Forgiveness Doesn’t Have to Look Like Forgiveness to the Person You’re Forgiving

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Image by Howard Duncan / CC BY

forgive (verb) – to stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake

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As I mentioned in another recent post, people tend to have a very expansive notion of forgiveness. They’ll often act as though forgiving someone means that you forgot what they did or that you allow your relationship with them to be exactly as it was before.

This is simply not true.

Forgiveness is simply the cessation of anger or resentment about a mistake being made. Or an offense being perpetrated.

This does not mean that things do not change or that action doesn’t have real world consequences. All it means is that you’re not off seething about it.

Yesterday’s essay on forgiveness focused on how it’s easy to mix up self-protection and anger (and why).

But today I’d like to talk about another misconception about forgiveness:

Some people believe it’s not really forgiveness unless you have a Come to Jesus Moment. A big hug-it-out, talk-it-out moment with the offending party.

That forgiveness isn’t truly forgiveness unless you meet up with the person who you’re forgiving and say, “I forgive you.”

That’s not true.

Forgiveness Is a Personal Emotional Experience, Not Always a Social Act

Fundamentally, forgiveness isn’t a social act. Forgiveness is a personal experience. It takes place in your own emotional life, in your own feelings.

It can turn social, but it doesn’t have to.

You can forgive a person and still never talk to them. This can be on purpose… because you are fairly certain that they’ll do the same thing again if you let them back into your life. Or because you simply don’t want to. You don’t even have to necessarily dislike someone to not want to keep in touch (although I’ve found it possible to dislike someone and not feel angry or resentful towards them). You can also naturally lose touch with someone who ticked you off and find over time that you aren’t angry with them anymore. And don’t resent them or what they did.

Forgiveness is about you not seething in anger and resentment. It’s not a social demonstration that you owe someone else (no matter what other people might try to tell you).

You don’t owe it to the other person to communicate that.

For a person who longs for another person to forgive them for something they did, this can be terrible news. Private forgiveness can feel a bit like ghosting on the other end of it. If you hope someone will forgive you for something you have done, if they forgive you privately but never reach out, you’re not going to get the easy and satisfying emotional closure you might if they did.

But there’s a flipside to this, too. A positive one, one that I try to keep in mind: People who don’t talk to you may have actually forgiven you long ago and never told you. I think about that option a lot in regards to people I fell out of touch with years ago.

I’d Think It Were Fake If It Didn’t Keep Happening to Me… on Both Sides

“Sounds fake, but okay,” some of you might be saying.

And I’d be saying it, too — if it hadn’t happened to me, many times, on both sides.

I have many people I’m not angry or resentful towards who did janky things that I haven’t talked to in years. Some of them I actually like and consider very fondly in my memories and have realized that how we acted was more of a product of the time than of us.

But I didn’t seek them out Emotional Bounty Hunter style awkwardly foisting my forgiveness on them.

And on the other side of it, there was a girl named Darla, who was… let’s say a frenemy to me back in middle school and high school. Essentially, we shared a best friend in common so spent quite a bit of time together although we often clashed with one another.

Looking back, we had a number of interpersonal conflicts. We pulled a variety of stupid pranks on one another. It wasn’t good. I am proud of none of it. It was some rife middle school bullshit.

Anyway, when we graduated high school, we went our separate ways and fell out of touch. Maybe five years ago, Darla came back into my life via the magic of Facebook and mutual friends, and the first thing I did was apologize to her for the stupid shit I did. I suspected she hated me. I really did.

But come to find out, Darla was all benevolence about me. She adored me and could look back on our former friendship (slash frenemy-ship) with fondness. She was fully aware that she pranked me too back and was just as vicious back, really. Attributed everything that happened to our being young and confused about who we were.

She’d forgiven me long ago (as I had forgiven her); I just hadn’t been notified. Neither of us had told the other. But the forgiveness happened just the same.

Anyway, if there’s one Darla situation that I know about, it’s possible (and likely) that there are others that I don’t. It helps me put things in perspective and not beat myself up for things that others have probably made their peace with long ago.

And the same goes for you, too, reader.

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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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