“The Forgiveness Trap”: A Critique
In an essay for The Nation dated July 25, 2015, Dr. Marcel de Roos has an essay with the intriguing title, Forgiveness Trap. What does that mean and is there such a trap? Let us examine the evidence in seven points:
- Dr. De Roos states in the first paragraph: “. . . . .in therapy more often than not the concept of forgiveness is something that rather hinders progress than enhances it.” Our science, published in peer-reviewed journals, suggests just the opposite. People who willingly choose to forgive and take the time to practice it improve in emotional health
to a statistically-significantly greater degree than people in control groups. Depression, anger, and anxiety go down and self-esteem and hope increase. Some of these studies can be found on the Research Page of this website.
- In the second paragraph, he states: “….strong beliefs like ‘honour your father and mother’ can do much harm and can delay or obstruct the therapeutic process in a serious way.” Forgiveness, properly understood, does not demand that a person enter into the exact same role as he or she had under severe abuse. An abused spouse, for example, can forgive, but then stay away if further abuse is likely. An adolescent who is severely abused by a parent, with no end to this in sight, often is taken out of the home for the adolescent’s own safety and emotional health. One can forgive without assuming the same role as before when the abuse is severe and on-going with no anticipated change by the offending person.
- In the fifth paragraph we read: “Forgiveness in general can be important to mend broken relationships, but Martha has no reason to wish for a normal contact with her father.” Forgiveness, yes, can mend relationships, but this is not its only consequence. Mending one’s own broken heart is another consequence awaiting those who willingly choose to forgive and follow a proper protocol of forgiveness therapy.
- In the sixth paragraph we read: “In order to be able to forgive, the perpetrator should take responsibility……” If an offending person refuses to take responsibility and if the client thinks this is necessary, then we have a trap of unforgiveness: The client is not free to forgive whenever he or she wishes. In other words, the client is trapped in having to refrain from forgiveness, even if he or she wishes to do so. This could deprive the client of valuable emotional healing as pointed out above in our point 1. de Roos here is confusing forgiving and reconciling. In doing so, he is creating an unwitting trap of unforgiveness in clients.
- We read farther into the essay: “Forgiveness is a choice. In Martha’s case forgiveness was not possible and she is a clear example of how you can continue with your life without it.” I agree. Just because some people can get along without forgiveness does not invalidate forgiveness as a viable and good therapeutic strategy.
- And still farther: “….the most important thing is to feel your emotions like anger, hurt and revenge. You have to ‘wade’ through these and more painful feelings in order to find emotional balance.” Yet, how long and to what level of intensity is it necessary for a client to live with revenge? Revenge is a dangerous emotion if left unchecked. It can harm the self and others. Further, good forgiveness therapy starts with the acknowledgement of negative emotions such as anger and mourning. Forgiveness therapy does not invalidate these emotions, but instead acknowledges them and offers a path for the release of them.
- And finally, this: “People who hear from their therapist that they must forgive ought to think twice….” I could not agree more. This theme of insisting should not give forgiveness itself a black eye. Forgiveness itself, at its essence, gives people the free will to choose or reject forgiveness. It does not demand.
Forgiveness is tough-minded and tender-hearted. It will never insist on hasty reconciliation nor that the forgiver become a doormat. To think otherwise is to put the essence of forgiveness, and a client’s options, in a trap.