Is Forgiveness Good for You?

There’s a wonderful story about two kids playing in a sandbox together. One gets mad and storms off with his toy truck. As he runs to the swings nearby, he turns and cries out to his playmate, “I hate your guts and I’m never going to talk to you again.” About 10 minutes pass, and they’re throwing a ball at each other, laughing, enjoying the day. As their parents enjoy this interaction, one father shakes his head and says to the other with a mix of admiration and amazement, “How do kids do that? How can they be at each other’s throat one minute and get along with each other so famously the next?”

“It’s easy,” the other father explains. “They choose happiness over righteousness.”

I love this story. It’s so filled with the bounty of the human spirit, with affirmation of our ability to adapt, to resolve our petty disputes and focus on what really matters most in life. We are social beings who need each other, who inherently prefer to repair interpersonal ruptures than to hate or hold a grudge. Most of us want, and like, to forgive.

The problem with the sandbox story is that it’s about children who reconcile after an insignificant grievance. It’s not what happens between two adults when one willfully and maliciously hurts the other, and the hurt party is left to grapple with how to forgive and reconcile with the offender. That’s a much more complex story.

Some of us believe we have an obligation to forgive, unconditionally, categorically, and that to do so is central to what it means to be a decent human being. Most of us, however, can’t live up to such high moral principles except in theory, or feel that we would compromise ourselves if we did. We can’t—and won’t—just dust off an injury, pretend that nothing happened, and embrace the person who injured us. Regardless of what we may have been taught, a quick, one-sided, kiss-and-make-up response doesn’t seem real or right. For Genuine Forgiveness to take place, we often need much more time.

What Does It Mean to Forgive?

Forgiving has been marketed as the new mental and physical panacea—a healing balm that cures every ailment: depression, anxiety, chronic hostility, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and immune deficiencies. It has also been said to repair broken hearts, broken relationships, a broken sense of self. “Forgiving is the only remedy for the pain the offender left us with, the only way to heal the hurt he caused,” writes Lewis Smedes in The Art of Forgiving.

My patients have taught me otherwise. Watching them recover from interpersonal injuries has shown me that:

  • You can heal yourself and clear your head of emotional sludge—resentment, rage, hurt, and shame—with or without forgiving
  • You can release your bitter and obsessive preoccupation with getting even—with or without forgiving
  • You can make peace with yourself and come to terms with what happened—with or without forgiving, and
  • You can get back together, if you choose, without selling yourself short—with or without forgiving.

You can do all this for yourself and by yourself, even if the offender is unapologetic, even if he refuses to acknowledge your pain or apply a drop of salve to your wound—even if he has passed on.

What Is Genuine Forgiveness?

Genuine Forgiveness is essentially interpersonal. It requires the heartfelt participation of both of you. Here are its three core interpersonal features.

1. Genuine Forgiveness Is a Transaction

Genuine Forgiveness is not a pardon granted unilaterally by the hurt party. It’s a shared venture, an exchange between two people bound together by an interpersonal violation.

2. Genuine Forgiveness Is Conditional

Genuine Forgiveness must be earned. It comes with a price that the offender must be willing to pay. In exchange, the hurt party must allow him to settle his debt. As he works hard to earn forgiveness through genuine, generous acts of repentance and restitution, the hurt party works hard to let go of her resentment and need for retribution. If either one of you fails to do the requisite work, there can be no Genuine Forgiveness.

A patient named Jane made this point to her husband. Shortly after he admitted his affair, he told her, “I’ll never do it again, and I don’t want to talk about it—or your grievances—any more. It’s ancient history.” Jane’s response cut to her bottom line: “If you don’t want to hear my pain, I can’t get close to you. I’m not trying to punish or manipulate you. I’m just telling you what I need to forgive you. It’s a simple formula.”

With Genuine Forgiveness, both of you address the question, “What am I willing to give in order to create a climate in which forgiveness is possible?” While the offender is never entitled to be forgiven, he is more likely to earn this currency if he attempts to repair the harm he caused. While the hurt party is never obligated to forgive him, she is more likely to do so, and resuscitate the relationship, if she gives him a chance to make good. This provisional exchange, this “giving in order to get,” lies at the heart of Genuine Forgiveness.

3. Genuine Forgiveness Requires a Transfer of Vigilance

After a traumatic injury, you, the hurt party, are likely to become hypervigilant, patrolling the border between you and the offender, making sure you’ll never be violated or fooled again. You may live and breathe the injury, obsessed with its grubby details. The offender, in contrast, may want to repress, deny, or minimize his wrongful behavior.

With Genuine Forgiveness, a profound shift in preoccupation takes place. You, the offender, demonstrate that you’re fully conscious of your transgression and intend never to repeat it. You, the hurt party, become less preoccupied with the injury and begin to let it go.

Here’s how one couple engaged in this process.

After Julia learned about her husband Evan’s affair, he gave up the lover, recommitted himself to his wife, and worked hard to earn back her trust. On their 25th anniversary, he took her out to dinner to celebrate. The waitress came to the table and announced, “Hi. My name is Sandy, and I’m going to be your server tonight.” Sandy happened to be the name of Evan’s ex-girlfriend. Julia’s mood plummeted, but Evan reached out to her and said, earnestly, “I’m sorry this is happening. I really wanted this to be a special evening for us. How are you doing?” Julia paused, then responded, “You just made it easier.”

This is an example of a transfer of vigilance. Evan paid attention to Julia’s suffering, and Julia in turn worked to let it go. If he had remained silent and let the moment pass, she might have sunk into depression. If she had bludgeoned him with reminders of his affair, he might have become cold and sullen. Over time, as Evan displayed a continued interest in her pain, mixed with compassion and contrition, and she responded with encouragement, they arrived at a place where she could say, “I believe you’re sorry and will look out for me. Your efforts allow me to open up to you and feel more trusting.”

As forgiveness expert Terry Hargrave points out, “Forgiveness is accomplished when the victimized person no longer has to hold the wrongdoer responsible for the injustice; the wrongdoer holds himself or herself responsible.”

Why Is Forgiveness More Genuine When It Is Earned?

I’ve learned from my patients over the years that forgiveness is more satisfying, more heartfelt, more natural—and therefore more genuine—when it is earned than when it is not. Why is this true? Perhaps for the same reason that when someone buys you a gift that shows he knows you and cherishes you, it’s likely to mean more than a gift you bought for yourself. Perhaps also for the same reason that love is more gratifying, more nurturing, when it is embraced by both of you, not by one of you alone.

We are social beings, all vitally interconnected, and we are validated and redeemed when others provide a soothing balm to our wounds and work to release us from the pain they have caused us. Healing, like love, flourishes in the context of a caring relationship. I would go so far as to say that we can’t love alone, and we can’t forgive alone.

Find out about upcoming programs with Janis Abrahms Spring at Kripalu.

Janis Abrahms Spring, PhD, ABPP, is a nationally acclaimed expert on issues of trust, intimacy, and forgiveness. A recipient of the Connecticut Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Practice of Psychology and former supervisor in the department of psychology at Yale University, she is author of the award-winning How Can I Forgive You?, After the Affair, and Life with Pop. She has been in private practice in Westport, Connecticut, for 40 years. janisaspring.com

This article is excerpted with permission from How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To, by Janis Abrahms Spring and Michael Spring (HarperCollins, 2005).