I recently conducted a radio interview (linked at the bottom of the post) with Janis Abrahms Spring, a board-certified clinical psychologist and a nationally acclaimed expert on issues of trust, intimacy and forgiveness. Janis and I discussed the dynamics between couples that lead to divorce or reconciliation, as well as the tensions of emotional reconciliation.
Janis’ work points to the difference between acceptance and forgiveness, and the steps along the way there. Oftentimes in culture when someone says, “I’m sorry that — blank, fill in the blank,” it could be a little thing, “I’m sorry I was late,” or, “I’m sorry I had an affair,” or, “I’m sorry,” when it is something really bad, the societal expectations for the other person is to say it’s okay. This linguistic trap can be tricky; maybe it is okay but maybe it’s not okay. Maybe I can forgive you and still you could be wrong.
An apology has to be very specific. It has to capture the heart of the other person. It has to be heartfelt. We have all felt the experience of having somebody offer a superficial apology where it hasn’t taken two seconds worth of thought and yet we’re cut very deeply. This kind of “apology” can make the situation much worse.
The tension between acceptance and forgiveness of a wrongdoing and an apology is often caused by the black and white way we view apologies: either we forgive or we do not. We’ve been taught to believe that forgiveness is good for you, and that good people forgive others, but a lot of people choke on that. This is why people hate forgiveness because of these platitudes that don’t live up to real life for a lot of people.
If forgiveness is too generous, if somebody has an affair or somebody hurts you in some way and they’re not sorry and they don’t make any meaningful amends, people don’t want to think it’s their job to forgive and that they’re going to get better if they forgive. So they’re left hating and hurting and that doesn’t really prescribe a very good life. In these cases, holding on to a resentment is like swallowing rat poison and hoping that the rat will die.
Janis’ alternative to this kind of forgiveness is acceptance. She then spells out 10 steps that you could take yourself that will help you transcend the wound and make peace with what has happened. These steps include ways to interrupt your ruminations surrounding the injuries others have caused you–ways to heal yourself without having to forgive the actions of someone else.
The acceptance is something you do on your own. The forgiveness is something you do and can only do with the help of the person who has hurt you, whether that would be a parent or a partner or a sibling or a child, whoever.
Interview with Dr. Abrahms Spring: