I was in a heated argument with my spouse.  We both needed to ask for forgiveness.  I did, but she refuses to apologize.  What do I do now?

Your spouse likely is still angry and so needs some time.  If she can find it in her heart to forgive you, this may give her the insight that she, too, acted unjustly at that time.  So, if she can forgive you (and your apology likely will help with that), then she may be open to apologizing and thus seeking your forgiveness.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

I have forgiven my partner but at times I get angry about what she did to me.  How can I avoid these feelings and forgive permanently?

As the late Lewis Smedes used to say, forgiveness is an imperfect activity for imperfect people.  Even if anger surfaces occasionally, please do not grow discouraged.  You can forgive again and it likely will take less time than previously and lead to better results.  The idea of “permanent” forgiveness is not necessarily going to happen in all people for all circumstances.  Having some anger left over happens to many people, especially when the injustice is deep.  So, please be gentle with yourself and please do not expect absolute perfection as you grow in the moral virtue of forgiveness.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

Politics are coming between my partner and me.  We have very different views.  I tell him, over and over, that I respect him as a person even though I disagree with his political positions.  It is not working.  He is angry with me for not seeing the world his way.  Help!  What do I do?

You can start by forgiving your partner for insisting that you change your political views.  This will not suffice to quell the conflict.  Once you forgive, and your exasperation lessens, try to have a heart-to-heart talk.  Be honest, and gentle, as you communicate your frustration with his insistence.  Try to reach reconciliation by talking out specific ways in which both of you can respect each other as persons even with political differences.  It will take time and effort, but may work.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

I have been engaging in relaxation training to overcome my anger toward a family member.  It seems to be working, but at times my anger wells up and makes me uncomfortable.  My question is this: Is relaxation training sufficient or not to overcoming anger?

Relaxation training may be sufficient if the injustice you experienced is not severe.  If, on the other hand, it was a severe injustice, then relaxation by itself may only quell symptoms and not be a cure for your resentment.  Resentment, or deep and abiding anger, is not necessarily cured by relaxing because, once you are finished relaxing, the anger can return.  When you forgive, the resentment can be cured.

For additional information, see How to Forgive.

I am growing impatient.  I have asked my partner for forgiveness and it is not forthcoming.  I have been waiting for weeks.  Do you have some advice for me?

The advice I can give at this point is patience.  Forgiving is the other person’s decision and that person may need more time.  Also, the person may not be convinced of your apology.  Have you done what you can to make up for the injustice?  This may help lower the other’s anger and lead to forgiveness for you.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

My partner and I have quite different political views.  I respect his position, but he definitely does not respect mine.  We argue a lot.  My question to you: How can I forgive him when he is so aggressive about political matters?

I think you need to talk with him about what it means to be a person.  Are people more than their political positions?  If so, what is this “more” that goes beyond the political?  Does he see these other important qualities in you?  I think he needs to broaden his perspective that human beings in their importance transcend politics.  This is not easy to learn and so he and you will have to work on this more transcendent perspective.  As you forgive, try to see these larger human qualities in your partner.  Such a wider perspective likely will help you in the forgiveness process.

For additional information, see Forgiveness for Couples.

Weaponizing Forgiveness

Forgiveness can be misunderstood and dismissed for the wrong reasons.

A colleague, Megan Feldman Bettencourt, has written an important article in Harper’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. 

Source: KuanShu Designs

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.

Robert


This blog originally appeared in Psychology Today on October 08, 2018.