Punishment is not a Component of Forgiveness

Tell me if this sounds familiar:

Blue and Green are in a relationship.

Blue does something that hurts Green.

Blue apologizes to Green, makes amends, and changes their behavior.

Green accepts the apology but digs at the original issue whenever it comes up for them.

What’s going on here? Well, it turns out that accepting an apology involves a lot more than saying the words “I accept your apology.” Indeed, forgiveness is a choice and it requires action on the part of the wronged party. 

But that’s not fair!” we cry in unison, “the burden should be borne by the person who caused harm!!” And yes of course, you are not required to bear any burden of forgiveness . . . but you cannot claim to forgive unless you’re willing to do the work associated with it. This is also known as: not harboring resentment while evolving into a bitter monster whose happiness bucket is only filled by exacting revenge on those who’ve harmed them forever and ever until death claims their soul.

And no one wants to be that person, yeah? Yeah. 

When you’ve been hurt by the actions of another, (and to be perfectly clear, I’m not talking about how your partner watched a movie you wanted to watch with someone else OMG can you believe they did that?!?), you are tasked with considering what your needs are in order to heal from that harm, and then if you choose to forgive, to actively do so. Fair or not, that’s the deal.

“Considering your needs” in this scenario, refers to what you might need from outside or inside yourself to move on from the hurt. For example, if you’ve been lied to about a particular thing, to move on you might need the person who lied to you to be overly transparent in that regard for a while. Will you always need that? Probably not, but only you can know for sure. If you’ve had your privacy violated by someone sharing content of yours without consent, you may need them to remove all of your personal details from their control and perhaps be granted some space and time to rebuild trust after that betrayal. Again, only you know for sure what you need.

But, and here’s the kicker:

your needs do not include the suffering of the other person because punishment is not a component of forgiveness.

I see instances in which a partner’s betrayal involves a third party, say an unwitting metamour, and as part of the healing process the hurt person feels they’d be best served by their partner eliminating that relationship as a way to atone for their betrayal. This only serves to increase the number of people hurt by this scenario, however, and someone else’s misery is not going to help close your wound. In fact, it increases the likelihood it will fester.

Resentment is a powerful and easily birthed emotion. Without resentment, comic book supervillans wouldn’t be very super and an entire collection of Disney characters would not exist. Resentment is what fuels the bridge troll in our wounded heart, demanding sacrifice for safe passage even if we gain nothing in the exchange. Resentment is what you wield when you demand a person do painful things to prove they’re sorry. Flaming hoops, swords to fall on, self flagellation. 

That’s some evil stepmother shit right there, but that’s not what sorry looks like.

So, here’s the deal: it’s completely natural to want someone to experience the same pain they caused you. It’s understandable because it’s difficult to articulate the impact their actions have had, but you know if they experience it themselves, then they’ll really be sorry! This is particularly true if their apology fell a bit short of your ideal . . . but have you ever had to apologize for causing harm? It’s almost comical how inadequate all of your words feel. It’s almost enough to make you agree to painful demonstrations of remorse just to prove your sincerity. But no one should have to do that, and no one should be asking for that.

There are things in this life that are simply unforgivable. When you experience them, it’s best to move as far away from the source of the harm as possible; you’re under no obligation to forgive anyone, after all. But if the route you choose is forgiveness, then it’s an act of suppressing your desire to cause pain in the interest of equity, as well as a decision to not allow that desire to inform your motivations.

Here’s what that looks like:

Blue and Green are in a relationship.

Blue does something that hurts Green.

Blue apologizes to Green, makes amends, and changes their behavior.

Green accepts the apology but struggles at times with the memory of the hurt and the fear that they will be re-injured.

Blue is aware that their actions have caused Green to feel distrust, but also that Green wants to trust despite their fear.

Green communicates their struggle, not to draw out the issue, but so that Blue has an opportunity to support and reassure them; each time the hurt grows smaller.

Blue wishes they didn’t have to be reminded of what they did, but they accept this as part of making amends and also see the hurt growing smaller over time.

Blue continues to show up well.

Green continues to choose forgiveness over resentment. 

Human beings will continue to hurt each other until the day our species no longer inhabits the earth; it’s part of our programming. There is no long term, emotionally deep exposure to another person that will not eventually result in a bruised heart. Just as amends are the work of the remorseful, forgiveness, (should you choose it), is the work of the wronged. No one wants to be on either side of that task, but if you approach it as a team instead of adversaries, it will be a lot easier to repair your bonds. 

Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s