I received a short reply to my recent blog post entitled “Over it, an interesting concept”. No sharing of any personal information and from someone I have not been aware of previously so I have no idea of the status of the individual. From the e-mail address I would suggest a female. The comment just said:
I would love to hear your thoughts on “forgiveness”.
I do wonder why the forgiveness happens to be in inverted commas. When used in this way it is normally to indicate irony or scorn. I have never hidden my struggle with the concept of forgiveness or its unlikely place in my marital recovery. I think we need to be cautious about simplistic definitions and the easy platitudes that suggest we can only fully recover from adultery if we learn to forgive the wrong doer.
It’s not as if I haven’t considered it. I have made observations about forgiveness in past posts; for example, in March 2015 in the post: Not My Circus, I wrote; “If letting go is forgiving and forgetting then I resign myself to a life of holding on. The best I have achieved is acceptance and in order to affect this I have needed to firstly bring it all in”. In a May post, Anger and Letting Go: I wrote; “Forgiveness is something I DID let go of quite some time ago so I’m not bothered by whether this is a possibility or not. I just want to be able to accept my life as it is now and the choice that I made to stay in my marriage”. I think these comments kind of show how I view forgiveness in my emotional toolbox for overcoming adultery, however, I thought I’d take this opportunity to expand upon my thoughts more fully.
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, I have observed that “forgiveness” can be used as a weapon against the betrayed spouse. Forgiveness is held up as an essential action in overcoming the betrayal, a magic ingredient that can assuage all the hurt and anger whilst at the same time allow everybody involved to “move on”. If the betrayed spouse doesn’t work on forgiveness, remains angry and outraged at the audacity of their spouse then their behaviour is somehow pathologised. The betrayed spouse is transformed from an individual who has been significantly wronged to an emotional miser who denies kindness and mercy. We have to be careful that pushing forgiveness on to betrayed spouses is not just an example of victim shaming wrapped up in pretty packaging. Forgiveness a virtue, unwillingness to forgive, a vice. I do not consider that I owe my husband forgiveness and will not buy in to the idea that without forgiveness I am doomed to live a hellish life.
It’s easy to see that forgiveness as a concept has strong religious undertones. In Christianity it is viewed as a virtue and a proactive choice that someone can make to create a process that liberates oneself from anger and resentment. Christianity, like Islam does not require a repenting transgressor, so even if husband is not sorry we can learn to forgive. In Judaism, forgiveness and repentance go arm in arm, so the betraying spouse needs to have genuine remorse for their transgressions. However, in Buddhism the concept of forgiveness is not the same, instead it is understood more as a letting go of anger. Compassion is maybe their closest concept to forgiveness.
Moving away from religion to a more secular understanding forgiveness is generally regarded as a positive response to human wrongdoing, but it is a conceptually, psychologically, and morally complex phenomenon. There is much philosophical disagreement over the meaning of forgiveness, and when and under what conditions forgiveness is morally permissible, required, or even wrong.
The standard definition of forgiveness makes clear that its main purpose is the re-establishment or resumption of a relationship ruptured by wrongdoing, in granting forgiveness, a victim of wrong re-orients a relationship that has been disrupted or compromised by wrongdoing. This is interesting isn’t it? My last blog post was all about how my marriage is becoming re-established. So, that act in itself could be said to be an act of forgiveness even if I don’t recognise it as such.
It is believed that forgiveness helps us to move beyond strong negative emotions which, if allowed to fester, could harm us psychologically and physically. (Although I’m not sure if there is scientific evidence to back this up) Equally, forgiveness benefits wrongdoers, by releasing them from the blame and hard feelings often directed toward them by those they wrong. However, forgiveness may also go awry. For example if a victim of domestic violence forgives her abuser, they are inadvertently fuelling continuous cycles of abuse. Therefore, it needs to be understood that forgiveness might not always be justified and may even be inappropriate if given to the undeserving.
Being too ready to forgive a betraying spouse may be symptomatic of a lack of self-respect. Aristotle believed that an individual deficient in appropriate anger is likely to “endure being insulted” and is for this reason a “fool”. Kant suggests that a person who fails to become angry at injustices done to him or her lacks dignity and self-respect. I think we need to recognise that interpersonal forgiveness is not the panacea for all wrong doings and does not always necessarily serve morally laudable aims.
It is also difficult to distinguish between forgiveness and the various behaviours often associated with it, such as pardoning, excusing, and tolerating or otherwise endorsing wrongs. I would argue that forgiveness and reconciliation are equivalent notions, as each notion has the common goal of moving people’s lives forward by restoring a past relationship compromised by wrongdoing.
So, on the one hand there is the thought that forgiveness requires a complete overcoming of all negative emotions and judgments about a wrongdoer, whilst on the other hand is the idea that maybe retaining negative moral judgments and feelings about a wrongdoer are compatible with forgiveness. Equally, with a betraying spouse we all too often do not know enough about their intentions, motives, desires, and thoughts to confidently pass judgment on whether we can reasonably forgive them, and so the connection between understanding our spouses and forgiving them in the light of that understanding remains contentious. How can we be sure that a change of heart has really occurred and that he is not simply faking it?
So, have I “forgiven” my husband? The jury’s out I think. For me, it really doesn’t matter if forgiveness happens or not. So far, I am happy to say that his remorse and repair mechanisms have been excellent practices in drawing us closer and closer together as husband and wife. We are in a very good place and that is good enough for me. Maybe time does the rest.
Blake, William, 1757-1827. To annihilate the Self-hood of Deceit and False Forgiveness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55221 [retrieved November 27, 2015].