One of the first things I try to establish with people who have been deeply hurt is that there is no “right” answer to forgiveness. Each person and each situation is different and no one can know what ultimately is going to be right for you. There are different types of forgiveness and sometimes it can help to learn the distinctions. What follows is a summary of a wonderful 3-minute video on the topic, along with some of my own ideas.
In this video by UCLA psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Marmer delineates 3 different types of forgiveness. These are:
1) Exoneration— what we typically think of as forgiveness. Wiping the slate clean as though the hurt never happened. This restores the relationship to the state of innocence that existed prior to the injury. This is appropriate in the following instances:
- when the injury/hurt occurred due to a true accident. The person did not do the harm intentionally. Like if I borrow your car and someone rear-ends me, or if I trip and spill a glass of red wine on your brand-new white sofa.
- when the person who hurt you is a child or someone who, for a legitimate reason, could not understand the harm that was being committed (such as an acutely mentally ill person) AND towards whom you have loving feelings.
- when the person who has hurt you is truly sorry, takes full responsibility without excuses for what they did , asks for forgiveness and assures you they will not knowingly repeat their bad action.
Dr. Marmer goes so far as to say that in these situations if you are not able to offer forgiveness it may suggest that there is more wrong with you than the person who harmed you. I tend to be a more “case by case basis” person rather than make such a sweeping proclamation. But I can see his point. If your 5 year old accidentally breaks your favorite vase and falls into tears and apologizes there might be something very wrong with you if you cannot forgive him or her.
2) Forbearance— this is when the offender:
- makes a partial apology
- mingles their acceptance of responsibility and sorrow with blame that you somehow YOU caused them to behave badly
- the apology that is offered is therefore not really authentic
Dr. Marmer goes on to say that even if you have no responsibility in how you were harmed you should practice forbearance if the relationship really matters. He goes on to say that you should
(I would say you “may want to consider”, I am not a fan of the word “SHOULD”):
- cease dwelling on the particular offense
- do away with grudges and fantasies of revenge
- BUT retain a degree of “watchfulness”
Dr. Marmer states that forbearance allows us to maintain ties to people that are important to us but are far from perfect. I would argue that many of our families of origin may fit into this category. In this case establishing healthy boundaries that can keep us from being further injured while still maintaining some connection can be a good compromise. He goes on to state, and I agree, that after a sufficient period of “good behavior” forbearance can rise to exoneration. I would say that this is probably a reasonable idea to try the first few times someone is not able to offer a sincere apology. But if the trend continues, or if the injury is simply too grievous, you may not ever want to drop your guard with this sort of person. Again, it’s probably best dealt with on a case by case basis.
But what do you do if the person who has harmed you never acknowledges that they have done anything wrong or gives an obviously insincere apology making no effort towards reparations whatsoever? Dr. Marmer gives examples of adult survivors of child abuse, business people who have been cheated by their partners or family members who have betrayed one another.
This is where Dr. Marmer offers an third option:
3) Release — this does NOT exonerate the offender, nor does it require forbearance. It also does not demand that you continue the relationship. He suggests that what is required for release is to stop defining yourself by the hurts that have been done to you and release bad feelings and preoccupations with the negative things that have happened to you. He contests that if you do not release the pain and anger from old hurts and betrayals you will, in effect, allow the people who hurt you to continue to influence you on a daily basis. He asserts that you are allowing these people to “live rent free in your mind” while you suffer from their occupancy.
What Dr. Marmer implies but does not talk about is something that I refer to as a “trauma bond”. The original use of this term was for Stockholm Syndrome, or feeling positively towards one’s captors. I use it a little differently. To me a trauma bond does not have to feel positive. You don’t need to idolize your abusive partner or join the militia that captured you and held you prisoner. To me it can represent the broader idea of a tie to a person with whom you share emotional pain. Many times the trauma bond is from a victim to a perpetrator, or from the “harmer” to the “harmee”. I think broadening the construct to include any tie, positive or negative, to a person you have been in pain over, is perhaps more applicable to most people’s lives. Most of us have never been prisoners of war or help captive by a psychopath. More commonly we have histories of being emotionally neglected or abused in childhood by our own parents. Even if we have decided not to ever talk to them again and have completely cut them out of our lives, that bond remains unless certain steps are taken to “release” it. This release is NOT done to repair the relationship or restore it in any way. It is done to cut the psychic tethers that keep us anchored to that person and that old pain. Releasing a trauma bond is for the person who has been hurt. It is a gift one gives oneself. It is not an absolution of the wrongness of the act or actions. It is not an absolving of the person who has done it. It comes closest to how I once heard Maya Angelou describe forgiveness. She said forgiveness to her was saying to herself “I am done with you” and moving on with her life. Breaking the trauma bond. Releasing ones own self from the pain of the past. There does not need to be any regard for what happens to the person(s) that hurt you. They may thrive or perish. It does not matter. The release is for you alone.
Recently I listened to a wonderful audio book by Harriet Lerner, Why Won’t You Apologize? This is the woman who wrote a series of “The Dance of…” books starting in the 1980’s. The most well-known of which is probably The Dance of Anger. This is one of the most well-read self-help books about anger and I find it entirely refreshing that the author of this book is NOT promoting forgiveness across the board. In fact she says that it is inappropriate and not at all helpful to think about forgiving someone who has NOT APOLOGIZED. As a therapist who often works with people who are from dysfunctional families in which the abusive, neglectful or inept parents still don’t realize that they injured their now adult children I think this message is vital. Most of my clients actually never get apologies from their parents and often choose to not even talk to their parents about the hurts they sustained in childhood. And some of my clients decide not to work on forgiveness of those parents. And that does not impede their emotional progress one bit in my estimation. Our culture seems to be obsessed with forgiveness as if it is the only legitimate route to personal growth. I disagree. For those who want to forgive, for those who are reaching for it, I think it can be an amazing journey. However it is not the only way to grow as a person and I hardly think it is necessary. In my opinion there are things that, put simply, cannot be forgiven. However, I DO think that breaking a trauma bond and releasing oneself from the ties that have bound us to a person who has hurt us can be a very important experience and can free up emotional resources for other endeavors.
If you find yourself challenged with the prospect of forgiveness and are not sure how to move forward I encourage you to realize that there are many different options. Dr. Marmer has outlined the 3 options he finds useful. Dr. Lerner’s book offers additional approaches. Maya Angelou has her method. Deepak Chopra has a process that he outlines here. Whatever route you take I hope you find a way to break any trauma bonds that you have and liberate yourself to focus on building the life you deserve.
Wishing you peace and release from past hurts,
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