If you’re in a relationship with a loved one that repeatedly acts in hurtful ways, you’re likely dealing with recurring rushes of anger or disappointment, regardless of whether you are consciously aware of or express these or similar emotions. It can feel as if this person keeps stealing the sense of emotional safety that you, your body and mind, are hardwired to seek.
It is only human, after all, to feel betrayed by the actions of a partner who is emotionally or physically abusive, addicted to a substance, compulsively spends money, or repeats acts of infidelity despite promises, as occurs with sex or love addiction.
While the emotional intensity is understandable, it is still a heavy weight to carry, much less balance. It’s not easy to deal with these emotions, and at the same time the repeated strikes, which challenge your efforts to restore the inner sense of emotional safety that, at any given time, you innately strive to realize in relation to life around you.
A look at the usual simplistic approach…
In response to hurtful actions of a loved one, forgiveness is largely regarded as the highest, most noble action, and a prerequisite for healing to take place. Depending on the circumstances, it often is. In fact, a stubborn refusal to forgive can both prolong and intensify suffering for the person that was wronged.
- What happens when hurtful actions are ongoing, however?
- Or, when the person who has acted wrongly is not willing (or able) to make meaningful repairs?
- Or, what if you’re not ready to forgive (and this hesitation serves a purpose…)?
Too often, the pressure or advice of family, friends or church to forgive merely contributes to the emotional baggage the person wronged already carries. Just as harmful, if not more so, premature forgiveness can hinder the unique emotional-growth needs of each person in the relationship.
If your partner is struggling with an addiction or with narcissistic tendencies, in particular, you’ve likely been exposed to an arsenal of deceptive tactics, such as denial, lies, and messages designed to manipulate your emotions with guilt, fear or shame, which may be honed down to an art form.
The key defining characteristics of narcissism, for example, are a lack of empathy, a willful seeking to derive pleasure from hurting others, and an overall sense of superiority, contempt or scornful looking down on others. In this case, one can ask:
- How helpful would forgiveness be in the wake of a potentially toxic relationship with a partner that does not have a developed capacity for empathy – and thus feels little or no sense of remorse for the harm they’ve caused?
- How useful would forgiveness be to a partner that needs to heal themselves of problematic behavioral patterns such as taking pleasure in making others feel small or insignificant?
- How beneficial is it for a person to automatically forgive when their main problem in relationships has to do with not expressing what hurts them or what they want or need, out of fear of upsetting or not pleasing others?
In short, how can it be healthy to place responsibility on one to forgive, but not on the other to make amends?
Perhaps a more complex approach is warranted, one that is mindful of the wellbeing and highest interest of each person in the relationship to stretch out of old toxic patterns and to embrace more life-enriching ones.
A more complex approach is relationship focused …
As Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring points out in her book, How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To, most everything that has been written about forgiveness directly preaches to the wounded party on why they ‘should’ forgive. Some of these reasons, such as “‘good’ people forgive” or “God commands it” are well intended, however, in some cases, wittingly or unwittingly, they can put undue shame and pressure on one party to forgive prematurely, which makes matters worse rather than better.
Premature forgiveness, she notes, is a ‘cheap’ substitute as it does not require the participation of the person who acted wrongly to make amends. When a person feel pressured to forgive prematurely, they often react in one of three ways:
- They refuse to forgive, and regard it their ‘right’ to keep hurting, hating or holding onto a grudge or bitterness, subconsciously, as a protective defense that provides a quick-fix illusion of power, refuge or comfort.
- They force themselves to forgive, giving in to internalized social or religious commands, however, they keep cycling back to bouts of hating the other or hating themselves for not being “able” to forgive, or both.
- They profess to forgive, feeling a saintly euphoria one moment, and cheated or dishonest in the next.
Genuine forgiveness, in contrast, is a more in-depth process that invites the person who acted wrongly to be fully involved, and thus places the onus of responsibility on them to repair the relationship. Simultaneously, it frees the person wronged to have the option to not forgive the other (and engage in ten steps of acceptance instead). A more complex approach is mindful of each person in the context of their relationship, and what they need to learn, to understand and to do that would help them create a relationship that better sustains, grows and enriches them as individuals.
Four approaches to forgiveness?
Though Dr. Abrahms Spring’s work primarily deals with infidelity issues, the same principles universally apply to any situation in which forgiveness is a factor. Drawing from many case studies, she identified four approaches to forgiveness: (1) cheap forgiveness; (2) refusal to forgive; (3) acceptance; and (4) genuine forgiveness. A discussion of these four approaches follows.
1. Cheap forgiveness
This type of forgiveness occurs when a person forgives too easily or quickly. Persons who engage in this pattern of forgiveness are often those who tend to avoid conflict by pleasing others. In their mind, it is far easier or preferable to stew inside rather than upset others or risk being called ‘uncaring’ or ‘selfish.’ They mean well, but their actions stem from a neediness to keep peace at all cost, and of course this ingrained neural response pattern is how they’ve learned to protect themselves when they feel stress. Their body automatically activates this defense strategy. Neurologically, it works by producing quick-fix ‘feel-good’ hormones that lower feelings of guilt or anxiety, and thus restore their sense of emotional safety at least to some degree.
When a person acts to preserve a relationship at any cost, however, they do so primarily out of fear rather than love, thus, their actions, though well-intended, fail to strengthen or deepen the love connection in their relationship. In this case, for example, the fear-based action sends a message to the person who acted wrongfully that they are not responsible for their actions – or for taking an active role in nourishing the relationship. In short, this gives one person the job of making sure the other does not get upset, even if it means neglecting their own feelings. This imbalance inevitably stunts the growth of both, and risks the formation of a toxic relationshp. Nourishing a healthy relationship, in contrast, involves two people who are willing to grow the courage they each need to be authentically present to self and the other, particularly in moments when they face what most triggers and makes them feel vulnerable. The ability to remain authentically present when feeling upset is an essential skill that allows each to choose to consciously treat to both self and the other with dignity, which is key in preventing the automatic activation their old neural defense strategies or early survival-love scripts.
2. Refusal to forgive.
The refusal to forgive is understandable, yet still harmful and resolves nothing. It is also a defensive strategy, in this case, an attempt to protect oneself from further pain by holding onto anger or resentment. Persons who take such a hard stance against letting go of hatred or bitterness often succumb to the illusion that holding onto their painful emotions gives them power (and distance) over the person that hurt them.
In reality those who take this stance miss out on making peace with themselves, and this can escalate to inner turmoil and suffering instead, i.e., turning anger to hatred or rage, or disappointment to resentment or bitterness. Punishing the offender may provide a false sense of power, but it comes at great cost of intensifying negativity and self-isolation. Additionally, toxic emotional patterns that are not resolved in healthy ways can be passed on from one generation to another. Persons who distance themselves from a condescending parent, for example, may block their own unmet needs for empathy and understanding, which puts them at risk of repeating similar patterns with their own children.
The option of ‘conscious’ acceptance, in dealing with past disappointments, is a healing gift you give to yourself, and consists of at least ten steps of acceptance the person that was wronged can take to heal themselves – independent of any action or change from the wrongdoer. When genuine forgiveness is impossible, whether it is because the injury seems too great or the wrongdoer will not take ownership, acceptance frees one to move on to experience personal renewal. In some cases, such as when the person that acted in harmful ways has passed away or is not willing to participate, this may be the only option.
The goal here is not necessarily forgiveness, rather a restoration of one’s inner state of emotional balance, an authentic connection to self in relation to life that forms a basis for opening your heart, ultimately, to forgive your own self, for example, for not having known how to have the courage, in the past, to express and to value your own emotional needs in the relationship. Acceptance frees you from the wound or injury, and makes it possible for you to engage in processes of healing. It can produce a profound inner shift that leads to living more authentically, and an awakened state of emotional presence, which gives you a more meaningful perspective of your life, and personal value, in relation to those you love.
4. Genuine forgiveness.
This option is a reciprocal transaction that fosters genuine healing and potentially a transformative experience. Genuine forgiveness is a step by step approach that lies between the extremes of quick forgiveness (which asks for nothing in return) and a rigid refusal to forgive (which holds onto the pain caused by an injury). From this vantage point, forgiveness can only be genuine when both parties engage in processes that:
- Allow for change that consciously fosters the personal growth and renewal of each.
- Offer an ongoing context for the hurt person to express their pain to the person that wronged them.
- Invite the offender to apologize, taking full responsibility for the harm their behaviors caused, more specifically, by taking action to earn forgiveness and to restore healing and the other’s sense of emotional safety in the relationship.
Forgiving an offender that is in denial or minimizes, or knows how to play the game of acting repentant to win back the other’s confidence as a sport, for example, simply reinforces symptoms, such as a pathological lack of empathy or thoughtfulness for the other. It also perpetuates an offender’s illusions of superiority over the other. In this case, forgiveness simply does not help them identify or deal with their problematic behaviors,which is an essential step in healing their own wounds, such as the deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy, shame, powerlessness, and overall self-contempt that drive addictive or narcissistic patterns of behavior.
Genuine forgiveness fosters a context that allows deep healing to take place. It opens space for a consciously compassionate exchange to take place within the hearts of the person wanting forgiveness and the one forgiving. When real, it is a transformative process for both. This reciprocal exchange between a truly repentant person and the person who forgives can transform their relationship and lead each to higher states of personal authenticity, self-awareness and self-actualization.
A choice between genuine forgiveness or acceptance?
The pressure to forgive prematurely may not be the most healing or loving option. Instead of preaching to the person wronged, the primary emphasis is better placed on the person who acted wrongly to earn forgiveness, and thus, to repair the relationship.
Honestly speaking, how can automatic forgiveness be healing when wrongful actions are regular or reoccurring? And, how can it be healthy for either person to place responsibility on one to forgive, but not the other to make amends?
A more discerning approach is genuine forgiveness, which:
- Gives special consideration to the context of the relationship and the personal lives of both.
- Provides options that address the growth needs of both parties as well as the immediate healing needs of the person wronged.
- Focuses the onus of responsibility on the person who acted wrongly to earn forgiveness and express sincerity through consistent actions.
In other words, unlike cheap forgiveness, genuine forgiveness clearly identifies what each party is (and isn’t) responsible for, in creating a context for healing to take place. For example:
- It is not the wronged person’s job to forgive the person who acted wrongly, and to do so is at best an act of “cheap forgiveness” that hinders each party’s growth and wellbeing. The responsibility for reconciliation rests on the person who caused harm to start doing whatever is necessary, for however long it takes.
- It is not the job of the person who acted wrongly to demand the other ‘forgive’ or move on, and instead, though it seems counterintuitive, it’s their job to open space for listening and validating the hurt person’s pain is essential. The responsibility for even talking about moving on rests in the hands of the hurt person, and any attempts to hasten or bypass the critical task of listening to their pain merely slows down the process.
- It is not the wronged person’s job to make sure the person who wronged them feels remorse and makes amends. Instead, it’s their job to shift their focus to take what action is necessary to heal themselves, and to stay physically and emotionally healthy, in ways that are independent of the actions of the offending party.
- It’s not the wronged person’s responsibility to ensure the other does not get upset or angry because of what is required of them in earning forgiveness, that is, to engage in inherently uncomfortable processes. In fact, they must instead stand their ground to invite the person who acted wrongly to take complete responsibility to do the painful work necessary, as a first step to repair the relationship.
When the person who acted wrongly is unwilling to make meaningful amends to repair the relationship, however, it is then the job of the person wronged to do whatever necessary to restore their own inner peace, that is, to engage in processes of acceptance that will allow them to fully accept and to forgive themselves – in ways that do not require the involvement of the person that wronged them. Acceptance is a healing alternative when genuine forgiveness is not possible because:
- It frees the hurt party to heal independent of any actions by the offender.
- It fosters a compassionate understanding that makes it easier to see the unwillingness of the person who acted hurtfully as reflective of their weaknesses, their inner woundedness, and their lack of courage in facing the wrongness of their actions responsibility .
Essentially, acceptance allows the hurt party to see that it is not loving to forgive an action that caused serious harm in cases where the person who acted wrongly has not made a deep commitment to follow through, in order to complete the work of reconciliation, much less one who sees no need for it.
The role of courage in healing?
Safe to say, genuine forgiveness can only take place when each party finds the courage they need to engage in these healing processes. More specifically, this means that:
- The person who acted wrongfully needs to grow the courage that would allow them to face their actions, and to take responsibility for them without getting defensive. This learned ability then allows them to take action accordingly to make meaningful amends.
- The person who was wronged needs to grow the courage that would allow them to treat themselves with such respect that they raise their expectations in how they hope to be treated by the other. This learned ability then allows them to stop taking responsibility that belongs to the person who acted wrongly, and thus to stop rescuing them from feeling upset (i.e., about having to do things that are inherently and necessarily uncomfortable or painful in making amends).
Why is courage key? It takes courage to be willing and open to engage in processes that heal, grow and transform, as they are inherently painful.
Why seek healing if it’s painful? Among other good reasons, it is the most effective and energy-saving way to avoid suffering.
How do you grow courage? Courage grows as a result of seeking to first understand, and then to take action to face what you most fear (i.e., inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, etc.) by keeping your focus on standing up for what you most love.
As is the case with genuine love, forgiveness that is genuine invites both parties to reciprocally engage in ways that foster one another’s highest growth and wellbeing. This inherently invites both to grow their capacity for compassion, which in itself is a courageous undertaking. Thus, more specifically, you grow courage by:
- Stretching out of old comfortable places. This is a loving thing to do (for self and other) because it grows your capacity, and thus, the courage you need to be present and to relate more authentically with one another in challenging moments, such as when you get triggered.
- Consistently taking action to do what is more uncomfortable and most personally challenging to you. Growing the courage and strength you need to change problem behavior patterns is an outcome of consistently facing what most challenges you.
- Understanding what you need to do to realize your deepest yearnings, and why, energizes you with the love and passion you need to take action that would otherwise be blocked by what you fear. Your momentum is sustained by what you most yearn (love) to realize.
Acceptance also requires courage to stand firm. In this sense, courage is a form of compassion.
- It takes courage to resist taking over doing another’s task for them, to see this as loving and the old ways of rescuing the other as well-intended but unloving.
- It’s not easy to stop looking for the other’s approval as a measure of your worth and to turn within instead to nourish your own esteem and sense of value.
- It is courageous, as it is loving, to keep believing in the human capacity of every person to break out of their own limitations.
Genuine forgiveness is a painful undertaking, to be sure. Like genuine love, it is expressed in consistent action, with a conscious intention to do what is necessary to end needless suffering of self and other, and to honor instead the priceless value of creating relationships that nourish, grow and strengthen individuals to love more courageously from a place of greater compassion and authenticity. It’s a priceless connection that allows the heart (emotions) and mind (logic) of each person in a relationship to operate wisely – as one.