“Will you tell us about (the importance of) forgiveness?” This request came from the Head of an agency where I was conducting some training on ‘Recovery from Infidelity’. This question might not seem odd to a lay person in counselling or to someone coming from a religious background. However, to talk about it specifically in the context of secular psychology and counselling seems out of place.
Since the time of Sigmund Freud (founder of the “talking cure”), counsellors – and more specifically, psychotherapists – parted company with religion and many of the concepts associated with it, like forgiveness and guilt. Early psychoanalysts were wary of religion and the Church, and saw its beliefs as the cause of anxiety for many and a tool for oppression of others.
Counsellors’ scepticism of forgiveness seemed to also echo the belief in many people that true forgiveness is neither possible nor practical. We are all familiar with the phrase “I can forgive but I cannot forget”.
Regardless of one’s religious and spiritual orientation, the belief amongst many is that complete recovery and healing of fractured relationships is only possible when it involves forgiveness. The hurt party needs to forgive the hurt and grief caused to them.
Though forgiveness is a response that is needed, it has to be delicately handled. It cannot be rushed nor given on demand. Sometimes it is offered too quickly, in response to expectations of others to “move on”. At times forgiveness is even demanded by the betrayer: “I said I was sorry; what else do you want from me?” When forgiveness is given before the hurt party is ready, it often feels empty and unreal. The healing that it could bring is usually thwarted.
Forgiveness also does not exist in a vacuum; it is a response to the expression of contrition and penitence by the betrayer. Apologising and admitting guilt may involve more than just making a general admission of one’s fault. This is especially needful if the betrayer had made more than a one-time slip, but had committed a string of lies and transgressions.
Some counsellors recommend stating each major act committed, outlining what they understand is its impact, making a statement of contrition and a request for forgiveness to resolve the hurt caused. For instance, they may say: “I admit that I lied to you about being on a business trip during our anniversary. I was with my lover. I hurt you not only by my dishonesty but also by not spending special time with you on what should have been our special day. I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
In such an instance, the hurt party can clearly understand if the betrayer knows what he or she is sorry for.
And if forgiveness is given, the betrayer can appreciate what this act is costing the hurt party.
I mentioned “if forgiveness is given” because it is a gift. It is not an obligation and it may be offered not immediately, but after some consideration. Having said this, to offer forgiveness frees the hurt party more than just the betrayer from the hurt that has been committed. It also allows the relationship to be put on the path of healing. It is a gift that blesses both parties.
Finally, for the betrayer to feel true contrition, the hurt party must be allowed to express the pain of the betrayal. This expression can take the form of mainly words, silence, tears or anger. The pain is usually not expressed in one sitting but often comes in waves.
Betrayers are often at a loss of how to respond to them. If questions are asked, they may soon realise that no answer can be offered that gives relief to the pain. No promise offered will also be enough to settle the storms of distrust and doubt. What it requires is for the betrayer to sit patiently silent and witness the chaos that his or her selfish act has unleashed.
It is this witness, and knowing how the other feels, that will inform the statements of contrition and penitence. It is from hearing the depths of apology that forgiveness can begin to take root. And perhaps, it is with the offer of forgiveness that life can be renewed again.
Picture by ChristianChan/Bigstock.com
Benny Bong has been a family and marital therapist for more than 30 years, and is a certified work-life consultant. He was the first recipient of the AWARE Hero Award in 2011 and is a member of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church.