Almost everything that has been written about forgiveness tells the hurt partner to forgive. "Forgiveness is good for us," we're told. "Good people forgive."
But in my clinical practice of 35 years (mostly working with couples recovering from infidelity), I've found that when someone acts in a hurtful way and isn't able or willing to make meaningful repairs -- for example, a partner cheats, remarries and shows no remorse -- the hurt party chokes on the idea of forgiveness. This makes sense to me. Why are we preaching only to the hurt party? Why not turn to offenders and ask them to earn forgiveness?
The professionals also tell us that we need to forgive in order to heal our wounds and get on with our lives. That's dubious advice, too. Forgiveness that is not earned is what I call "cheap forgiveness."
Until now, there has been no healthy alternative, nothing that lies between the fluffy, inspirational concept of "pure" forgiveness (asking nothing in return) and the hard, cold-hearted response of not forgiving.
What I've developed is a radical, healthy alternative to forgiving that I call "acceptance."
Acceptance is a healing alternative that asks nothing of the offender. When the offender is not sorry, or is not physically available -- when he or she is unable or unwilling to make meaningful repairs -- it is not the job of the hurt party to forgive. But it is the job of the hurt party to rise above the violation and heal him or herself.
In my book, "How Can I Forgive You?, The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To", I spell out 10 steps hurt parties can take to tie up their wounds and heal themselves -- without forgiving an unrepentant offender. These steps include:
- Honoring the full sweep of their emotions
- Giving up their need for revenge but continuing to seek a just resolution
- Stemming their obsessive focus on the injury and reengaging with life
- Protecting themselves from further abuse
- Framing the offender's behavior in terms of the offender's own personal struggles, which may have begun before the hurt party came on the scene
- Looking honestly at their own contribution to the injury
- Challenging their false assumptions about what happened
- Looking at the offender apart from his offense, weighing the good against the bad
- Carefully deciding what kind of relationship they want with the offender
- Forgiving themselves for ways they've blamed and shamed themselves with regard to the injury
What I call "genuine forgiveness" is reserved for those offenders who have the courage and character to make meaningful amends. Genuine forgiveness is an intimate dance, a hard-won transaction which asks as much of the offender as it does of the hurt party.
To earn forgiveness, offenders must perform bold, humble and heartfelt acts of repair, such as bearing witness to the pain they caused, delivering a meaningful apology, rebuilding trust, and addressing those vulnerabilities that led them to mistreat the hurt party, so that they never violate that person again.
In exchange, hurt parties must work to release their obsessive preoccupation with the injury, accept a fair share of responsibility for what went wrong and create opportunities for the offender to make good. Acceptance is intrapersonal; genuine forgiveness is interpersonal.
For there to be genuine forgiveness, the hurt party needs to complete the 10 steps of acceptance listed above, not alone, but with the helping hand of the offender. Here's a case in point.
Ten years after their divorce, Sara and John were thrown together at their daughter Megan's college graduation, 3,000 miles from home. Sara and John had remarried, but their partners couldn't join them for the four-day ceremony. The nuclear family -- Sara, John, Megan and Megan's sister -- was together for the first time since the divorce. John had had an affair with a woman he then married, and what followed was a bitter divorce and child custody battle.
As the couple was walking across campus, John turned to Sara and said in what she felt was a heartfelt way, "I'm sorry for all the trouble I caused you."
Sara was touched. He had never apologized, never taken any responsibility for the chaos he had created in her life or the depression she struggled with for five years after he left home.
She didn't want to make waves -- it was a time of celebration for their daughter -- but she also knew she wouldn't have many chances to talk with John, so she "located her pain" and said what still stuck in her gut.
"I appreciate your apology," she began, "but there's something specific that sits between us that's been gnawing at me, and I'm wondering if you'd like to hear it?"
"Okay, shoot." John said.
"It seems to me that during our divorce and afterwards, you deliberately told the girls horrible lies about me," Sara said. "It seems you went out of your way to alienate them from me. Did you? And, if so, please tell me, why?"
John hesitated, then said, "It's true. I did do that. You know, I don't tend to dig deep into myself. But if I had to be honest, I'd say, after my affair, I was afraid the girls would love you more than me. I want you to know, though, they never fell for my manipulation. They love you too much. I'm really sorry." When the couple met up with their daughters, he apologized again to his wife and to his children.
This is the work of genuine forgiveness. It asks the offender to pay attention to the feelings of the person he or she hurt, take responsibility for the damage caused, offer a meaningful apology and perform concrete acts of repair. It's not a gift from the heart or mind of the hurt party alone.
Genuine forgiveness is a lot like love. We can love or forgive someone alone, someone who doesn't deserve our love or forgiveness (we've all been in those relationships.) But doesn't it feel more satisfying, more genuine, more all-embracing, when the person we love or forgive treats us with acts of consideration and tender regard? Even if it's with an unfaithful or divorcing partner.