“I forgive you.” It is a phrase we are taught from a young age but a concept we do not fully understand until well into young adulthood. It is what we are programmed through our social development to say in response to an apology. But what does it really mean to forgive, and how does it change when we are part of a relationship?
What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is a completely voluntary process by which a person is willing to let go of hurt or negative emotions and attitudes associated with an offense someone has committed against them. It is the reconciliation between two people that allows them to return to a state of calm and cooperation with one another.
But forgiveness is not always as easy as it sounds. In a partnership, an offensive act can cause severe and sometimes permanent damage. How can a couple use the process of forgiveness as a way to encourage and foster better and more productive communication?
A healthy relationship is one that has place for forgiveness
First, there must be an understanding of the value of forgiveness. A healthy relationship cannot exist without a willingness to accept the apology of the other person. If forgiveness is denied, the hurt and anger are not resolved. The absence of resolution can lead to bitterness and can prevent growth and change. Second, there must be a familiarity with your partner’s way of communicating an apology. Like with affection and love, there are five distinctly different “apology languages” which a partner might use to offer a request for forgiveness. While each language is unique, each has the same ultimate goal – to offer a symbol of peace and regret as a form of resolution. Let’s take a closer look…
1. Expressing regret
Someone who uses this language might verbally admit wrongdoing and the desire to take back the hurtful action. It is a verbal indication of remorse and a wish to retract what was done or said that was harmful to the other person in the relationship. Someone giving an apology using this language is likely to use the words “I am sorry” to express an admission of guilt.
2. Accepting responsibility
A person who uses this form of reconciliation will likely use verbal statements to share with the victim that they understand the hurt was directly connected to their own actions. They acknowledge and accept the blame by taking responsibility for what their words or actions might have done to the other person or to the relationship. Someone using this language is more willing to say “I was wrong” than those using other forms of apology.
3. Making restitution
These partners are less likely to apologize with words; typically, those who apologize in this way will do something to make up for the wrongdoing. They may correct the actual wrong, or if that option is not available, they may go above and beyond by doing something else meaningful. The hope is that through this action, the partner who is hurt will see the desire of the other person to show love, affection, and regret.
4. Genuinely repenting
Genuinely repenting is the act of saying sorry and taking active steps to change how they talk or act in order to repair the damage done and prevent further damage. It must be a conscious effort to be proactive and create a plan for changing the behavior that caused the hurt in the first place. Someone apologizing in this form may fail one or two times before sticking to the plan and changing how they talk or act. But ultimately, there is a willingness to prove to the loved one that there is true remorse and a desire to do things differently.
5. Requesting forgiveness
While saying sorry or doing something to make up for what was done wrong can show remorse and regret, it may not be enough. Sometimes, it is the by hearing the words, “Will you forgive me?” that a partner truly understands the regret and sorrow a person feels for harming someone they love. It is not only an admission of guilt and a desire to change what was done, but it is also the acknowledgment of the partner’s emotions and longing to put that person above anyone or anything else.
Does forgiving mean forgetting?
But – is forgiving your partner the same as forgetting what has happened? Simply stated, the answer is no. You are a human being; your emotions will be damaged and your ability to trust and rely on the other person will be tested. It is not so easy to forget something that has been done to you. When you fell off of your bicycle as a child and scraped your knees, you likely remember the pain. You may even have scars to remind you of the experience. You have not forgotten how those moments felt, but you do not throw away the bike or never ride again. You learn from the pain, the memories, the scars – you do not let the mistakes of the past hinder growth in the present and future. Likewise, forgiveness of your spouse or partner does not mean you have forgotten the pain, humiliation, hurt, or embarrassment. It means you are willing to risk the person hurting you again in order to make room for healing.
If you are willing to forgive, it means that action is off limits to use as ammunition. But that does not mean you will forget. Rather, you learn more about yourself and your partner within the experience.