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Forgiveness is a concept that seems simple but is often difficult to describe. How would you describe the act of forgiving and receiving forgiveness to a child? It’s more challenging than you thought, right? We often hear forgiveness talked about as a required task. For example, “I had to forgive them” or “I forgave them and got over it.” This description of forgiveness as an easily accomplished chore diminishes not only the wide complexities of forgiving but also the awesomeness of receiving forgiveness. 

couple sitting on bench near body of water

So, what is forgiveness? Let’s start with what it is not:

  • Forgiveness is not: forbearance, condoning, excusing, reconciling, forgetting, justifying, getting justice, or just “getting over it.” That’s great, but what do those all mean?
    • Forbearance 
      • Forbearance is defined as refraining from something; patient endurance, self-control, and abstaining from the enforcement of a right. In relationships, forbearance can appear similar to forgiveness, but the intention of forbearance (i.e., patient endurance) is different than the intention of forgiveness. 
    • Condoning or excusing
      • Meaning to accept or allow; to approve with reluctance. You may find yourself indirectly approving or outwardly excusing your partner’s behavior rather than forgiving.
    • Reconciling
      • In this case, reconciling refers to the restoration of a harmonious relationship. Forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation. In some relationships, reconciliation may not be possible, but you could still forgive. 
    • Forgetting
      • Forgetting is defined as failing to remember or to omit unintentionally. Think of the phrase, “I can forgive, but I can never forget.” Is that forgiveness?
    • Justifying
      • Justifying is defined as defending, upholding, absolving. In response to hurtful behavior, one may defend their partner’s actions to themselves or others.
    • Getting justice 
      • Justice and fairness are not guaranteed in the process of forgiveness. This often stops people in relationships from working through the steps of forgiveness because it requires the admittance of wrongdoing by the “offender,” which may not happen. Forgiveness is not dependent on apologies or feeling a sense of justice. Although the notion that there is fairness or justice was served is a good feeling, you don’t have to have this feeling to forgive. 
    • “Just getting over it”
      • People often say, “I forgave them,” and in the same breath state, “I just got over it.” Although our culture often reinforces that we should just accept or “get over” things, this is just another way of saying forget rather than walking through the steps of forgiveness. In couples, a partner or family member outside of the relationship may encourage you to “get over it,” which is another way of saying, “can things just go back to normal?” or “can you go back to how you were before?” Oftentimes, after a conflict, it’s not that easy. You may not be able to go back to before, but through forgiveness, the relationship may be transformed.  

Ok, so now that we know what forgiveness is not, let’s talk about what it is:

  • Forgiveness is a choice and an emotion
    • It is something you thoughtfully choose to extend to another person. Forgiveness is also something that you feel both internally and in the relationship. 
  • Forgiveness is a motivated decision not to seek revenge, or avoid the offender
    • Inherent in the choice to forgive is another choice to not seek revenge or avoid.
  • Forgiveness is a reduction in negative emotions, replaced with positive emotions and an attitude of goodwill (especially in ongoing relationships)
    • This requires taking your feelings of anger or frustration and intentionally replacing them with feelings of love and goodwill.
  • Forgiveness is an interpersonal process, although it happens within the skin of the offended person
    • It is a relational process, but it happens within one person. 
  • Forgiveness is “outward-looking” and “other-directed.” 
    • It is something that you extend to another person.