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Forgiveness and Reconciliation: What they are and what they aren’t

There has been much misunderstanding about forgiveness and its companion, reconciliation. In this article I’d like to describe the benefits and pitfalls of forgiveness and to dispel some misconceptions about it. Definition of forgiveness:

It is both intra-personal (an attitude change) and interpersonal (a change in relations between people). In genuine forgiveness, one who has suffered an injury chooses to abandon rights to resentment and retaliation and instead offers mercy and understanding. It is voluntary and unconditional and does not depend on the offender’s response, although the offender’s response may help.

What forgiveness is not:

  1. It is not pardoning (sparing legal penalties), condoning (which implies a justified offense), excusing (implying the offender has a defensible reason), or forgetting (denying existence of injury).
  2. It is not necessarily reconciliation. This implies the continuation or re-establishment of a previous relationship and is based on the trustworthiness of the offender. And sometimes the offender is not even present, as in death.
  3. Forgiveness does not necessarily demonstrate the moral superiority of injured party.

What do people do when they forgive?

  1. They feel empathy for the transgressor, trying to understand the reasons behind the injury.
  2. They have more generous feelings about the transgressor.
  3. They stop ruminating about the transgression. The more people ruminate about an offense, the more difficulty they have forgiving the offense.

Dimensions of forgiveness

It involves both internal and interpersonal activities. The former changes cognitive appraisals and interpretations such as anger and hostility; the latter changes the relationship with the offender and implies no further revenge or reparations. But the fear often is that the offender may then not have to feel as guilty or change future behavior.

There are several types of forgiveness:

  1. Hollow forgiveness. The injured party expresses forgiveness but does not really feel it. He/she may continue to harbor resentments but the perpetrator may feel the matter is over and “back to normal.” But expressing forgiveness may be the first step to making the commitment to forgive – changed behavior really can change attitudes. Hollow forgiveness is better than nothing.
  2. Silent forgiveness. The injured party changes his/her attitude but does not express it; this allows the perpetrator to continue to feel guilty but reduces the negative feelings of the injured party. It seems manipulative but has several advantages. First, it has many of the advantages of forgiveness (reduction of negative feelings) without the disadvantages (loss of the perpetrator’s concessions and restitutions). Second, it may provide safety in certain situations, e.g. with an abusive spouse. Third, it may work well in exchange relationships where we need resources from other people. You can use the, “After all I’ve sacrificed for you...” model.
  3. Total forgiveness. The injured party ceases to feel resentful or upset about the offense and the perpetrator is released from further obligation and guilt. There may indeed be a total reconciliation here.
  4. No forgiveness (“total grudge”). “My father hated your father; my grandfather hated your grandfather, etc., so I hate you. And I’ll teach my children to hate your children!” This is obviously bad for everyone!

There are several advantages of forgiveness:

  1. A continuation of negative emotions may undermine one’s mental (and even physical) health. Anger can, in the short run, feel empowering but it doesn’t last. If you have a disposition to forgive it may reduce your interpersonal hostility in general.
  2. It can restore needed close and caring relationships; a lack of forgiveness tends to undermine all relationships and can lead to having few friends or intimates. It promotes relationship harmony.
  3. A refusal to forgive invariably hurts the injured party more than the offender. A famous Rabbi once said that a refusal to forgive if genuinely asked for is as great as the original offense. The victim role is associated with misfortune and passivity and identifying with it can undermine one’s functioning.
  4. Forgiving is transformational rather than conservational. It changes one’s motivation from self-protection to self-enhancement. It changes one’s goal from avoiding pain to pursuing peace; peace of mind and peace with others. It is empowering because it eliminates the victim role which is disempowering. It encourages empathy. But dropping our self-protective stance is difficult indeed for all of us.

Disadvantages of forgiveness (advantages of holding grudges):

  1. Forgiveness involves relinquishing future claims for restitution; in other words, the offender no longer OWES. In economic terms, it reduces the injured party’s future resources. There are tangible and material benefits to be gained by holding grudges.
  2. Not forgiving helps one to retain a sense of moral superiority (righteous indignation); forgiving renounces it. But in many religions, forgiving itself has been seen as morally commendable.
  3. Forgiving may increase the possibility that the transgression will recur; not forgiving may result in greater power in the victim that may reduce the chances of reoccurrence. Not forgiving means the injured party can continually remind the perpetrator of the offense. In that sense, not forgiving can feel empowering because forgiveness reduces one’s options.
  4. Forgiving can be risky if the perpetrator denies wrongdoing. Forgiveness may remove the last obstacle to a repeat. An apology involves the implicit assumption that the transgression will not be repeated. One study showed that the perpetrator‘s response was the best predictor of forgiveness and an apology correlated with high forgiveness. Apologies also helped people feel more empathic towards perpetrators.
  5. Transgressions may hurt the injured party’s pride or self-esteem and forgiving may feel like accepting a loss of face or self-esteem. This may account for “silent forgiveness;” it avoids a public loss of face. Forgiveness may be misinterpreted as weakness.
  6. Forgiveness means relinquishing a claim on revenge. Revenge can be a positive, empowering feeling - at least in the short run.
  7. Non-forgiveness may arise from principles or moral standards; forgiving may feel like condoning immorality. Strong adherence to standards of justice may imply that some acts should not be forgiven.

But note this! You are the primary beneficiary when you forgive others because it reduces your own negative emotions. You also bear the costs of not forgiving (holding a grudge) because you get to keep your negative emotions. This hurts you but generally it doesn’t hurt the perpetrator at all. So do yourself a favor: forgive. If you have difficulty forgiving someone important to you please see a psychologist to help you with the process.

E. Thomas Dowd, Ph.D., ABPP

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