When Is Genuine Forgiveness Possible?
We all desire the best options for our relationships—which leads us ask, “When is genuine forgiveness possible?”
As discussed in my previous videos, cheap forgiveness doesn’t work, perpetually refusing to forgive keeps us imprisoned, and acceptance may be the best option when it isn’t safe to continue the relationship.
But what if we want to restore love and trust in our relationship? To answer this question, watch the video above or keep reading!
Forgiveness expert Janis Abrahms-Spring teaches that—in contrast with cheap forgiveness, refusing to forgive, or acceptance—genuine forgiveness only becomes possible when both the offending party and the hurt party are willing and committed to healing the pain, however long it takes.
“Genuine Forgiveness is essentially interpersonal. It requires the heartfelt participation of both of you.”Janis Abrahms-Spring, How Can I Forgive You?
In my years of providing marriage counseling and couples therapy, I’ve seen it again and again: relationship problems need relationship solutions. In other words, relational wounds heal best in the context of a relationship where both people commit to the important and hard work of healing. To reclaim the dignity of both parties and to preserve the safety of the hurt party, it’s worth taking the time to do this right.
How to Achieve Genuine Forgiveness: The Offending Party
First, Bear Witness to The Pain
The offending party can help the healing process by bearing witness to the pain they caused. This is a scary prospect for many people—they worry that they’ll be drug through the mud forever, that their offense will forever remain front-and-center, never allowing happiness and trust to regrow. Sometimes the offending party holds on to a false belief that they are entitled to forgiveness, regardless of what they do to earn it.
The offending party needs to do the work to release these fears and beliefs. They need to care more about the hurt person’s pain than their own, and to let go of their sense of entitlement to forgiveness. The offending party needs to really bear witness, in a heartfelt, non-defensive way, to the damage they caused.
Listen With an Open Heart
Bearing witness to the pain begins by listening with an open heart. This takes courage and commitment. If you hurt someone and want to help them heal, do the work of getting support so that you can remain focused on hearing their pain without getting distracted by your own.
Further, listening with an open heart implies sincerity. Going through the motions or just saying “the right words” won’t work if it isn’t really heartfelt.
Initiate Conversation About the Pain
The offending party can also initiate conversations that encourage the hurt party to talk about the impact of the injury. The offending party shouldn’t wait for the hurt party to bring it up, hoping that the pain will magically drift farther downstream. They should occasionally—perhaps even frequently—bring it up to their partner. This isn’t forcing a conversation, it’s allowing room for the hurt partner to talk about the impact of the pain.
Although there isn’t a perfect script for initiating these conversations, it might sound something like this:
I’ve been thinking about how much I hurt you by (lying to you, ignoring your needs, shutting down from you, etc.). The pain of that must still haunt you. If you need to talk about the hurt, I want to listen. I hurt you, and even though I can’t erase what happened, I want be there for you. I want to help you heal.
As Abrahms-Spring teaches, this initiation of conversation and subsequent listening needs to be profoundly heartfelt. Offer this again and again, whenever the pain comes up. Doing this communicates to the hurt person that they don’t need to stay alone in their pain. Getting hurt in the first place is isolating enough—being with them in their pain is part of healing and genuine forgiveness.
Make Room for Many Strong Emotions
It’s not all roses. The offending party needs to be open to hearing whatever feelings might come up for the hurt person.
The hurt person might feel mistrustful of the offending person’s remorse. They might question whether the expressions of sorrow are real, and whether this feeling will last. The offending person needs to honor this—that it’s understandable that the hurt party finds it hard to trust, after all that’s happened.
Also, the hurt party might express anger—another understandable emotion in the wake of violations of love and trust.
So many emotions naturally follow in the wake of relational hurt. The hurt party probably feels a complex mix of grief, betrayal, loss, confusion, depression, fear, and deep sadness. The offending person needs to make room for all of this in order to communicate their sincerity. If the offending person doesn’t know how to take this all in, they can benefit from getting support to help them in the process. Once again, the healing process of genuine forgiveness is worth doing well.
As the offending party holds him/herself responsible to create safety in the relationship, the hurt party can gradually let go of their fear and mistrust.
A Transfer of Vigilance
After deep hurt in a relationship, the hurt person can become really vigilant, always on red-alert. Understandably driven by fear, they might keep scanning the horizon, trying to detect any further chance of harm or deceit.
For genuine forgiveness to happen, the person who committed the hurt must become the vigilant party. It becomes their responsibility to safeguard the relationship from further damage. Terry Hargrave said it this way:
“Forgiveness is accomplished when the victimized person no longer has to hold the wrongdoer responsible for the injustice; the wrongdoer holds himself or herself responsible.”– Terry Hargrave, author of Forgiving the Devil: Coming to Terms with Damaged Relationships
In time, this transfer of vigilance allows the hurt party to relax into the earned security of knowing that the other person is looking out for them.
Restoring Dignity & Integrity
The offending party can restore their dignity and integrity through this process. Acknowledging the harm they’ve caused, taking responsibility, and making sincere, committed change empowers the offender to become a better version of him or herself. As they seek to understand themselves—how they allowed themselves to cause harm in the first place—they become more capable of making better choices and having better relationships. They can become better partners, more accountable, and more aware and caring about how they impact others.
When the offending person engages in this work of healing and change, it reflects the immense importance of the relationship to them.
How to Achieve Genuine Forgiveness: The Hurt Party
As the offender works diligently and sincerely to repair, the hurt party can also move toward allowing more trust and closeness into the relationship again. In a measured way, they can allow the offending person to honor and bear witness to the pain they caused. The hurt party can grow in understanding what they need in order to feel safer in the relationship. As safety grows, trust can grow. As trust grows, the chance for vulnerability, intimacy, and joy reappears on the horizon.
Clearly, this isn’t cheap forgiveness. Both parties build this trust and earn this security through active, committed, and heartfelt efforts. In this way, the relationship that once caused great pain transforms into a refuge, a place of safety and care. I once read that, if you see a couple standing at the top of a mountain, chances are they didn’t fall there.
They had to climb.
Next Steps in Healing
If you need help climbing the mountain of genuine forgiveness, we want to support you! If you live in the Denver, Centennial, or Castle Rock area, give us a call or schedule a couples therapy appointment today by clicking below.
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