Deciding Whether or Not to Forgive

by Sheri_Oz

Forgiving does not mean forgetting. Yet forgiving a sincere apology can be healing for the wronged person. You should know what makes an apology sincere.

How can she forgive him for hiding something so important from her? How can he forgive her for talking that way in front of his parents? Romantic partners, friends, children, parents, teachers, colleagues, bosses, employees - anyone can make a mistake that requires an apology before there is any hope of healing the relationship.

Insults and hurtful behaviors can have such serious repercussions. The pain of betrayal and loss of trust is excruciating. The humiliation and shame can be debilitating. How can they think that "I'm sorry" could ever hope to put the pieces back together again?

In fact "I'm sorry" alone is insufficient. It has to be a sincere and meaningful apology. There is a way to determine to what extent the apologizer really means it. That doesn't mean you will necessarily forgive the person who hurt you. But it is necessary before there is any thought of reconciliation.

The Pros and Cons of Forgiving

Research has shown that forgiveness is good for your health. Stress and blood pressure are lower, you are probably less depressed and have more zest for life. That is good.

However, sometimes forgiveness is given too easily: You are not sure the person apologizing really means it.  You are afraid they will repeat their hurtful behaviors. You're not sure he or she really understood what bothered you about the behavior and so the apology feels empty. In such a case, forgiveness is not real and the benefits of sincere apology and true forgiveness are not achieved.

Therefore, it is important to make sure the apology is sincere and is based upon an understanding of what was hurtful in the person's words or actions.

Do You Forgive Too Easily or Not At All?

For some people "I'm sorry" is all they need to hear and they accept the apology. For others, most injuries are unforgivable and they prefer to cut off the relationship altogether. How do you usually respond to apologies?

Components of Sincere Apologies

There are 4 parts to an apology that shows that the person understands what went wrong and is clearly interested in correcting the situation to your satisfaction (and not only to get himself or herself off the hook). These are:

  1. Giving a full explanation for what was done or said that was hurtful.
  2. Expressing remorse - the understanding-based "I am sorry".
  3. Promising not to repeat the behavior.
  4. Offering some kind of compensation for the damage caused.

If any of these components are missing, it is not a true apology. There may be the confession of wrong-doing without promising not to repeat it or not offering some kind of compensation. There may be the promise not to repeat the behavior but no indication that the person is sorry for what they did.

What is most irritating is when the person who hurt you tells you that you shouldn't feel the way you did because, after all, "It wasn't really that serious".

If you want to read what the apologizer should know about the apology, read this article.

You Should Feel Understood and Respected

If the apology is sincere, you will feel that the person who hurt you really understands your experience of his or her behavior. It does not necessarily mean that there is total agreement with you about all aspects of the situation, but you get the sense that what was hurtful to you has been understood.

You may think that he or she should already have known not to do or say such things. You may think that you said so in the past or strongly hinted at it. But you many not have been as clear as you though you were. If interpersonal communications were so easy, this world would certainly be a far different place than it is today.

It may even take some time before your perspective is understood by the person who hurt you. If the relationship is important to you, be prepared to state and restate and restate again, in different words each time, exactly what you mean. Have the other person repeat back to you in his or her own words what you said until you are satisfied that he or she gets it. Only then can you move on to the next step.

Expressing Regret and Promising It Won't Happen Again

Here is where "I am sorry" is appropriate. "I am sorry I hurt you."  "I am sorry I said those things in public."  "I am sorry I didn't tell you I was going to meet with him."  "I'm sorry I missed your performance."  And so on.

Now is where you will be told that it will never happen again. You want to believe him or her. But we are all human and it is possible that it will happen again. This is where a gentle reminder is called for. "Do you remember we talked about . . .? Do you remember how hurt I was?" 

If the target behavior continues, it is possible that you two have not carried out the last stage of the apology process: making amends. Let's look at that now.

Compensation as Part of an Apology

What would help you heal from the hurt? Only you can tell what would make you feel that the process is complete. Give yourself time to think about what you need from the one who hurt you that would help you close the circle and move on. Perhaps you need him to tell all his friends that he's an idiot and behaved badly when you were all together that evening. Perhaps you need her to tell you every time she has a business meeting when her ex-boyfriend is also expected to attend. Perhaps you need your boss to change a small aspect of office policy that workers find offensive.

This process of making amends reduces the chances that the same hurtful behavior will happen again. Of course, life brings plenty of opportunities for new mistakes to happen.

In fact, it would be a good idea to develop the attitude that each instance of hurtful behavior creates a new opportunity to get to know each other better and to make the relationship more satisfying.

And What about the Other Person's Side of the Story?

What if you were hurt because the other person was not aware of the sensitive nature of some particular issue for you. What if you were giving mixed messages to the other person and in his or her confusion made the wrong choice?

After having gone through the process above, ask the person who hurt you if there was some way you could have been clearer that may have prevented the incident in the first place. If there is, then the other person will feel respected and heard as well. Even if there was not, the question is a good trigger for continued open communication.

You Do Not HAVE to Forgive

You are not obliged to forgive even the person who made a confession and sincere apology. Perhaps the behavior is, for you, a relationship ender and you have no desire to reconsider. That is your right. Perhaps you don't see how you could possibly trust the person again and you need a long time to cool down. That is also your right.

But here is another mistaken belief - forgiving the other person does not necessarily mean that you want to continue to be in a relationship with him or her.

Therefore, there are three processes that are related but distinct: the apology / forgiveness / continuing or discontinuing the relationship in any form. Perhaps by keeping these separate in your own mind will make it easier for you to forgive the other person - for the sake of your own health, not theirs - and then decide what to do about the relationship.

Other Resources on the Web About Apologies and Forgiveness

Benefits of forgiveness and how to overcome grudges and live a more vital life.

An interesting article summarizing some psychology research studies on the meaning of forgiveness and what is involved in forgiving someone.

Updated: 04/22/2014, Sheri_Oz
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Sheri_Oz on 12/13/2014

While getting to forgiveness is a good place to arrive it, it is generally a long process and should definitely be that - a process. Thanks for your comment, Lybrah.

VioletteRose on 04/22/2014

This is very true and very well written. As you mentioned, forgiving without having to continue the relationship, is the best thing to do when you really do not have the desire to have a contact with the person who continuously hurt you. Having hatred in mind for a long time can have negative effects in our own life. Thanks for writing this!

Sheri_Oz on 04/21/2014

Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it is a challenge to be able to handle the person who seems destined to continually hurt us and forgive in our hearts - not for them, but for ourselves.

ologsinquito on 04/21/2014

Hi Sheri, your article provides good guidance on how to spot true repentance, which, sadly, seems very rare nowadays. Sometimes we have to forgive, even in the absence of that, more for ourselves than for the other person. Sometimes we just have to accept that some people are extremely limited (character wise) and barring a miraculous attitude change, will never apologize. It's very true that we don't have to continue in a relationship with someone who has hurt us and will likely continue to. We can forgive from a safe distance.

Pinned and voted up.

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