“To err is human, to forgive divine.” – Alexander Pope
That’s a familiar quote, but in spite of knowing this gem of wisdom, forgiveness can be difficult for many of us.
Some people even resist forgiveness. They may believe that holding on to the anger and fear they felt about being harmed is necessary, as if letting it go gives “permission” to the other party to do further harm.
However, forgiveness is an indispensable part of repairing relationships and is essential for building personal peace and happiness.
Dr. Stephen Marmer, a psychiatrist at the U.C.L.A. Medical School provides some valuable wisdom for understanding forgiveness. He outlines three levels of forgiveness.
The first level is exoneration. This is when you put an offense totally behind you, wiping the slate clean and restoring the relationship to what it was before the harm was done. Dr. Marmer states that you should exonerate someone in the following situations:
- When they hurt you accidentally, without anyone being at fault.
- When you are harmed by a child or someone who didn’t understand that they were causing harm.
- When the person who harmed you is truly sorry, has taken full responsibility without making excuses, asks to be forgiven, and assures you that they won’t repeat the hurtful actions.
If these criteria are all met, then you should accept the apology. You will be glad you did, and the other person will feel much better, too! It’s very freeing to be forgiven when you know you have done wrong to someone you care about.
Dr. Marmer’s second level of forgiveness is forbearance. Forbearance applies when exoneration isn’t possible because:
- The person who harmed you makes only a partial apology and/or doesn’t fully accept responsibility for their actions.
- The expression of sorrow is mixed with blame, suggesting that you somehow caused them to behave badly.
The motive for forbearance is to continue a relationship with someone who is important to you in spite of the harm they caused. To do so, Dr. Marmer says, you must stop dwelling on the particular offenses, refuse to hold a grudge and give up all thoughts of revenge.
I couldn’t agree more. In my own work, I tell clients that to ruminate (which they commonly do) about the harm is like pouring gas on a fire. It keeps energizing your wounded feelings and fuels the defensiveness and anxiety you have about being wounded again.
Yet, while recognizing that trying to move a relationship forward while focusing on past harm is like trying to swim with weighted boots on, without acceptance of full responsibility, there is an ongoing safety concern. Dr. Marmer stresses that a degree of watchfulness is needed, too. He equates forbearance with “trust, but verify” or “forgive, but don’t forget.”
This isn’t to make an excuse to dwell on the past. You should set appropriate boundaries. You should also allow yourself to feel rightful anger at first, but make sure to let it go as soon as you can. Perhaps then, as Dr. Marmer says sometimes happens, you can move from forbearance to exoneration, after there has been a period of trustworthy behavior.
(On a side note, when the attempt is made to blame you, you should, of course, be willing to examine if there was any blame on your part and handle that accordingly. But, if you are convinced that you acted rightly, forbearance will be necessary to conserve the relationship.)
The third level of forgiveness is release. This is the type of forgiveness you do with someone who won’t acknowledge that what they did was wrong, who won’t apologize or who makes no attempt at reparations.
As an example, adult survivors of abuse might try to forgive an abusive family member, but find that this person denies what happened or refuses to talk about it. Thus, the way to either exoneration or forbearance is blocked.
In this situation, forgiveness likely doesn’t even involve the other person, and it may not even be possible to continue the relationship. Instead, you go forward to free yourself from the mental domination of a past that you cannot change. Consider how the person who harmed you lives on in your thoughts and imagination, sucking up the time you spend thinking about them, weighing you down and making you fearful in your relationships and pursuits.
This must end. You must stop paying, in Dr. Marmer’s words, the “silent tax” that such preoccupation levies on you. Start by recognizing that someone else harmed you, but that now, in reality, you are persecuting you in his or her name.
It takes direct, conscious work to break this cycle. While some do it on their own, others rely on therapy or religion. Whatever your path is, please know that your life will be immeasurably improved when you have gained freedom from hurts that, in reality, only extend the ongoing tyranny of a traumatic past that sabotages your present and your future.