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Forgiveness

The Limits of Forgiveness

Forgiveness needs to be earned, not dispensed lightly.

Key points

  • Forgiveness can reinforce destructive behavior when the offender shows little remorse or behavioral change.
  • Forgiveness for serious destructive patterns of behavior should come with strings attached.
  • Parents have a responsibility to protect their children and remove them from domestic violence.

In our cultural, familial, and political arenas today, the word “forgiveness” is regularly bandied about. Should I forgive my narcissistic partner or my abusive cousin for the hundredth time? Should my husband’s abuse of me and our children be repeatedly forgiven? And what about the lying politician whose perpetual dishonesty causes untold damage to others?

Biblically, the Apostle Peter is told that he must forgive his brother not just seven times, but 77 times. For religious and other spiritually inclined individuals, this injunction is often taken literally, meaning that forgiveness should be spread endlessly across the landscape irrespective of the crime or offense. If your brother slept with your wife or conned you out of a substantial amount of money, forgiving him is regarded as a noble, admirable activity—the hallmark of a decent person—no matter the degree of experienced hurt or outrage. So, when betrayed or seriously disrespected, many people struggle to let go of the painful occurrence and move on to a peaceful resolution encompassing forgiveness, saying: “I forgive you, but I’ll never forget” (which can mean many things).

But What of the Damage Caused By the Offender?

In cases of domestic violence, e.g., where there is repeated physical and/or psychological abuse, the partner and children are often traumatized by the abusive behavior. Serious psychological problems, such as chronic anxiety, debilitating depression, and/or alcohol or drug abuse, occur regularly in these families. Among the children growing up in such a household, nightmares, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and regressive behavior are common. And the traumatic effects of experiencing the abuse themselves or of witnessing their mother repeatedly beaten can last a lifetime.

As for alcoholism, which often accelerates domestic violence, the probability of children in the family becoming alcoholics or domestic abusers themselves is much higher than in other groups. The familial cycle of abusive behavior and PTSD are thus often passed on to the next generation.

Historically, any serious offense, whether treason or thievery, was met with serious punishment, sometimes bordering on the barbaric. Royalty was guillotined, thieves lost limbs, and parishioners wore sackcloth and ashes outside their churches for months on end. Until recently, capital punishment in the form of electric chairs and gas chambers was routinely prescribed for homicidal perpetrators. Fortunately, life imprisonment has supplanted such harsh penalties today, but for other serious interpersonal offenses, like domestic violence, it is not clear which consequences would be effective in changing such abusive behavior.

When Is Forgiveness Warranted?

Too often, a hollow “I’m sorry” is uttered for a serious offense without underlying regret. Such empty words unaccompanied by other signs of remorse do little to repair the damage. Furthermore, when such a superficial apology is accepted, the acceptance itself may reinforce the negative behavior in question, thus perpetuating the abuse.

Men and women who commit domestic violence regularly apologize and make promises to change. But their apology is frequently diluted by mitigating comments such as, “If you hadn’t raised your voice, I never would have hit you,” or “If this house weren’t such a mess, I wouldn’t get so angry.” In this way, the responsibility for abusive behavior gets shifted from the abuser to the victim, and the offender’s motivation to change his/her behavior gets watered down. By blaming the partner or others for the abusive behavior, the offender is free to continue behaving destructively the next time frustration occurs.

Similarly, in addictive situations, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or sexual addiction, addicts regularly promise never to do it again. But unless the addict enters rehab, goes to a support program, or seeks psychological or spiritual treatment, the addict is likely to revert to addictive behavior once things cool down.

In 12-step support programs, such as AA, making amends is part of the recovery process. In Step 9 of AA’s 12-step program, e.g., the recovering alcoholic needs to contact people who were hurt by the drunken behavior and offer not only an apology—that is, express regret and accept responsibility—but restitution whenever possible. For example, if the alcoholic ruined another’s reputation, then a public or widespread apology is in order. If goods were stolen, then monetary reimbursement is needed. If there was physical or emotional abuse, then some form of medical or psychological treatment needs to be provided.

With other serious offenses, such as a politician’s repeated lies or a charlatan’s bilking others of their money, remorse plus restitution commensurate with the damage should be required before forgiveness is even considered.

In Summary

Forgiving others is clearly beneficial to oneself and others when minor interpersonal offenses occur. Someone’s forgetting our birthday or gossiping about us behind our backs may be hurtful, but such transgressions usually do not cause lasting damage. For such ordinary human failings, forgiveness can be abundantly bestowed upon sincere, apologetic offenders.

But when forgiveness is dispensed indiscriminately to perpetrators of serious offenses, such as domestic violence, habitual drunkenness, gambling addiction that results in serious financial distress, and repeated sexual infidelity, the lack of consequences can reinforce destructive behavior that has an enduring impact on the family. When there has been no positive behavioral change or restitution on the part of the offender, forgiveness can be interpreted too readily as a green light to continue wreaking havoc.

In addition, in domestic abuse situations, parents have a responsibility to protect their children from violence, and that includes removing children from partners who can permanently damage their development. No matter how the non-abusive parent defines forgiveness, it shouldn’t include keeping the children under the same roof as the offender unless the offender has changed significantly.

Victims of serious abuse may decide to forgive—that is, let go of their resentment and desire for revenge—for their own mental/spiritual health, even if the offender is no longer in the picture. Letting go of anger can be liberating.

However, if the decision is made to resume the relationship with the offender or maintain the status quo, there needs to be genuine remorse, acceptance of responsibility (not blaming others), and restitution on the part of the offender to increase the probability that the abuse is over. In that way, the damaging effects of destructive patterns of behavior in the family will be less likely to be visited upon the initial victim once again or passed onto another generation of victims.

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More from Geraldine K. Piorkowski Ph.D.
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