“Forgiving you means I will no longer dwell on what a giant asshole you are. It doesn’t mean you are no longer a giant asshole.”
Forgiveness, at its core, is meant to be relational and restorative. That is the ultimate goal. However, it does not always result in reconciliation. We forgive someone for harming us in order to be free from bitterness that gives the other person emotional power over us. I often say to clients, “Don’t let the person who harmed you rent space in your head or your life.”
When is it possible for forgiveness to be relational and restorative? When the person who harmed you is able to acknowledge his or her abusive behavior, repent from it and change their behavior toward you.
Repentance has historically been a spiritual concept but I think it is an integral part of any forgiveness and reconciliation process.
What does repentance mean?
The Greek word for repentance is Metanoia: a changing of the mind. I heard someone once say, “A change of mind such that the person turns 180 degrees and begins walking in a completely new direction. Or, in other words, the person realizes they are a giant asshole and they want to become NOT an asshole.
If an abuser (aka giant asshole) is unable to repent and change, you can be guaranteed the person will abuse you again if you stay in relationship with them.
My story (and quite possibly yours as well)
In my family, you were expected to “forgive and forget.” Reconciliation and restoration of relationship were not contingent upon anyone’s bad behavior changing. I was taught that if truly forgave my family for the shit they did to me, I would visit them, have meals with them and be a good and loving daughter and sister. I tried to do this. Really, I did.
Here is the rub with this scenario of forgiveness. My family kept pulling the same shit time and again. I set boundaries; they ignored them. I asked for apologies for the abuse they heaped upon my head and body and emotions; they looked at me like I had three heads.
They didn’t think that their behavior needed to change and saw no need to apologize for it; they simply wanted me to be okay with it.
The problem, I finally realized, was not that I couldn’t forgive. The real problem was that they would not change their abusive behavior. They did not see a need to apologize; they simply wanted me to accept their abusive behavior. And that, in the end, I could not do.
Muddy boots and white carpets: An illustration
I heard a powerful story once that has stayed with me: You don’t have to allow someone with muddy boots to come into your home and walk on your white carpet. It is okay to ask a person to remove their stinky, mucky boots before entering. If they won’t, you can offer to step onto the porch and chat there.
If they are offended and try to persuade you to allow them into your clean house with clean carpets, you can say, gently but firmly, “No.”
And if they try to force their way in, you can go inside and lock the door. The problem is not your lack of courtesy; the problem is their unwillingness to remove their filthy boots.
Translation of this little parable: If they won’t repent (remove their muddy boots) then you can’t truly reconcile.
What to do if you are struggling with people who are abusive
Don’t confuse forgiveness with accepting abusive behavior. You can let go of bitterness without going back into an abusive relationship.
Be firm with anyone who wants to be in your life that they need to be able to acknowledge when they are acting like a giant asshole (you know all of us have our moments) and they can genuinely apologize and try to do things differently in relationship with you.
Don’t let the word “family” equal “I must accept whatever they do to me to keep the family together.” You don’t have to accept abuse FROM ANYONE.
Remember the “r”s: repentance leads to reconciliation and restoration of relationship.