Can Forgiveness Be Enabling?

Forgive and forget.  An age-old adage that has led to the more modern interpretation of “forgive, but don’t forget,” that is only different from not forgiving on a semantic level.  My personal belief is that forgiveness is as much for the forgiver as the forgiven.  The releasing of the emotions and reactions surrounding an action that requires forgiveness allows for healing and moving forward – with or without the offending party.  It’s rarely easy, but most often the most difficult things to forgive are those that most need it.  If not for the other person, then for oneself.

Accepting an apology and granting forgiveness are on different levels for me.  One apologizes for a misdemeanor and asks for forgiveness for a felony, as it were.  Forgiveness in my mind most often accompanies words or actions that are considered a betrayal of some kind.  Forgiveness is needed when an apology cannot repair the damage that is done.  When it is not enough to say it will not happen again.  The request for forgiveness implies that the asking party knows they do not deserve it.  The forgiver gives it because they choose to maintain the relationship past the damage.

I have a mental list of all of the times I have truly done or said something that required forgiveness from someone else.  Things I was unable to undo or unsay that the other person had to choose to forgive or not.  They are the scars that remind me of things I will not do again, and damage or pain I work to ensure I never inflict on another person.  It’s not a long list, but it’s longer than I’d like it to be.  I asked for forgiveness, and received it in some cases and did not in others.  On the other side, I have had to forgive others as well, some that were easy and some that were not.

The more challenging aspect of forgiveness is giving it when it is not asked for, especially with those you love.  It is hardest when someone does harm, intentionally or not, that could result in the severing of a friendship or relationship, but does not seek the path to reparation. The offended party then has to consider the benefits they gain from forgiving without being asked to do so.  Forgiving because you know it will heal your own wounds more quickly.  To release the anger, hurt or sense of betrayal by releasing the hold on the cause.

Then of course there is the challenge of forgiving multiple times.  For the same offending words or actions.  This seems to only happen in connection with family or friendships that have existed so long they can be considered family.  It happens when there is a lifelong love involved; rarely the romantic kind.  The kind of relationships that no matter what happens, you maintain them.  The situations where if anyone else committed the same offense, you would simply end the friendship or relationship and move in.

Herein lies the quandary I wish to consider.  Can forgiveness be enabling?  All it takes is a half-attentive viewing of an episode of Intervention to see that often it is only the final line in the sand that says “if you do not change, if you do this again, then this previously considered unconditionally loving relationship will be over” that causes an offending action to stop.  Yes, this instance is specific to addiction, but I think an extrapolation is not unreasonable.

If you continuously forgive someone for a set of actions, or words – or beliefs – are you enabling them to continue to engage in them?  Is the forgiveness in this case, which allows them to maintain a relationship with you essentially on their terms, a bad thing?  If a repeated behavior or attitude causes you to feel unappreciated, undervalued or betrayed, is it possible that refusing to forgive, refusing to allow the other person to set the terms, a valid last resort for forcing them to see the effect they are having?

Of course, the danger of this is that it puts a relationship truly on the line.  Refusing to forgive, and thereby forcing someone to change, puts an ultimatum on the table.  The danger in this is that the other person fails.  This person you love, supposedly unconditionally, does not or is not able to change.  Are you doing damage to yourself by withholding forgiveness, or more practically your presence in their life, because you are holding onto the offending words or actions?

It’s a challenge with family or lifelong friends.  If you reach a point where loving them requires a sacrifice in who you are, can there come a time where reevaluating the unconditional aspect of that relationship is necessary?  A time where you have to consider if being who you are as they are who they are causes an untenable detente requiring constant internal forgiveness that creates an unsustainable situation.

So do you stop the internal forgiveness?  Do you lay the unspoken ultimatum on the table?  Do you force the situation to a point where someone has to change?  And how much do you consider the risk that this relationship could break, or end or change permanently into something else?  Or is it even fair to ask someone you love to not be who they are in order for you to be who you are and still maintain the relationship?

Is there ever a time when in order to be true to yourself, forgiveness is not the best course of action?

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