What’s Forgiveness Orientation & How Does It Affect Relationships?

a rock with the English word "Forgiveness" next to the Chinese character for the same word
Image by James_Seattle / CC BY

There’s been a theme lately as I’m listening to people’s troubles and giving out advice.

You can tell a lot about a situation by what their particular forgiveness orientation is, how their forgiveness is balanced between self and others.

In the most simple terms, a forgiveness balance can be expressed with the following equation: Forgiveness of self divided by forgiveness of others.

(Before we go on, while it’s possible to be completely unforgiving, let’s set the minimum value of forgiveness at 1 to prevent any division by zero, a mathematically undefined operation, an inscrutable sphinx.)

Self-Forgivers

A person whose forgiveness balance is greater than 1 is more forgiving of themselves than they are of others. This can be due to a tendency to forgive their own faults easily (high self-compassion), a tendency to be unforgiving of others, or both. For this essay, I will call them self-forgivers.

Other-Forgivers

Conversely, a person whose forgiveness balance generates a smaller value (a fractional value) is more forgiving of others than they are of themselves. This can be due to a tendency to forgive others easily, difficulty forgiving themselves (low self-compassion), or both.  I will call these folks other-forgivers.

Even-Forgivers

There’s a third group of people of course whose forgiveness is perfectly balanced between self and others. This would return a value of 1, since a value over itself always equals 1.

These are called even-forgivers.

True vs. Ideal Even-Forgivers

While theoretically quite possible (and inevitable given a large enough body of people), an even-giver self-assessment is more likely a result of respondent bias, a person either mistakenly believing that they are exactly equally forgiving of self and others (when they aren’t otherwise). Or deciding that this is the “desirable” answer.

This tendency to over-report 1 values is most often found in people who prize equality as a core value and therefore view it as their ideal/desired self. Or, to put it another way, they aspire to be fair minded and so may round themselves off to that level. Folks who do this are ideal even-forgivers.

Whatever the case, I am yet to encounter many of these individuals in the wild, who seem to be equally balanced between forgiveness of self and forgiveness of others. When I have found those who strike me that way, they are ultimately low on forgiveness to both self and others and not moderate or high. They will be called true even-forgivers.

The Difficulty of Accurately Assessing One’s Own Forgiveness Balance

In general, most people do not actually do a great job accurately assessing their own forgiveness balance. It’s usually the people closest to them, especially those who actually have to deal with them interpersonally in a meaningful way, who usually well grasp how forgiving someone else is. (But only if they’re assessing general patterns and not a specific situation they’re currently embroiled in, which can skew their assessment.)

Our beliefs surrounding forgiveness seem very values dependent. People often have strong beliefs about whether forgiveness of others is a virtue (kind, patient, caring) or a weakness (letting other walk all over you, being a sucker/easily manipulated, etc.). These beliefs color your assessment of your own forgiveness behavior, easily biasing you to report something different.

I’ve seen people err in both directions, too — mistakenly thinking that they are less or more forgiving than they actually are.

(In general, people do vary in their ability to self-assess accurately; tragically, those who are the most warped in their assessments are often the most confident of their abilities to accurately self-assess.)

Forgiveness Balance as a Relationship Conflict Frame

When viewing the most difficult-to-solve interpersonal conflicts, it’s sometimes helpful to frame them in terms of forgiveness balance. This is because they can often present as subtle relationship orientations that color interactions.

Example 1: Even-Handed Actor or Hypocrite? Yes.

Here’s an example:

One partner (either a true or ideal equal-forgiver who is very critical to both self and others) might mess up continually and be let off the hook by their lover (an other-forgiver), only to turn around and hold that same lover’s feet to the fire when they make the slightest mistake.

Simultaneously, this equal-forgiver might view this behavior as fair, as they grill themselves privately for their own mistakes. To their thinking, they are equally critical of both themselves and their lover, so there’s no hypocrisy involved.

Meanwhile, the other-forgiver is bewildered because they have forgiven their lover easily in the past and have not been shown the same courtesy when they mess up. From their point of view, this seems very hypocritical and unfair.

Speaking with both of these individuals will yield very different stories and emotional realities — both of which will be true, when run through their differing forgiveness balances. In practice, these serve as hidden relationship orientations that are confounding any attempt for the individuals involved to view conflicts similarly.

Example 2: Rigged Score-Keeping

Here’s another example:

I wrote previously of the perils of keeping score in your relationships:

“[K]eeping score” in a relationship [can] manifest countless…ways.

There are couples who count how many times the other was right or wrong in an argument. How many times they’ve each cooked dinner. Done certain domestic chores.

Who’s been sweeter or more romantic or more thoughtful X number of times. Who makes more money.

Turning the entire thing into a giant competition. Turning the relationship into a giant scoreboard.

Don’t get me wrong — it’s important for everyone in a relationship to be pulling their weight. To be contributing to the greater good. It’s not ideal for one person to do all the work and the other to have all the time to play. For one person to always give and the other take.

But there comes a point where in trying to ensure that everything is “even” on a microscopic one-to-one level that you’ve stopped enjoying your relationship. And have turned your partner into a competitor instead of a collaborator.

When two heavy self-forgivers (who are also both low in other-forgiving) date one another, they will often engage not only in score-keeping behaviors, but rigged score-keeping.

In a rigged score-keeping scenario, not only are the other person’s past transgressions tracked and brought up competitively later in future, unrelated scenarios as a way to “win” arguments, but a rigged score-keeper disputes and/or erases their own transgressions altogether.

Each party is not only fixated on their partner’s past mistakes, they also refuse to claim their own past mistakes.

These conflicts verge on impossible to reconcile, even with the help of a skilled mediator. The best parties involved can muster is avoidance that stretches on indefinitely. “Let’s drop it.” And never revisit.

Even this strategy is suspect since the parties will often silently keep score, leading to building resentment.

Example 3: Groundhog’s Day

Most people are familiar with the movie, but for those who aren’t, Groundhog’s Day is an 80s film which features Bill Murray living the same day of his life over and over again, stuck in a recursive loop (until certain conditions are reached).

While typically a partnership between two other-forgivers tends to be harmonious as they both forgive the other easily, when taken to extremes, forgiving easily without attempting to improve any of the underlying conflicts that might be contributing to a bad situation can cause a sort of a Groundhog’s Day effect can occur.

Person 1 messes up in a harmful way, Person 2 forgives them, but nothing changes. And then Person 1 goes on to do it again.

This sounds okay if it’s something that doesn’t have many consequences, say, something minor like leaving the toilet seat up. But what if it’s something severe and impactful? What if the behavior in question is physical abuse? Driving black out drunk? Spending all of the rent money on heroin? Stealing? Going to jail?

Those two people can easily become stuck in Groundhog’s Day where they never work out their problems. This can be particularly gnarly if both parties are repeatedly making the same impactful mistakes over and over.

It Gets Gnarlier If You Move into Relationship Structures That Involve More than Two People

The influence of forgiveness balance makes coaching people involved in polyamorous relationship systems exponentially more difficult. In these scenarios, you have the interaction of multiple imbalanced forgivers. There’s also the potential for people with a similar forgiveness orientation to confirm one another’s viewpoint (whether it’s balanced or not) and in effect “gang up” on individuals with a different forgiveness orientation.

Forgiveness Orientation Is a Hidden, But Important, Factor

Anyway, it’s something I’ve had to keep in mind when giving advice. Taking note of how everyone involved talks about their own mistakes and the transgressions of others — and also how they act upon what they say.

And making sure to factor that into my own assessment of a situation as a third party as well as the advice I’m giving.

It’s also something that I’ve had to keep in mind as I’ve managed to ascertain my own forgiveness orientation as well as the orientations of those closest to me (by listening to how others talk about and treat me). Those patterns inform the way that I approach the important people in my life and how I interpret what they do and say.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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