveness requires making up with the person who hurt you -- sitting down with the perpetrator, talking it through, and hugging it out. They believe forgiveness is the same as reconciliation. Truth is, they’re not the same. They’re related(link is external), but not the same.
Let’s say a good friend does something horrible. She kicks your dog or kisses your date or destroys your reputation. Then she moves out of the country or ceases all contact. Or dies. What happens now?
Can you forgive? Can you reconcile?
My response: You can still forgive. Reconciliation is a separate issue.
My former professor, the late Lewis B. Smedes(link is external) wrote: “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” Smedes wrote the book Forgive and Forget(link is external) in 1984 which has been credited as the catalyst(link is external) for modern forgiveness research. Holding a grudge imprisons you. Forgiveness sets you free. In fact, the health benefits(link is external) of forgiveness are so clear, holding a grudge seems self-destructive by contrast.
In my model, forgiveness is an internal process where you work through the hurt, gain anunderstanding of what happened, rebuild a sense of safety, and let go of the grudge (more on how to forgive here). The offending party is not necessarily a part of this process.
On the other hand, reconciliation is an interpersonal process where you dialogue with the offender about what happened, exchange stories, express the hurt, listen for the remorse, and begin to reestablish trust. It’s a much more complicated, involved process that includes, but moves beyond forgiveness. Forgiveness is solo, reconciliation is a joint venture.
Said Smedes: “It takes one person to forgive, it takes two people to be reunited.”
You can forgive someone who is dead. Or someone you never see anymore. Or someone who has no intention of apologizing. So apologies aren’t necessary, but when available, they do help.
A few months ago I had the privilege of interviewing prominent forgiveness researcherFrederic Luskin(link is external) for the Psychotherapy Networker(link is external). He agrees that forgiveness doesn’t require participation from the offender, but says repentance can make forgiveness easier:
Certainly, if somebody is really apologetic and takes responsibility—“My bad. I really hurt you. No excuses.” Then forgiveness is easier. It’s not just bad because you got hurt, but I did something wrong. When someone says, “I’m sorry because you’re hurt,” well, that can make the person who’s been injured feel at fault because they were hurt. That’s an offensive kind of apology. It’s different when you say: “Boy, I did wrong, independently of whether or not you got hurt. I also see how that wrong has impacted you, and I’m sorry for that.” So there are two steps—“I did wrong, and that wrong hurt you.” Then the next step is, “Since it’s my responsibility, what can I do to make it better for you?” That’s a true apology, and that makes a real difference.
Another common question involves the relationship between forgiving and forgetting. Does forgiveness mean we expunge the infraction from our memory? Is that even possible?
Smedes said: “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”
Luskin concurs: “It’s actually remembering differently. While lack of forgiveness is remembering something with an edge or a grudge or a sense of injustice, forgiveness means remembering it more benignly, with compassion. It involves some purpose of moving ahead, rather than just being stuck in the past.”
You can forgive your dog-kicking friend. In fact, your mental and physical health depends on it. But making up with her is a different story, one that requires forgiveness as well as her desire to listen, understand, and apologize. To you and your dog.
The point is, the process of forgiveness and reconciliation can be a long, grueling process. Making up may not be possible due to obstacles including participation by the offender. But forgiveness involves only you. Isn't your emotional and physical health worth it?