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Why Forgiveness Is Overrated

(3 minute read)

“To err is human; to forgive, divine” — Alexander Pope, 18th century English poet

“Nothing inspires forgiveness quite like revenge” — Scott Adams, 21st century American cartoonist

Taking a stand against forgiveness isn’t the best way to win a popularity contest. It’s not only 18th century poets that extol forgiveness — both the Bible and the Koran are loaded with verses urging forgiveness and warning us that the failure to forgive will ensure that we ourselves are not forgiven. Society looks up to those of us who are able to suffer great wrongs and still forgive the ones who wronged them. Nelson Mandela is rightly revered for having spent 27 years in prison and forgiving the very people who put him there.

Yet, when I work with couples, I don’t make forgiveness a goal. Nor do I push individual clients to extend forgiveness to their parents who sometimes provided them with dreadful childhoods. Because forgiveness alone, extended to those close to us, is toxic.

When you forgive someone, by definition, they have done something wrong. You may have forgiven them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they were in the wrong and you were in the right. You’ve gained the moral high ground by granting them forgiveness, which is a lovely position to be in. But there’s a couple of issues with this. First, the person you’ve forgiven probably doesn’t see things quite the same way. Their ‘bad’ behavior may not seem so bad to them, or they may feel it’s justified given your behavior. So they may not be as grateful for your forgiveness as you feel they should be. Second, your forgiveness might not be quite as complete as you wish. You are likely to carry around some unconscious resentment which may come out in little ways — impatience, irritation, unwillingness to help, or coldness.

This was driven home to me years ago when I forgave my wife for being so caught up in telling me about her own day that she didn’t give me a chance to tell her about something that had happened to me. I told myself my annoyance was petty, and that she obviously had a lot going on, and it didn’t matter anyway. Three days later she suddenly asked me “Why are you being mean to me?” After choking back my automatic denial, I realized that I had indeed been sarcastic with her, and that this came from a resentment about her recent lack of interest in me. My forgiveness of her wasn’t as complete as I would have liked.

So if forgiveness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, am I suggesting that revenge is the answer, as Scott Adams jokingly suggests? Clearly not: If we all followed the maxim of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.

The answer, I believe, is understanding. If we make a determined effort to understand the other person’s point of view, forgiveness not only becomes easier, in many cases it’s not even necessary. Another example from my own life: When my wife offered to organize my 50th birthday party I was pleased and grateful. However, it became clear she had a different idea of what that party should look like. When I insisted on my version, she snapped “Then you can organize your own party” and turned away. Enraged and hurt, I left the house for a few hours rather than say something I would later regret. When I’d cooled down, I returned to ask her what was going on with her. It became clear that she felt my version of the party would leave her isolated and bored, without anyone she knew to talk to. Once I understood that, my anger vanished: I could empathize with her fear, and see how that could lead her to walk away from the entire project. We were quickly able to develop a compromise that made us both happy. I didn’t have to forgive her: all I needed was to understand her.

If you are in a relationship with someone, the chances are they’re not evil personified, nor are they psychotic. That means all of their behavior, however annoying, hurtful or enraging, has a good reason behind it. If you try to understand that reason, and begin from the position that your partner is doing the very best that they can (even though their best may not be very good), you’re more likely to be able to understand their point of view.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept their behavior. For example, you might learn that your partner’s out-of-control anger came from an abusive childhood, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick around to endure it. Or that they spend money wildly in order to feel less anxious, but that doesn’t mean you have to stand by them until your bank account is empty.

But whether your partner’s behavior is mildly annoying or a potential show stopper for the relationship, understanding the reasons for it will leave you better positioned than simply forgiving it.


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