The highest and most beautiful things in life

are not to be heard about,

nor read about, nor seen but,

if one will, are to be lived.

- Sören Kierkegaard

am very, very protective of the word “forgive.” I try to speak the word only when I trust that my listener understands how I intend it to be characterized. And I pay particularly close attention to how my clients use it as they talk with me – even when, or especially when, they are tossing around the word casually. To my way of thinking, forgiveness is a peak human experience that should be cherished as such.

Forgiveness is, biochemically, one of the strongest messages we get from the cosmic designers. When someone has transgressed against us and then has sincerely apologized, we get a flood of relational chemicals that can leave us feeling expansive, tender and sentimental. This inner chemistry warms us with a naturally occurring opiate cocktail that momentarily binds us to the penitent standing before us. Out of that binding comes a natural and seemingly effortless willingness to let bygones go and to welcome caring in. Given all that, you can see how forgiveness is an unavoidable reaction to a sincere and size-appropriate apology that allows for a reattachment to occur between the two people. These moments are precious, precious, precious.

I am so protective of the act of forgiveness, in fact, that I believe that one should not endeavor to forgive absent a true apology.

Before I explain my reasoning, let me define some terms.

Transgression: When someone perpetrates a wrongdoing upon us, they have incurred a debt against the emotional equity in the relationship. If the wrongdoing is small (blocked the aisle with their shopping cart) and the relationship minimal (simply citizens of the same town), the debt is minuscule. As both the transgression and relationship grow in significance, however, so does the debt. A profound betrayal can all but bankrupt a relationship.


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Apology: An apology is both the acknowledgement of the debt and also an offering of a contract spelling out the terms of the relational repayment process. Within the process of a true apology, intentions must be clarified and the offending behavior must cease. The ability to apologize authentically and completely is a crucial interpersonal skill to have, so please see that article for more details.

Forgiveness: When we forgive, we signal our willingness to accept the contract of a true apology through cognitive, emotional and behavioral acts. The cognitive aspect of forgiveness requires us to fully consider, from a place of unapologetic self-loyalty, whether or not a complete apology has been made, whether the contract is sufficient to repay the debt and what our past experience with the perpetrator suggests about the odds of the contract being fulfilled from his or her end. Once the assessment has been made and we decide to forgive, our emotions flavor the acceptance process. We will experience and express appreciation for the integrity it took for the penitent to extend the apology, we will feel relief that the transgression has stopped and we can rest assured that the other person is up to the task of honoring the relationship. We are also soothed by the hint supplied by the thorough apology that we will not be the only one in the future protecting the emotional equity we have gathered together. The behavioral part of forgiveness requires us to convey the forgiveness kindly and clearly. Perhaps more importantly we need to express our forgiveness with no strings attached because, similar to an apology, forgiveness is a contract to work on ourselves. If we are truly to forgive, we must commit to putting in as much work as necessary to set aside our anger for the rest of time. This means we must resist the temptation to revisit the old wound later, hold a grudge or otherwise dishonor the apology contract by making it difficult for the perpetrator to repay the debt. Once we forgive, in other words, we have to behave ourselves.

So, why do I believe that donated forgiveness – forgiving in the absence of an apology – is neither a generous nor a wise thing to do?

Here is my reasoning:

A transgression that is not followed by an apology is an ongoing transgression in that the perpetrator has chosen to leave our wound open and unattended. What an awful thing to do to another person. This is why drivers who hit-and-run are treated as much more wicked than those who stop after an accident to both take responsibility and render aid. Thus, when someone hurts you, refuses to admit it and does nothing to ameliorate the injury, he or she is rejecting the fact that you have basic human rights. If you donate forgiveness to a person who does this to you, you are sending this message: It’s okay with me that you hurt me and refused to help me either because I don’t matter or because you are unable to help yourself. Neither of these reasons makes sense to me.

I don’t matter: This is an egregious violation of self-loyalty. You should matter to yourself and how people treat you should matter. A life with damaged self-loyalty is a life that bewilders its way through a fog of doubts and inhibitions. A strong self-loyalty, on the other hand, privileges existential civil liberties, meaning we maintain a deeply seated self-ownership for what we are trying to achieve in our life. (It’s important to remember that self-loyalty doesn’t exclude altruism, it simply precedes it.) It boils down to this: If you are not loyal to yourself, your life will not be well implemented. If you are loyal to yourself, you will believe yourself entitled to both respect and freedom from infringement, meaning you are entitled to an apology when your rights have been violated.

You can’t help it: It’s not that this position isn’t true, it’s that it doesn’t justify a donation of forgiveness. When someone is in over their head in an interpersonal situation, causes an injury to another and then shuts down emotionally, it is certainly appropriate for us to understand, empathize and even remain in a relationship with them. But, to take them off the hook by not expecting an apology is not good for them. Unearned forgiveness injures the receiver in two ways. First, it tells them that they are incapable of rising to the challenge of crafting a complete apology. And second, when they haven’t held themselves responsible and we collude in that, we steal from them the consequences of their actions. Consequences that can, hopefully, eventually, precipitate growth on their part. When the world takes us off the hook, we usually, happily, stay off the hook. The “gift” we give with faux forgiveness is lowered expectations of the perpetrator.

All this doesn’t mean we don’t absorb lots and lots of hurt in our lifetimes when denied the healing catalyst of an apology. Of course we can recover from these incidents. Of course we can write off transgressions that people have visited upon us. Of course we can pity those unable to muster the courage and ego strength to extend an apology and we can treat them kindly. But if we donate to another the gift of forgiveness when they have not earned it with an apology, we are sending a very bad message indeed – to them and to us.

And, finally, what kind of future relationship is possible between, say, a man who cannot hold himself accountable and the person who wants to love him? When we get excuses from a set of we-did-the-best-we-could parents or from an oops-did-you-notice-that woman rather than apologies, we are being given a warning. The brilliant Maya Angelou called it when she said: "When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time." These folks are dangerous to care for because they have not demonstrated the ability to hold themselves accountable in order to learn from their behavior. Letting go of anger at these types of people, a wise thing to do in many instances, is not the same thing as forgiveness. Nor is trying to move past an old injury a bad idea. But in both of these cases, if the relationship is to continue, very tight boundaries need be erected to protect the victim from further injury.


Rather than trying to reverse engineer the warmth and joy of forgiveness when you have not been honored with an apology from someone in your life who has hurt you, maybe you could just utilize another word: forgo. Perhaps you can just forgo their transgressions like one would write off a never-going-to-be-paid-back loan. What that would mean would be to understand that the perpetrator has declared emotional bankruptcy and is now a bit of a bad credit risk. While you could forgo his or her emotional equity debt and you could choose to stay in relationship with that person, you would always want to be leery of trusting him or her with too much of your heart. Doesn’t that make sense?

Like love, I believe that forgiveness is a sacred construct and that it is co-created when an apology meets an injury. Mistakes are human, apologies divine and forgiveness a joy to experience. A wise life incorporates these truths.

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What does it mean when you have given a true apology and the other person refuses to accept it and forgive? When a sincere apology is rejected, it is usually because there is another, hidden transgression playing out in the mind of the person who appears unable to forgive. Unless that person is willing and able to describe what they consider to be the true debt, it will be difficult for the problems within the partnership to be corrected. (There are, of course, times when there is actually a wish on one person’s part to not have a healthy connection at all…he would rather just hate the person who made a mistake and stay loyal to his relationship with hate. This type of person is pitiable.) When faced with a communication impasse like this, it can be effective to switch from a content-based conversation (talking about how the initial transgression is unforgivable) to a process-based conversation (talking about what is happening between the two people at this point in their relationship that is making it impossible for one person to accept the other's apology). If that strategy proves ineffective and if the relationship is important enough, outside help in the form of mediation or therapy is in order.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.