Ask Dr. Forgiveness

It seems to me that forgiveness is a good thing when someone has been really unfair to me. Yet, anger is a natural part of reacting to injustice. So, to forgive, does a person have to suppress anger? If so, then forgiveness seems like it is psychologically unhealthy.

When people forgive, the goal is to reduce or even eliminate the anger, not to suppress it. When we enter a forgiveness process, we look first at the anger, which is a way of acknowledging that anger, not suppressing it. Thus, when we forgive we acknowledge anger as a first step to reduce or even eliminate it. Forgiveness, then, is a healthy, not an unhealthy response.

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When I forgive, do I have to trust the other person, or are these different?

When a person forgives, he or she may or may not trust the other. It depends on the situation. For example, suppose your partner is a compulsive gambler who has squandered the family fortune. This is an offense for which you can forgive him or her. Yet, you can and should withhold trust in this one area of gambling until he or she proves trustworthy. Trust has to be earned by demonstrations and this can take time. The goal of forgiveness is reconciliation, which includes trust. Just to be clear, you can reconcile with a person and trust him or her in most things, with the understanding that work will be done in the one area that hurts the relationship.

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I am a survivor of sexual assault and incest. My father was my abuser. The abuse went on for years and didn’t stop until I left home at the age of 19. Now I am 53. I have chosen not to have a relationship with my father and have a limited relationship with my mother, who knew for some time, but chose to look the other way. I think about forgiveness often. I try and see my father as an innocent. I think that this can help to forgive a person. My problem is this…..I have dealt with my abuse (though not intirely, and probably will always be until the day I die) I have confronted my parents and since then, they have acted as though I am making too much of a big deal about it. They openly speak to my siblings about how I am hurting them by not staying in touch and treating my father as though he doesn’t exisit. My father has said that yes, there was some abuse, but nothing as bad as I have said. It is THIS behavior that is making it so hard to even begin to forgive. They have told lies about when I have confonted them, for instance, saying that I had my 22 yr old son in the room at the time, when he was outside jogging. How is it possible to get past what is happening now, when the scars are so old and the new wounds are so deep? I facilitate a support group for survivors and we talk often about forgiveness.

First of all, thank you for your courage. You have endured a great deal and you continue to do so. I have five ideas for you to consider.

First, you say that you try to see you father as “an innocent” and that this helps in the forgiving. I would gently urge you to begin shifting your thinking so that you do not see your father as innocent because he is not. He made a tragic choice which was not in your best interest and his knowing that does not make him innocent.

Second, forgiveness occurs in the context of people who are not innocent. When we forgive, we offer a cessation of resentment and a gift of goodness in spite of the other’s culpability. This is what makes forgiveness so heroic, to begin to see the other as a person even though he or she acted badly.

Third, I would urge you to visit the Forums section of this website (the Adult Forum in particular) and read the exchange about Personhood begun by Amber, which will give you some insights on forgiving in this way (seeing the personhood in the other).

As a fourth point, as you forgive your father in this way, by beginning to forgive him for the incest, I encourage you to forgive your mother in a similar way for not protecting you when you were younger.

As a fifth point, your current forgiveness issue is a large one because of the denial of the abuse by both your father and mother. This is a separate and legitimate issue worthy of your time. Here you should consider forgiving your father and mother for their unwillingness to see the grave injustice which you suffered. This one will be a challenge because it is in a context of ongoing injustice as they deny the seriousness of the wrongdoing. Again, one of the Forum subjects could prove helpful to you here. It is again in the Adult Forum and is entitled, “Forgiving the same person over & over?” It might provide support for you as you forgive because you will see that others have a similar issue of continued forgiveness in the face of continued injustice.

It takes perseverance and courage to forgive. I admire your determination.

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My brother owes me some money. Recently, he came to me asking if I would forgive him, with the understanding that he no longer would owe me the money. Something does not seem right about this. Am I supposed to cancel the debt when I forgive?

Your brother is confusing forgiveness with legal pardon. To pardon is to cancel a debt that is rightly owed. To forgive, in contrast, is to try as best you can to offer goodness toward your brother. Both are merciful, but they are not the same. You can forgive and not offer legal pardon (cancel the debt). You can forgive (offer goodness) and at the same time present him with the I.O.U. And if you forgive him first, you are likely to present that slip to him with graciousness and gentleness rather than with anger.

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I will be getting married soon. My husband-to-be has had a rocky relationship with his father and there is anger there. Should I ask my fiancé to forgive his father before we are married or am I better off staying out of this?

You ask if you should “stay out of this,” but the reality is that you are in this. Both you and your husband-to-be bring certain patterns to your marriage, some of which will be gifts and others of which will be challenges for each of you. Your fiancé’s anger with his father could be one of those challenges, if the anger is intense and consistent. We all get angry and so my point is to discern if his pattern is something in need of change. If so, his forgiving his father would actually help his and your relationship.

I recommend that you do some pre-marriage work in which each of you explores some of the unhealthy patterns which you have learned when growing up. Each of you should forgive and help the other in the forgiving. In this way, you are not singling out your fiancé as having some kind of unique problem. Your working on this together could strengthen your bond.

The issues of marital partners forgiving people from their family-of-origin are discussed in the book, The Forgiving Life.

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