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How Can I Forgive You?
The Courage to Forgive, The Freedom Not To
Until now, we have been taught that forgiveness is good for us and that good people forgive. Dr. Spring, a gifted therapist and the award-winning author of After the Affair, proposes a radical, life-affirming alternative that lets us overcome the corrosive effects of hate and get on with our lives—without forgiving. She also offers a powerful and unconventional model for genuine forgiveness—one that asks as much of the offender as it does of us.
This bold and healing book offers step-by-step, concrete instructions that help us make peace with others and with ourselves, while answering such crucial questions as these:
- How do I forgive someone who is unremorseful or dead?
- When is forgiveness cheap?
- What is wrong with refusing to forgive?
- How can the offender earn forgiveness?
- How do we forgive ourselves for hurting another human being?
272 pages; ISBN 9780061865299
Cheap Forgiveness is a quick and easy pardon with no processing of emotion and no coming to terms with the injury. It's a compulsive, unconditional, unilateral attempt at peacemaking for which you ask nothing in return.
When you refuse to forgive, you hold tenaciously to your anger. When you forgive cheaply, you simply let your anger go.
When you refuse to forgive, you say "no way" to any future reconciliation. When you forgive cheaply, you seek to preserve the relationship at any cost, including your own integrity and safety.
Cheap Forgiveness is dysfunctional because it creates an illusion of closeness when nothing has been faced or resolved, and the offender has done nothing to earn it. Silencing your anguish and indignation, you fail to acknowledge or appreciate the harm that was done to you.
If you forgive too easily, you're likely to have what personality expert Robert Emmons calls "a chronic concern to be in benevolent, harmonious relationships with others." The character trait that defines you could, in fact, be called "forgivingness." While some people would regard "forgivingness" as a virtue -- Emmons calls it "spiritual intelligence" -- I would suggest that it can rob you of your freedom to respond to an injury in an authentic, self-interested way. It can also be bad for your health, as we'll see later. When you feel compelled to forgive regardless of the circumstances, you're offering not Genuine Forgiveness but a cut-rate substitute.
People Who Forgive Too Cheaply
Cheap Forgiveness comes in several forms. You may recognize yourself in one of them.
The Conflict Avoider
This is the most common type. Overly compliant and forgiving, you tend to dismiss an injury for the sake of protecting a relationship, as mutilating as it may be. On the surface, you act as though nothing is wrong. Inside, you may be hemorrhaging.
Conflict avoiders remain in relationships without voice and without a healthy sense of entitlement. Your submissive behavior -- your tendency to subjugate your needs to those of others -- is often based on one of three fears.
1. You fear that the offender will retaliate with anger or violence.
If you grow up with rageful parents, you may learn to keep silent -- to go along in order to get along. This pattern is likely to persist into adulthood, as it did for a patient named Marsha. "My parents' anger was frightening," she told me. "I remember the day my mother threw over the Ping-Pong table and my father, drunk, chased her with a gun. I locked myself in my room and couldn't eat or sleep for days. Living with them, I learned to pick my words carefully, to lie low. I hated them both and got married at sixteen just to get out of the house. To this day I'm not good at anger. It scares me. I never even allow myself to feel anger. God knows where it goes."
2. You fear that the offender will reject or abandon you.
You may also resort to Cheap Forgiveness because you fear being cast off by someone whom you depend on for a sense of self-worth. This "morbid dependence" is like insulin to a diabetic. It is not optional. It is a necessary lifeline.
Kathy, a forty-seven-year-old massage therapist, is a case in point. Desperate to hold onto her husband, Jack, she left herself no space in which to negotiate her needs. "I think of myself as a love junkie," she told me. "Why else would I stay in such a sick relationship? Jack drinks too much, he cheats on me, he lashes out at me verbally and sometimes physically. What happened last week should have been a wake-up call, but I shut off the alarm. We were on vacation, watching a video, and Jack was drinking. I asked him, 'What do you want to do for dinner?' and he blurted out, 'You've ruined my life!' and then slapped me and told me how much he hated me, and started in about how I was making him miss the end of the movie and how he wanted to kill me. A little over the top, wouldn't you say? And then he started to cry and tell me he hated himself and didn't know why he was so cruel to me. I know if I were healthy, I'd leave. But I'm stuck here, trying to be good enough for him, the way I tried to be good enough for my mother. She used to tell me, 'If it weren't for your younger sister, I'd have no reason to live' -- that's how much I meant to her. I guess I'm still trying to get her -- someone -- to love me, even if they're as messed up as I am."
Needing to stay connected to Jack in order to affirm her own worth, Kathy constantly made excuses for his behavior. "It's the alcohol," she told me once. "The alcohol makes him violent." Or, "It's his low self-esteem -- that's why he drinks. He projects his self-hatred on me, but he doesn't mean to be so mean." And shortly after he slapped her and told her how much he hated her, she told me, "We're closer than we've ever been."
Making excuses for Jack's violent, uncontrollable behavior and deluding herself about his capacity for change kept Kathy trapped in a dangerous relationship. But without Jack she was without a self, and that felt more terrifying than his degrading words or his physical abuse ...
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