Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.
A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article inHarper’s Bazaar entitled “How Forgiveness Has Been Weaponized Against Women.” The gist of the article is that as people misunderstand the actual meaning of forgiveness, they can so discourage people from forgiving that emotional healing is blocked. In the case of sexual abuse of women, as Ms. Feldman Bettencourt points out, the “forgiver” is supposed to refrain from reporting the abuse and is expected to go back into the unwanted relationship.
This is far from the truth because forgiveness is not the same as legal pardon (letting the other out of deserved justice), nor is it the same as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the commitment to get rid of resentment as well as the commitment, at the very least, of civility toward the offender and then acting on these commitments. Reconciliation is the act of two or more people coming together again in mutual trust. One can forgive and not trust or reconcile. When these two issues (legal pardon and reconciliation) are confused with forgiveness, then women who have been sexually abused do not have a scientifically-supported pathway (forgiveness) for reducing or even eliminating deep resentment. That kind of emotional disruption could be hers for the rest of her life. In other words, not only is she left with the original injustice but also is left with a second wound of resentment with little hope of relief from it because there are few alternatives to forgiveness in eliminating this inner poison. .
In her article, Ms. Feldman Bettencourt gives stark examples of women who, in the name of forgiveness, think that they must keep the abuse against them secret, thus personally pardoning the offender. One woman who did stand up for justice (not condoning or pardoning) was shunned by her support group because that group misunderstood what forgiveness is. Forgiveness does not abandon the quest for justice. The author’s call is for a clear and accurate definition of forgiveness so that it can exist side-by-side with justice-seeking and not block emotional healing. True forgiveness can enhance the forgiver’s well-being.
Another Example of Weaponizing Forgiveness:
I once was asked to help an organization set up small groups focused on forgiveness in the workplace because there was high tension among the workers. A Human Relations specialist in the company was convinced that adding a level of forgiveness into the workplace would be one strong way of diminishing the conflict and increasing productivity. When we met with the owner of that company, it took him less than five minutes to dismiss the specialist’s idea. “No. Forgiveness is inappropriate here,” he said with cold confidence. “Forgiveness asks too much of my workers,” was his reply.
When we asked him how this is so, he quickly responded, “Look, when there is conflict in our workplace, this is an emotional pain. Forgiveness adds another layer of pain to my workers and so why would I impose this second pain on them? Forgiveness is quite a struggle and we don’t need that at this time.” And that was the end of the specialist’s idea, which as of this writing has not been implemented… and the conflicts at that company continue with no end in sight. What the owner did not understand is this: When there is physical injury, sometimes surgery is needed. Yes, the surgery is an added burden, but it is temporary and restores what is broken. It is the same with forgiveness: When the heart is broken, we sometimes need surgery of the heart to restore emotional health. .
Ms. Feldman Bettencourt sees how the weaponizing of forgiveness can actually hurt women who are trying to heal from sexual abuse. I have seen firsthand how the weaponizing of forgiveness can keep workers from reducing acrimony and striving toward greater cooperation.
The moral of this essay is that to misunderstand forgiveness is to keep people from a scientifically-supported way of reducing resentment and getting on with life in a healthier way. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at our own peril. We misunderstand forgiveness sometimes at the expense of others. It is time simply to define our terms — in this case forgiveness — and lay down the weaponizing against it.
“It is difficult to truly defend yourself when your character is assailed.”
The theme of gaslighting has become popular in the psychological literature. It now is well known that the word “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play, Gas Light, in which the female character is continually falsely accused of wrongdoing, which causes her considerable emotional distress. Gaslighting is present when there are false denials by the other or false accusations toward you by the other. At least 4 kinds of gaslighting are described in the current literature:
1) The other person does a nefarious act and denies it. “I did not steal your money. You must be mistaken.”
2) The other person has a character flaw, an ongoing pattern that is denied. “You keep saying that I neglect the children. Look. I am playing with them now. You do have a way of exaggerating.”
3) The other person accuses you of an act or a series of acts you did not commit. “You skimmed funds from our checking account.”4) The other person accuses you of a serious character flaw. “You are so continuously angry that I can’t stand it any more. I am out of here.”
Ghosting occurs when the other ignores you, abandons you, and shuts off all communication with you.
I have had people approach me for advice when they are the victims of the 2 G’s, both gaslighting and ghosting, a particularly difficult combination because the victims cannot defend themselves as the other accuses and then leaves. The victims are left alone to wonder and to doubt their own perceptions of themselves.
The 4th kind of gaslighting above, the assault on one’s character, is particularly difficult because there is no one concrete piece of evidence as occurs in points 1 and 3. Either the accused person did or did not steal, for example, in point 3. It is easier to verify a one-time behavior as having occurred or not than to defend an accusation of an ongoing character flaw. After all, if one is accused of being overly angry, the victim probably can remember once or twice being too upset or having a bad day. These occasional imperfections, of course, do not constitute a character flaw, but nonetheless might lead to some level of agreement with the accusation, even though it is false. .
Martha sought help because her husband, Samuel, was constantly accusing her of being insensitive to his needs. “You are always wrapped up in your own issues. I try and try to make time for you and yet, when I do, you push me away,” he would say. Martha was astonished by this because she truly tried to focus on him and his needs when he came home at night. He used this accusation as an excuse to leave the home and stayed away for 8 months with no text, email, or phone contact. Martha was left to wonder with no way of working this out with him. “Was I insensitive?” she wondered. “Might I have tried harder?” Her self-doubt led to low self-esteem. She started to lose weight and have depressive symptoms.
Josh approached me because his partner Abby was constantly accusing him of being overly angry. She said that she cannot take all of the anger any more and so she is leaving, which she did. As in the above case, Abby shut off all communication with Josh. Before she left, he asked her for instances in which he had been too angry to the point of fault. She said this before leaving, “Do you remember two years ago when we were having an argument and you put your fist down on the car’s hood? That scared me and I just can’t take that sort of thing any more.” When Josh was about to rebut the accusation, Abby was gone. He was left to think this through by himself. . As Josh realized that his resentment was getting too high, he asked me for advice on forgiving Abby.
The preliminaries when forgiving involve: 1) seeing that as you forgive, you are not excusing; 2) understanding that you may never reconcile with someone who accuses and distorts deeply and consistently; 3) further understanding that you can and should seek fairness. This is especially important if the abuse is ongoing or even deepens.
A beginning part of forgiveness is to concretely explore the other person’s injustice. What, exactly, is the injustice? When did it occur, how frequently did it occur, and how serious is it? As we explored Abby’s accusations, Josh realized the following:
Abby’s final accusation was of an incident that occurred 2 years ago, not at all recently.
His “putting his fist down on the car’s hood” was not a pounding of the fist at all, but a gesture of emphasis over yet another accusation she was making at the time.
Abby could not come up with even one anger-incident in the past two years other than the false accusation about the fist and the hood.
When Josh more clearly saw all of this, he realized how seriously unjust were Abby’s accusations.
Josh then began to explore more deeply Abby’s own life and the challenges she faced. For example, when growing up, her mother faced serious healthissues and so the mother had little time for Abby, who felt worthless. Next, Josh examined Abby’s earlier relationship which ended in divorce. Abby back then was accusing her first husband in a way that Josh now was experiencing.
This exploration set Josh free from his own self-doubts, from his own subtle self-accusations of “if only I had done more.” He could see Abby’s pained life which opened him to forgiving her, not because of what she did, but in spite of this. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s gaslighting. The process of forgiving uncovered Abby’s ghosting which was not Josh’s fault. He was able to see her confusions, her pain. Thus, he forgave her from his heart and, of course, he could not discuss this forgiveness with her because she had abandoned him. Yet, the gaslighting and ghosting did not destroy his integrity and his psychological health. Forgiving helped him to identify the problems and to find a healthy solution to the effects of those problems, the primary effect of which was unhealthy anger and a developing low self-esteem.
Martha had a similar outcome. As she freely decided to forgive and as she looked more closely into Samuel’s life, she discovered, through talking with some of his colleagues and friends, that his accusations and abandonment were hiding a serious drug habit which started a year before leaving. Her examination of his unjust behavior not only uncovered that he was gaslighting and ghosting but also that he was living a lie and was using the gaslighting and ghosting as a coverup. As his drug habit continued, he asked Martha to be his partner again, which she refused given his lack of insight into his own behaviors. Seeing his pain helped her to forgive. Forgiving, which took many months, set Martha free from anxiety and self-recrimination. Not everyone would be ready to forgive in this situation, but it was Martha’s choice to do this.
In both cases, reconciliation did not occur. A person can forgive without seeking to reconcile if such reuniting could be very harmful to the victimized person.
If you are the victim of the double injustices of gaslighting and ghosting, consider the process of forgiveness if you choose to do so. It may help you see more clearly that, in fact, you have been treated unjustly. It may help you to label the other’s behavior as unjust, to see the pain in the other that has led to the 2 G’s of gaslighting and ghosting, and allow you to escape the harmful effects of these dangerous behaviors.
.Betrayal can be very painful and difficult to overcome. When the resentment builds, it is important not to let it have its way. Otherwise, it could live within you for a very long time, chipping away at your happiness, making you mistrustful of those who may be worth of trust, and spilling over to your loved ones. This is why betrayal is such a challenge, particularly the effects of such betrayal that can take the form of excessive anger, anxiety, and depression.
Here are six suggestions that may be helpful to you as you consider forgiving:
First, you need not have forgiveness wrapped up in a day or a week. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. Be gentle with yourself as you begin to consider forgiving.
Second, to experience some emotional relief in forgiving, you do not have to be a perfect forgiver. Even if you have some anger left over, as long as the anger is not dominating your life, you can experience considerable emotional relief. For example, in a study of incest survivors, all of the participants started the forgiveness therapy with very low scores on forgiving. After about 14 months of working on forgiveness, as the study ended, most of the participants were only at the mid-point of the forgiveness scale. In other words, they began to forgive, accomplished it to some degree, but certainly had not completely forgiven. Yet, their depression left and their self-esteem rose. Forgiving to a degree, but not perfectly, made all the difference in their emotional health (see Freedman and Enright, 1996).
Third, as you forgive, try to see the humanity in your boyfriend. Is he more than the cheating behavior? If so, in what ways? Does he possess what we call “inherent worth,” or unconditional value as a person, not because of what he did, but in spite of this? Do you share a common humanity with him in that both of you are special, unique, and irreplaceable because you are human? This is not done to excuse his behavior. Instead, it is a thought-exercise to see both his humanity and yours.
Fourth, are you willing to bear the pain of the cheating so that you do not pass it on to your brother or sister, to your classmates or co-workers, or even to your boyfriend himself? Bearing the pain shows you that you are strong, in fact, stronger than the cheating and its effects on you.
Fifth, as you forgive, bring justice alongside the forgiving. In other words, ask something of him. What is his view of fidelity? Does he need some counseling help to deal with a weakness of commitment? Does he show remorse and a willingness to change? If so, what is your evidence for this? You need not unconditionally trust him right away. Trust can be earned a little at a time, but be sure not to use this issue of “earned trust” as a weapon or punishment against him. Allow him to redeem himself as he shows you he can be trusted.
Sixth, and finally, know that there is a difference between forgiving and reconciling. If he does not deeply value you as a person, if his actions show self-centeredness, and if this seems like a pattern that he is not willing to change, then you can forgive and not reconcile. Forgiving in this case may not give you this relationship that you had desired, but it will free you of deep resentment and allow you to be ready for a more genuine relationship in which you are open to the true affection and care of another.
Forgiveness is hard work. It takes time because it occurs in the face of great pain. If you choose to try it, then forgiving is worth the effort to do the important rehabilitation of your heart. Posted inPsychology TodayMarch 18, 2018
Those of you who have the absolute perfect spouse, please raise you hand……anyone?
Now, those of you who are the absolute perfect spouse, please raise your hand…..I see no hands up.
OK, so we have established that we are not perfect and neither is our partner. Yet, we can always improve. Note carefully that I am not suggesting that you read this to improve your partner. I write it to improve you, the reader.
Here is a little exercise that I recommend for any couple. Together, talk out the hurts that you received in your family of origin, where you grew up. Let the other know of your emotional wounds. This exercise is not meant to cast blame on anyone in your family of origin. Instead, the exercise is meant for each of you to deepen your insight into who your partner is. Knowing his wounds is one more dimension of knowing him as a person. As you each identify the wounds from your past, try to see what you, personally are bringing into the relationship from that past. Try to see what your partner is bringing in.
Now, together, work on forgiving those from your family of origin who have wounded you. Support one another in the striving to grow in the virtue of forgiveness. The goal is to wipe the resentment-slate clean so that you are not bringing those particular wounds to the breakfast table (and lunch table and dinner table) every day.
Then, when you are finished forgiving those family members from the past, work on forgiving your partner for those wounds brought into your relationship, and at the same time, seek forgiveness from him or her for the woundedness you bring to your relationship. Then, see if the relationship improves. All of this is covered in greater depth in my new book,The Forgiving Life.
When we have been treated with distain, our trust is likely damaged. What is sad is this: We not only lose trust in the one who was cruel but also we tend to lose trust in people in general. To make matters worse, we tell ourselves a new story about how the world works and that story reinforces our fear of others as we tell ourselves and believe, “No one is worthy of my trust.” Then we find that those we should trust the most, a spouse, for example, are the ones we now mistrust the most, even when they are not the grave offender who damaged our trust in the first place.
How do we work our way out of this? We recommend three approaches. First, forgive the one who hurt you. This will lessen your anger, which you might be displacing onto others, possibly straining other relationships and thus damaging your trust further.
Second, forgive the person for damaging your trust. This is a secondary wound that we rarely realize we have. It should further reduce your anger.
Third, choose one person who is reliable and focus on the little things in that relationship that legitimately allow you to trust that person. Take time to abide in that person’s reliability and kindness. Then combine your forgiveness, your reducing anger, and your growing trust in that one, kind person and be aware of small steps of trust as they grow in you. It will take time, but it is time well spent. In time, you may see that your general trust in people returns.
As a final note, if the one who originally damaged your trust remains a danger to you, then you need not reconcile with him or her. That reconciliation may come in time as the person behaves in such a way as to earn back your trust.
When you forgive, you do not say, “Because I forgive you, I now trust you.” No. You can forgive and still not trust. If the person is showing you that he or she is a danger to you, then mistrust of his or her behavior is warranted. At the same time, and this is stated specifically to those who have experienced trauma, be careful not to confuse a general mistrust and particular mistrust toward a particular person. In other words, many traumatized people have a pervasive mistrust that needs work. Sometimes the traumatized person meets someone who truly is a good person, reliable, and safe to be with, yet the mistrust from past relationships is so great that he or she just cannot give of oneself in the new relationship. Knowing this and working deliberately on the previous issues of mistrust will help. Forgiveness will help. Time will help. Trust is such a delicate thing and needs work if it will improve.
The snow is melting. The days are becoming longer. Even the birds are starting to chirp. Spring is a wonderful time of new beginnings. New relationships develop and fantasies of improving old relationships may increase. For most people, time spent with friends and family brings happiness. However, for some, relationships with family members and/or friends can be a source of stress related to past conflicts. There are many ways to cope with conflict and feelings of anger and resentment but one approach that we don’t often hear about is the idea of Forgiveness. In an article I read in Runner’s World, the author states, “Butter brings families together, mends old wounds and softens the harsh glare of old resentments, and even makes peas taste good” (Parent, December 2011, p. 50). I don’t know if forgiveness can make “peas taste good” but I do believe that forgiveness can be just as effective as butter, if not more so, in “bringing families together, mending old wounds and softening resentment.”
Many misconceptions and misunderstandings surround what it means to forgive, how to forgive, and when to forgive. Forgiveness involves a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment, and negative behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and sometimes even love toward him or her ( Enright, 2001; North, 1987). Notice in the definition that you have a “right” to feel resentment and that the offender does not “deserve” your compassion and generosity based on his or her actions. Forgiveness can also be more simply defined as a decrease in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors toward the offender and perhaps, over time, a gradual increase in more positive thoughts, feelings, and sometimes behaviors (Enright et al., 1991). Forgiveness does not mean that you deny your offender’s wrongdoing or excuse your offender or the wrongdoing.
One frequent misconception of forgiveness is that it is the same as reconciliation. Although frequently confused with reconciliation, forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation and does not automatically lead to reconciliation. You can forgive and choose not to reconcile. Forgiveness is something you, as the injured, can do on your own and reconciliation requires a change in behavior on the part of the offender; possibly including an apology and the admittance of wrongdoing. Some criticize forgiveness because they think that advocating forgiveness leads to further abuse. However, in the case of a woman married to a partner who continuously cheats on her, she can leave her partner and work on forgiving without staying in the relationship. I would only advise her to consider reconciling if her partner changed his behavior and admitted to his wrongdoing. Forgiveness can also lead to reconciliation. It might be the first step in the process of getting back together with an offender who is sorry for his or her actions.
Forgiveness is a complicated topic and it is definitely not easy, but the benefits are well worth the effort. Future blogs on forgiveness will discuss the role of anger and apology when forgiving, the relation between forgiveness and forgetting, how religion relates to forgiveness, and who benefits when one forgives. Forgiveness is not the only approach to dealing with deep, personal, and unfair hurt. Remember, there’s butter. It is just one response that is not always thought about or tried.
Suzanne Freedman, Professor, University of Northern Iowa
Suppose that Angela has been friends with Barretta who has neglected the friendship now for over a year. Barretta’s flaw is of a passive nature, not being present in the friendship. The neglect has hurt Angela.
Angela sees that Barretta is not a good friend and decides to end the friendship despite her active attempts to reconcile. At the same time, she forgives her. Her forgiveness leaves open a kind of sisterly-love for Barretta that now makes it more difficult to leave the friendship.
In this case, is forgiveness a process that is standing in the way of the truth: that Barretta will not make even a reasonably minimal friend for her? Her feelings of sisterly-affection, which are kept alive by forgiving, are making her re-think her decision to leave a friendship that holds no future if Barretta’s behavior remains as it is.
In this case, is forgiveness a weakness in that Angela retains affection that continues to hurt her? The short answer is no, forgiveness itself is not weakness, but the failure to make distinctions in this case could be the weakness. Here are some important distinctions for Angela to make:
1. There is a difference between forgiving-love and sisterly-love toward Barretta. Agape is a love in service to others as we see and appreciate their inherent worth. Philia (brotherly- or sisterly-love) is the kind of love that is mutual between two or more people. In the case of Angela and Barretta, the love is no longer mutual. If Angela makes this distinction, then she will see that philia no longer is operating between them
2. There is a difference between feeling warm toward someone and the pair acting on it in friendship. While Angela might feel a warmth for Barretta, kept alive by forgiveness, she cannot let her feelings dictate her actions. She must stand in the truth and do so with a strong will. A strong will works in conjunction with the soft feelings of forgiveness.
3. There is a difference between practicing forgiveness as a lone moral virtue and practicing it alongside justice. When forgiveness and justice are teammates, Angela is more likely to conclude that even though she has warm feelings for Barretta, there are certain troubling behaviors she shows that work against a true reconciliation (because Barretta remains without remorse, with no signs of repentance, and no signs of making things right).
4. While it is true that her vigilance in forgiving may keep alive agape love in her heart (with accompanying warm feelings toward Barretta), those feelings, while perhaps uncomfortable, are not nearly as uncomfortable or damaging as resentment. Forgiveness will not lead to a pain-free solution in this case. It will lead to standing in the truth of who Barretta is (a person of worth) and whom she is incapable of being to her (in the role of friend). It will lead to feelings that may be uncomfortable (the warmth of agape without appropriating this in a friendship with Barretta) but manageable. Angela needs to distinguish between the discomfort of a retained agape love and the considerably more uncomfortable feelings of resentment.
When these distinctions are made, forgiveness is not a weakness even in this example.