I recently attended a conference where the subject of forgiveness was frequently discussed. Many participants argued that forgiveness is incredibly difficult, so much so that it may not be appropriate to forgive in certain situations. It was the second part of that statement that struck me as odd. I first asked myself whether the audience was simply operating from a different perspective than me in terms of interpersonal relationships. But then I reflected: were they confusing forgiveness with reconciliation? In my clinical experience, this confusion is all too common. Time and again when I bring up the concept of forgiveness to my patients, many of them immediately recoil. But after I unpack how these patients understand forgiveness, I realize that they confuse it with aspects of reconciliation. I would like to address both the similarities and differences between forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as the fact that it is always good for our mental health to forgive, but it is not always healthy to reconcile.
To Forgive Is to Extend the Gift of Mercy
We should first establish the basic understanding of the inherent dignity of each human person. There are the numerous Church documents which address this concept (for example, Evangelium Vitae and Familiaris Consortio to name two). Each document takes its point of departure from the following: that each person is created by the Triune God with a specific vocation within this life, is created with inherent dignity and worth, and that she can never lose that dignity and worth no matter what external or internal actions she enacts. Thus, the criminal does not become sub-human after his offense. Rather, he remains a human person who has given into temptation (which we all suffer from), thus he can be empathized with, and eventually forgiven. While this is a wonderful concept when it remains in the abstract, it becomes incredibly difficult to believe when we have been wronged by such actions as abuse, infidelity, or simply general unkindness. I truly feel for my patients who have suffered horrendous traumas at the hands of other human beings, and who look at me and say that they could never view the offender as another human being. Nonetheless, we are not made to become bitter within our traumas. We are made to integrate them into our wider life narrative, and then to rise above them both with the help of God’s grace along with our own determination to heal. The answer to heal our wounds is forgiveness.
Forgiveness is fundamentally an intrapersonal action, not an interpersonal one.
What exactly is forgiveness though? For some, it is that classic moment when our parent or guardian had us apologize to the child in the school yard that we scuffled with, or it is when we apologize to our spouse for saying an unkind word. However, both of these cases are not forgiveness. According to some researchers (namely Robert Enright and Richard Fitzgibbons in their work, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope) forgiveness may be defined as follows:
People, upon rationally determining that they have been unfairly treated, forgive when they willfully abandon resentment and related responses (to which they have a right), and endeavor to respond to the wrongdoer based on the moral principle of beneficence, which may include compassion, unconditional worth, generosity, and moral love (to which the wrongdoer, by nature of the hurtful act or acts, has no right).
In other words, forgiveness is an emotional shift within a person in which she extends the gift of mercy to the offending person without expecting any recompense from that person. Within this emotional shift the offended person also releases the offending person from his responsibility to do penance for the wrong performed. The offended person additionally alters her attitude towards the offending person, and she attempts to not hold the offense against the offender in the future. Readers should note, though, that at no time has contact with the offending party been part of forgiveness’ definition. This is because forgiveness is fundamentally an intrapersonal action, not an interpersonal one. Thus, I can accomplish the above definition with a deceased person or someone to whom I no longer have contact.
The fact that forgiveness is intrapersonal is vital to understand since that reality upends the belief that forgiveness is only for some and not for all. Everyone is able to forgive, and really everyone needs to do so for a variety of reasons that are more than spiritual. Research has indicated that there is an array of medical benefits in forgiving others. Some are decreased anxiety, stress, and hostility, lower blood pressure, and an overall improvement in a person’s immune system. Clearly, forgiveness heals not just your soul, but also your body and mind.
To Reconcile is to Restore Trust Between Parties
Reconciliation, on the other hand, is an interpersonal affair and is more complex than forgiveness. The psychologist and researcher Everett Worthington Jr. writes the following regarding reconciliation: “Reconciliation is restoring trust in a relationship in which trust has been damaged” (Forgiving and Reconciling: Bridges to Wholeness and Hope). This restoration of trust is partly what makes reconciliation so difficult. Two persons, one or both of whom have been deeply wounded by the other, need to work through their distaste for the other and then decide to move towards re-establishing their relationship with the very person who harmed them. A very tall order, but attainable with time, hard work, and God’s grace.
Reconciliation is earned by the transgressor while forgiveness is gifted to him.
Worthington also adds that reconciliation is earned by the transgressor while forgiveness is gifted to him. The transgressor earns the right to reconciliation by enacting concrete behavior changes instead of working through adverse emotions as is done within forgiveness. Think of how the Sacrament of Reconciliation operates. We confess our sins before God, ask to re-establish our relationship with him, and he agrees. Yet, we must promise to ‘sin no more,’ meaning that we promise to change our behavior within our relationship with him. It is therefore only fitting that our way of re-establishing a relationship with each other should emulate how we re-establish our relationship with God.
Still reconciliation is not always necessary and not always a prudent idea within each relationship. The classic example is when the battered spouse decides to forgive her abusive spouse but decides to not reconcile with him since the abusive behavior may never change. In such a case, the abused spouse is fulfilling God’s call to forgive her abuser, but she is using her God-given reason to prudently decide that reconciliation is not a wise choice at the present time. No matter what the situation is, the question as to whether to reconcile with a person is 1) whether or not you both desire to reconcile, and 2) whether or not the other person plans on altering his behavior. If either of these preliminary components is missing, then reconciliation may not be the best avenue for a person to take.
Forgiveness Is a Gift, Reconciliation Is Earned
We see that forgiveness and reconciliation have some overlap; they both aim to bring peace to individuals. We also see that they greatly differ from each other. Forgiveness is an intrapersonal emotional shift towards another where you gift him the mercy he is not owed. Reconciliation is an interpersonal behavioral shift where trust is re-earned within a relationship. Forgiveness is required in all situations, while reconciliation is not. Some readers may question the need to differentiate between these two concepts, noting that when one says, ‘I’ve forgiven them,’ she means that she has re-established a trusting relationship with the person. To that claim, I cite something a wise person once told me, ‘Words have meaning. That’s why it is so important to be precise when using them.’ These two words have profoundly variant meanings. Thus, it is important that we understand their differences since they both deeply affect our everyday lives.