Sometimes it’s perfectly OK not to forgive
My best friend stopped talking to me, and never told me why. We’d been inseparable for twenty years. I dedicated a book to her, and I had just nursed her through a devastating separation.
I haven’t forgiven her yet, and don’t intend to try. My goals were more modest: to hurt less, to retain the precious memories of our relationship, and not to have to cross the street when I see her walking toward me.
Contrary to popular opinion, and what most religions, therapists and Twelve-step programs preach, forgiveness is not the only route to peace and “closure” but there is no one-size-fits-all solution to crimes of the heart.
Forgiveness alternatives are so inconceivable that we don’t even have a term for them “healthy unforgiveness?” “conditional resolution?” “mature indifference?” Because we are taught that forgiveness is the only solution to suffering, the only antidote to hatred and vengeance. Studies attribute all sorts of benefits to it; naturally, if you believe you have to forgive, you feel better when you do.
But if forgiveness is the only answer, there can be no questions.
Personally and professionally, I think differently: Choosing not to forgive can actually help you live, love and prosper. People need not feel guilty if they are unwilling to pardon betrayals by those they love and trust, nor fear that a “failure” to forgive makes them mentally unhealthy.
The capacity to forgive is usually confused with the compulsion to do so. Granting forgiveness where appropriate is part of the ability to love. But withholding it where appropriate is part of the ability to think for yourself, which cures depression more often than causing it.
Choosing not to forgive takes as much courage and effort as forgiveness. The process is the same, although the outcomes differ: Ending victimhood by converting passive suffering to active acceptance, transcending hatred and vengeance; and either recovering love (for forgivers) or achieving neutrality (for non-forgivers).
The person who wronged you does not have to participate, or even be alive.
My research shows that authentic resolution has three stages. First, you have to re-engage with the experience. This means consciously deciding to revisit the trauma rather than remaining in a state of outrage, shock, avoidance or denial.
You accept that something dreadful happened to you and cannot be undone, the only way out of pain is through it. In the case of my friend, at first I waited for her to call me back, refusing to believe that she really had severed a bond that seemed so fundamental. I got the message when six months went by without receiving any. Unwarranted hope can be the enemy of facing reality.
Next comes recognition: you label and relive all the misery you felt, anxiety, grief, heartache, shame, helplessness. After I saw that my friend had turned on me, I felt that part of the foundation of my life had crumbled; if I couldn’t trust her, who and what could I trust? A key element is willingness to reconsider and understand, not just react.
This willingness opens the way for re-interpretation - striving for a more three-dimensional perspective, and understanding, even empathizing with, your betrayer. I figured out what in my friend’s childhood and current predicament led her to mistreat me, and realized her action had nothing to do with me.
When you achieve insight you think of the person as weak and pitiful, not malevolent or powerful. Understanding all may not lead to forgiving all, as Mme. de Stael asserted, but it can lead to wisdom.
Meanwhile, how do you relieve the anguish? You talk. To your friends, your family, your therapist, yourself. You think about it. You write. One patient of mine pasted a note to her mirror announcing that “Dressing Well is the Best Revenge.” You revisit each stage as often as necessary.
Over time your relationship to the betrayer changes. Only then can you figure out whether you have salvaged enough that was good for forgiveness to come naturally (the only real way), or you will find comfort in facing the truth, paving the way for the pain to recede into a footnote.
Anger need not vanish, just diminish. “Of course I still get angry at him,” said an acquaintance whose husband had walked out one day and never came back; “Even God gets angry.”
I can’t speak for God, but I’m still angry, and I’m still sad.
Not forgiving is a process of mourning and reconstituting your life through insight and acknowledgment - just like forgiving.
Automatic forgiveness, false forgiveness and forgiveness lite, and their counterpart pseudo-contrition, are currently fashionable, and are often mistaken for the real thing. A form of marital counseling its founders have labelled “Forgiveness Therapy” starts with a full (detailed!) confession by the adulterous spouse and immediate assurances of absolution by the cuckolded one.
The insincere apologies of public figures caught in wrongdoing always include the locution “If I have offended anybody…”
None of these quick fixes work because they don’t lead to inner change any more than vengeance (which is often confused with legitimate unforgiveness) does.
Genuine forgiveness is hard-won and never a foregone conclusion, just like unforgiveness. Resolving the deepest pain takes life-long effort that changes over time. The process counts as much as the outcome.
So have I successfully “unforgiven” my former friend? It was long in coming and took work, but I believe I have.
I don’t worry about crossing the street anymore, and now I can wear the unusual earrings she gave me without pain. I’ve found more lasting love and loyalty elsewhere. Nobody will ever take her place because people are not interchangeable. That’s enough for me, and not forgiving her isn’t something I have to forgive myself for.
Jeanne Safer, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City for thirty-eight years, is author of Forgiving and Not Forgiving. Dr. Safer will appear on SBS’s Insight tonight –for the season return, “Unforgiveable”, at 8.30pm on SBS ONE.
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