“How can we move forward if he won’t forgive me?”

The distressed woman was worried about the bleak future for her relationship. She knew that she had made a huge mistake and had hurt her husband deeply. Understandably, she was very ashamed—and really scared!  Her words echoed her fear. “I apologized to him but he said he could not forgive me right now, maybe later. What if he never forgives me? I don’t want to lose our marriage. How can I make this work?”

Can you identify with this woman? Have you made mistakes through misbehavior and wrongdoing? Have your actions brought pain and injury to your spouse or perhaps a friend? Experience and wisdom teach us that hurtful behavior poses an ongoing threat to any human relationship. When such hurts occur it is hoped that healing will allow the relationship to move forward. A key element in this healing process is forgiveness. With forgiveness the relationship has potential for survival and growth; without forgiveness the relationship is probably heading down the Lost Relationship Highway.

Relationship forgiveness is a vital component for the health of friendships and marriages. Every human being will make mistakes that unfortunately will cause varying degrees of hurt and harm. Some mistakes are made by clear choice; they are willfully and knowingly made. Other mistakes are made unintentionally out of ignorance or carelessness. The offender has the primary responsibility to stop the wrongdoing, apologize clearly, and show evidence that improvement takes place. The offended partner faces the challenge of coping with the misbehavior itself and forgiving the offender for the physical and/or emotional injury. Forgiveness involves a “pardon,” a releasing the offender of the “debt” incurred through the transgression. Because the “slate is wiped clean” the offender is therefore free of the guilt related to the misbehavior.

However, the willingness to forgive can be a struggle for many people. So-called “minor infractions” can pose difficulty, but the ability to forgive a significant betrayal is a major challenge for almost everyone. Because of the importance of forgiveness and the corresponding difficulty to extend forgiveness, we would be wise to explore our beliefs and practices related to the issue. But first let’s consider the implications of a failure to forgive.
Failures about forgiveness . . .
How often have you heard someone say, “I should have forgiven that person for what was done, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just can’t forgive right now.” No doubt we all can identify with the difficulty of forgiving someone who has hurt us in some way. Have you wondered about the reasons for this struggle? What makes forgiveness so difficult for us?

As I pondered the issue a number of possibilities surfaced. My list might be different from the one you would generate from your own thinking. Here are several of my reasons why we humans struggle so much with forgiveness.
*Our belief system. Basically, we believe that people should get the justice they deserve, so we don’t extend forgiveness. They don’t deserve our forgiveness; they deserve punishment.
*Repetition. The offender has committed the same misbehavior before and will probably do it again. The repetition of the offense means that the offender forfeits his right to forgiveness.
*Fear of being hurt again. If we forgive the offender, we will become more vulnerable to future injuries. We don’t want to be hurt again so we withhold forgiveness.
*Encouraged by friends/family NOT to forgive. Our personal support system tries to protect us from additional injury and therefore encourages us to distance ourselves from the offender.  They are afraid that the extension of forgiveness will somehow keep us connected to the offender.
*Inability to forgive oneself. Sometimes we feel unable to extend forgiveness to ourselves for our own mistakes and misbehavior. We hold on to our guilt and we suffer the emotional pain. Because we maintain our guilt we do not forgive other people for their offenses toward us.
*Too much information. In some situations there is “TMI” (Too Much Information) provided and the details hinder our ability to forgive. For example, a husband misbehaves through an extramarital affair and provides explicit details to his wife. The mental videos and images created by the “TMI” make forgiveness very difficult.
*License to offend more. We may be afraid that forgiveness will be used by the offender as a license to repeat misbehavior. Since we don’t want the actions repeated, we withhold forgiveness.
*Appearance of weakness. We worry that the offender or other people will label us as “a weak person” or as “a doormat” if we extend forgiveness. To maintain our image of toughness we choose not to forgive.
This list is incomplete in that other reasons may lead to a failure to forgive. However, these reasons are some of the ones I’ve seen in my professional work with individuals and couples who were struggling with the choice to extend or withhold forgiveness.

Our discussion of forgiveness needs to include the unhealthy practice of grudge-holding. The hurt we feel could grow into a full-blown resentment that invites us to “hold a grudge” against the offender. When we choose to “hold a grudge,” we decide to withhold forgiveness and thereby continue to hold the offender guilty for the misbehavior. Our motive for grudge-holding may be that we hope that the offender will be punished as much as possible and that he will suffer as much as or more than we’re suffering. Grudges often lead to personal feuds which can endure for many years without resolution. You might recall the well-known Hatfield/McCoy feud of the late nineteenth century in the Kentucky—West Virginia region of the United States. During this vicious inter-family feud many relationships were disrupted or destroyed.
Some time ago I wrote an article entitled “Relationship Travels:  Unloading the Trash.” The content included this negative pattern of grudge-holding that becomes what I referred to as our “emotional trash” that needs to be unloaded on a regular basis. The article included a poem I wrote about Mr. Nash, a fellow who was prone to hold grudges and withhold forgiveness. His story might illustrate the high price tag of failing to forgive.
                         “Taking Out the Trash”

          The story is told of Negative Nash
           Who hoarded a grudge like hoarding his cash; 
                 The grudges he made
                 When he was betrayed
           Were harbored and kept in his trash.
         As years came and went his garbage pile grew
         With grudges of old and some that were new;
                From garbage he saved
                His heart was enslaved
          And days without bondage were few.
          Through all of his life his garbage increased
           With grudges and hurts he never released;
                The pains that he bore
                Were chains that he wore
           In bondage until he deceased.
          To Negative Nash we owe a big debt:
          We learn not to hoard or worry or fret;
               The lesson from Nash? 
               “Let’s take out our trash!”
          And try to forgive and forget.
                                     -- Dr. Bill Baker (2007)
When we fail to forgive, we incur the physical and emotional costs of holding a grudge. Our personal health is safeguarded when we choose to forgive people for the hurt they cause us, whether they deserve our forgiveness or not. At the same time, our failure to forgive means that the offender has to carry his guilt onward, and, as a result, is unable to move forward in his personal recovery and growth.
We might be more willing to extend forgiveness if we were to “flip the coin” and look at the reverse situation. What would we want to receive if we were the offender? Would we want to be given only justice—what we deserve? Or, would we want to be shown mercy even though we deserve justice? Clearly, with rare exception we would want to be given mercy! This being the case, we need to develop a “willing to forgive” attitude about personal injuries done to us. I once read somewhere, “We cannot refuse to extend to others what we hope to receive from them.”

A failure to forgive becomes a major “road hazard” to safe and successful travel along the Relationship Highway. The failure will prevent growth within the relationship and will steal the peace and joy from the individual’s heart and life. Because of the high cost of withholding forgiveness we would certainly be wise to overcome any tendency we might have to hold grudges through our failure to forgive.

Factors in forgiveness . . .

So, how can we travel effectively down the Forgiveness Highway? What is needed before we can extend forgiveness to someone who has offended and hurt us? Let’s consider several relevant factors related to the practice of forgiveness.

A key factor is one’s personal belief system about forgiveness. Our choices are determined by the specific beliefs we endorse about a particular subject. What do we believe about forgiveness? Let me encourage you to ponder that question and to write down the beliefs that currently characterize your approach to forgiveness. You could expand your effort and develop your list of beliefs into a document you might refer to as your “Personal Policies about Forgiveness.” Once finalized, you could sign and date the document as a clear description of your forgiveness belief system. In the future you can refer back to your “Personal Policies” as needed when you encounter struggles about forgiveness.
Spirituality is often an important factor in the decision to forgive. A Christian man recently was struggling with his inability to extend forgiveness. He valued deeply what the Bible taught on the subject so he did a thorough study about Biblical forgiveness. He discovered that Jesus taught that our being forgiven by God for our sins is contingent upon our willingness to forgive other people of their sins (Mt. 6:12-14). He also read that Jesus taught that we should forgive “seventy times seven” or as often as is needed.  This man was deeply challenged by the “Golden Rule” described in Matthew 7:12: “In everything do to others what you would have them do to you.”  He was moved by Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 4:32:  “Be kind and compassionate toward one another, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ Jesus has forgiven you.” After his careful examination of the Scriptures this Christian man made a decision to extend forgiveness toward someone who had hurt him deeply, even though the offender had never apologized or even admitted wrongdoing.  I was impressed with this man’s determination to use his spiritual faith to help him cope with one of life’s hardest challenges, the extension of forgiveness toward an unrepentant offender. Without doubt, the man’s health is much better because of his choice.
Compassion is another important factor in the forgiveness process. As defined, “compassion” is the ability to empathize with other people and to feel heart-felt concern about their personal well-being. This capacity to feel compassion is not a function of whether the offender deserves it or not; rather, the presence of compassion emanates from one’s own personal belief system and the daily practice of those beliefs. Without compassion any injured person would probably have difficulty in extending forgiveness toward an offender. Heart-felt compassion certainly makes the forgiveness more likely and more genuine.
Another factor worth considering is the issue of the “price tag” of forgiveness. As has already been explored, the cost is high for a failure to forgive. However, there is also a cost for extending forgiveness toward someone.  Helpful questions to ask could include the following inquiries, “If I choose to forgive the offender, what consequences will follow that will affect my life?” and “What will I have to give up or lose if I do choose to forgive?” How would we answer those questions? One response might be, “I would forfeit my right to bring up the misbehavior in the future for the purpose of additional punishment.” Or, “I would not have any right to be angry with the offender.” Or, “If I forgive the offender, I would not have the pleasure of seeing him receive the justice he deserves.” Other responses are certainly possible. Many people are not willing to pay the price and therefore choose to withhold forgiveness. Unfortunately, they often pay a higher negative price tag for their unwillingness to forgive.

Other important forgiveness factors deal with issues of accountability and trust. The extension of a pardon does not necessarily mean that the offender is automatically excused from all the consequences of the misbehavior or that trust is automatically restored. Once fully forgiven, an offender may have to deal with serious consequences and may have to work extremely hard over an extended period of time to reclaim trust within the relationship. A convicted felon might be forgiven by his victim but still have to “do the time” in the state prison. The full meaning of a pardon—or forgiveness—has to be interpreted within the context of a specific relationship. The issue of logical consequences and trust restoration needs to be discussed openly and honestly by the offender and the offended partner. The injured party might tell the offender, “I’m choosing to forgive you. However, I still expect you to make restitution for the damage you caused. Your actions destroyed much of the trust I had in you. I’ll try to trust you again, but the restoration of trust will depend a lot on your efforts to become trustworthy. I’ll need to see a lot of evidence that you’re working hard and that you are making positive changes.” To state the issue differently, forgiveness does not automatically let the offender “off the hook” in terms of accountability for consequences and the restoration of trust.  
After considering several important factors that are related to forgiveness, let’s turn our attention now toward a format for forgiveness.
Format for forgiveness . . .

Offenses occur in every relationship. Due to human shortcomings each spouse will say or do something that will injure the other person in some significant way. Healing can usually take place when the offender apologizes and the injured partner chooses to forgive. A practical and workable format for forgiveness contains two key steps: making an apology and giving an answer. Let’s explore each of these important steps.
Step One:  The Apology—Expressing Fault

The primary responsibility for the apology falls upon the shoulders of the offender. If his goal is to rebuild the relationship, he needs to make an apology that is satisfactory to the person who was hurt and offended by his behavior. Unfortunately, many people are unwilling to apologize for any wrongdoing on any level, while other offenders attempt to apologize but fail to satisfy the offended person’s expectations regarding apologies. I’ve seen many couples disagree over the fact that an apology was even made. The offender would say, “But I apologized to you” and the offended partner would respond, “No, you did not. What you said was certainly not a real apology.” My usual follow-up response is something like, “Perhaps the two of you would find it beneficial to describe to each other exactly what you expect in an apology.” In fact, long before any type of major offense occurs every couple would do well to clarify with each other what they look for in a “real apology.” For some people a simple “I’m sorry” is sufficient, but other people expect much more. Sometimes words are most important but at other times actions are the top priority.
It may be that you or your spouse expects more from an apology than a mere “I’m sorry.” Therefore, I’d like to offer a five-level apology format that could be helpful to you.
          Level One: Admitting the misbehavior—“I did it.”
          Level Two:   Acknowledging personal responsibility—“It is my fault”
          Level Three: Accepting logical consequences—“I’ll pay for it.”
          Level Four: Affirming positive change—“I’ll do better.”
          Level Five: Asking for forgiveness—“Forgive me, please.”

The amount of specific information desired about each level will vary from person to person. For example, your spouse might expect to hear a detailed plan of action for achieving Level Four. Or, your spouse might expect to hear specifically how you plan to deal with Level Three’s issue of consequences, especially in regard to making appropriate restitution. It’s also possible that your spouse has another level of expectation not included in the list above. The apology format that you and your spouse expect of each other needs to be self-disclosed and explored openly and honestly. The format needs to be given and received in the same language that is understandable and satisfactory to both relationship partners. There are two key phrases that convey the core concern inherent in any apology: “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” One or both of these phrases need to be enunciated clearly, regardless of how much additional material is added in the spoken or written apology. 

Sometimes an apology can be minimized or even rejected because the offender tries to explain too much. This apology rejection happened to me years ago. Apparently, what I said hurt a lady’s feelings and I attempted to apologize for my comment. I stated that I was sorry and tried to explain why I said what I did. She was clearly still upset so I asked her what was wrong now. She replied, “First you apologized and then you took it back by trying to justify your action.” She equated my explanation with an effort to justify my original statement. So I inquired, “What would you prefer that I say in an apology?” Her answer was, “Just say you’re sorry and stop at that.” Needless to say, I learned something from that interchange. The person making an apology must be careful not to discredit his own apology by offering an explanation that could be interpreted as a justification. Since then I’ve limited my apologies to a very simple “I’m sorry—I have no excuse.”

In Step One the offender needs to be certain that the apology he is making is clear and specific enough that the hearer will interpret it in the way it was intended. The offender will strive to accommodate by apologizing in the “language” or format preferred by the injured partner. Perhaps the following short poem will illustrate this need for apology clarity.
          Whenever you try to apologize
          Express it with words they will recognize;
          If not understood then your words are lost,
          Your guilt will remain, and you’ll pay the cost.
                                                   -- Dr. Bill Baker (2011)

Step Two:  The Answer—Extending Forgiveness

Upon hearing or receiving the apology the injured partner has a choice to make:  to keep forgiveness or to share it. The choice to keep or share is actually in your hands; the decision is yours to make. The choice to forgive can be communicated simply by saying, “I accept your apology.” The extension of forgiveness is indeed a gift to bestow on an offender who by reason of his misbehavior does not deserve it. Hopefully it will be a gift greatly appreciated! The choice NOT to forgive is usually more difficult to manage. The clearest response might be, “Well, I choose not to accept your apology,” perhaps followed by an explanation why the apology was rejected and/or what additional information is required before the apology will be accepted.

In my work as a Family Life Educator and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist I’ve heard a number of challenging questions related to the issue of “extending forgiveness.” Perhaps you can connect with these questions.
“Am I required to forgive if there has been no apology?” Sometimes an offender refuses to admit misbehavior or chooses not to apologize. The injured partner needs to assess the situation carefully to make sure that the offender has in fact failed to apologize. It is possible that an apology was offered in a way that was clear to the offender but unclear and unrecognized by the person who was offended. The clear absence of an apology places the injured person in a tough spot. He can choose to forgive even when the offender is not remorseful or apologetic, or he can withhold forgiveness until the offender asks for it.
“Should I forgive if I’m not satisfied with the apology?” The injured partner has to decide if the apology received satisfied the expectations. One response would be to decline forgiveness pending the receipt of additional information deemed necessary by the offended person. The response might be, “I appreciate your apology but I’m not satisfied with what you shared. I need more information from you before I will consider extending forgiveness.” The response would probably be followed by a description of the specific information that is required.
“Will the offender interpret my forgiveness as an approval for the wrongdoing?” An offender could interpret any apology in a variety of ways, including the idea that his misbehavior is condoned by the forgiver. If that interpretation is a concern for you, you could clarify your statement of forgiveness to include your condemnation of the specific behavior. By making the clarification you can be more certain that the offender does not misinterpret your forgiveness.
“What if I’m just not able to give an answer either way right now?” A decision to forgive may be very difficult for you and may take some time for you to work through misgivings, doubts, or questions. If the offender apologizes and asks for your forgiveness and you’re simply not ready to forgive, you could express your reluctance and provide whatever amount of hope is present within you. You might say, “I appreciate your apology. However, at this time I am not able to forgive you. I’ll consider what you’ve said and will hopefully reach a point when I can forgive you for what you’ve done. But I’m not there yet.”
The questions we’ve considered illustrate the struggles we often experience in regard to forgiveness. One conclusion seems clear: the decision to forgive is usually made first by the head rather than by the heart. Our emotional feelings tend to lag behind our thought processes. In other words, we can rationally choose to forgive even when we don’t emotionally want to forgive. If we make a clear choice to forgive and begin acting upon that choice, our emotional system usually cooperates with us and falls in line with our decision.

I’ve seen many individuals who were struggling with the implementation of forgiveness. They stated that they had in fact forgiven their spouse (or some offender) but were having a hard time carrying through on a day-to-day basis. In these situations the forgiveness may have been extended prematurely, that is, before all of the relevant information was known. The emergence of new information sometimes causes the person to reconsider the whole forgiveness process. For example, a decision to forgive a spouse for an affair makes sense when we accept the offender’s promise that the affair was over and that trustworthiness would be cultivated. However, what happens if we find out three months later that the affair was ongoing and that the offender’s promise was simply an attempt to “smokescreen” or deceive us? The new information would have to have a huge impact on our interpretation and response of the entire situation. There are times when there is no new information but the individual still struggles. Perhaps the person is confusing forgiveness with trust. Just because you don’t trust the offender does not necessarily mean that the forgiveness you extended was not real. As stated earlier, forgiveness by itself does not and cannot automatically restore trust. On some occasions I’ve suggested that the struggling forgiver write out a “Declaration of Forgiveness” regarding the offender and the specific offense. The declaration describes the misbehavior and the resulting injury, and then a clear statement of forgiveness is added, specifying the date and time of forgiveness. The person’s commitment to the declaration is evidenced by his signature and the current date. Each morning for the next ninety days the individual reads the declaration, recommits to the decision, and signs and dates it. This action helps the injured person to remember throughout that day that he has already extended forgiveness and he will continue to do so. By the end of the three-month period the daily commitment to forgiveness will usually solidify the forgiveness process. 

Concluding thoughts . . . 

The journey along The Forgiveness Highway can be challenging and problematic for all relationship travelers. Each individual needs to explore his current belief system and practical approach in regard to forgiveness. The beliefs and responses can be modified as needed to insure a greater level of appropriateness and healthiness.

Forgiveness can bring peace to the hearts of both the offender and the injured party. Forgiveness allows reconciliation and healing to occur within the relationship. Clearly, our choice to travel The Forgiveness Highway is much better than a miserable journey down the Grudge Trail. Forgiveness alone will not guarantee an arrival at our destination, but it does provide at least a good reassurance that our travels will be healthier, safer, and more enjoyable.
I wish you well in your struggles with forgiveness, whether you’re the offender or the offended person. I hope that the thoughts presented in this article will equip you and encourage you in your efforts to practice forgiveness for both individual and relationship health.

As always, I wish you the very best in all of your relationship journeys.

Trust: Dr. Baker has published a companion article entitled “Trust Development in Relationships” that you can find on this website. To read the article you can click the image to the right or you can click here.

VIDEO: To see a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Relationships:  Making Forgiveness Work" please click on the image to the right or you can click here. 


(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play button below.)
       (Healthy Relationships Blog #110)


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