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