From the smallest slight to the biggest betrayal, getting hurt is a persistent and recurring part of life.
- Your best friend insults you.
- You get stood up on a date.
- Your teenager tells you to go F yourself.
- Your colleague trashes your presentation.
Or the biggies.
- A partner, parent, or trusted mentor abuses you.
- Your wife—or husband—has an affair.
- Your boss passes you over—again—or fires you.
- Someone you thought had your back goes behind your back.
In many cases, we react to hurt—with anger, bitterness, and absolutes—instead of responding more carefully and thoughtfully, often resulting in more hurt for both others and ourselves.
From a stubbed toe to a skinned knee, a broken nose to a broken heart, life will inevitably add insult to injury, and no one goes through unscathed. But we all handle hurt differently, and whether we forgive those who hurt us or decide to hit back, part ways, or hold a grudge for all eternity depends on many factors, such as our past experience, our general outlook on life, and our impulse control. In many cases, we react to hurt—with anger, bitterness, and absolutes—instead of responding more carefully and thoughtfully, often resulting in more hurt for both others and ourselves. Responding to hurt in a healthy and constructive way requires a fairly high level of emotional maturity, and forgiving those who hurt feels like the last thing we want to do. Knowing when to forgive and how to forgive can help us move on from hurt instead of holding on to feelings that will only hold us back and have the potential to hold us hostage. Of course, some things people say or do to us may indeed be unforgivable, and that’s OK. But if forgiveness is an option, here’s how you can best explore it.
Below are what I have labeled the four types of forgiveness, along with some advice on when and how to use each one.
- Unconditional forgiveness. The highest type of forgiveness we can offer someone who has hurt us is unconditional forgiveness. When we forgive unconditionally, it means we stop basing our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings on what the other person said or did to hurt us, and we do not attach any conditions to resuming the relationship as it was before the hurt. We give the offender a fresh start, dispense with any resentment, and go about things as if the hurt never happened. We put it in the past and let it fade away. Unconditional forgiveness works best when the person who has hurt us has expressed true contrition and we are highly confident the hurtful behavior will not be repeated. While unconditional forgiveness is, essentially, complete, it is not an open invitation for someone to hurt us again, and it does not mean that we forget the hurt completely. It’s more like the way the court system often forgives a first-time offender, sparing him or her a criminal conviction but still keeping a private record of the original offense to ensure that a subsequent offense will be treated as a repeat. Unconditional forgiveness requires a high level of trust—both in the offender not to hurt again and in ourselves not to allow the hurt to continue to hang over the relationship like a dark cloud. It is the most difficult type of forgiveness to practice but can also be the most rewarding. Unconditional forgiveness offers the greatest benefit to both parties, because it has the power to fully restore a broken relationship.
- Conditional forgiveness. The second highest type of forgiveness is conditional forgiveness—a way forward out of the broken place that requires constant maintenance on the offender’s part and constant vigilance on yours as the forgiver. It’s like the phrase President Reagan used when describing a nuclear arms treaty with the former Soviet Union: “trust but verify.” Conditional forgiveness is appropriate when your level of trust in the person who hurt you is not yet high enough to grant unconditional forgiveness, and it can serve as a stepping stone to the latter. The problem with conditional forgiveness, particularly in the case of intimate relationships and betrayal, is that it often creates a power imbalance: the hurt party holds all the cards and has the power to continue or terminate the relationship based on the offender’s behavior. This can play out in examples such as a betrayed partner feeling entitled to monitor—or hack into—emails and texts, and it requires both people to establish mutually agreeable conditions and boundaries. Conditional forgiveness effectively puts the relationship on probation and requires the “probation officer” to enforce the conditions and the consequences of violating them. It is not always pleasant but is often necessary to reset a relationship that has gone off the rails. If you are the offender and you’ve been offered conditional forgiveness, it helps to understand that the conditions are for your protection as much as for the other person’s and that they are meant to promote healthy behavior, not to demand constant proof of your commitment not to hurt again. Also, you, too, are free to walk away at any time. Still, conditional forgiveness offers greater benefit to the conditional forgiver than the conditionally forgiven.
- Dismissive forgiveness. The third—and lowest—type of forgiveness is dismissive forgiveness—taking a “whatever” attitude towards the hurt and just moving on with your life in a positive direction. Dismissive forgiveness often involves terminating or dramatically reducing the closeness of a relationship—and may involve a life change such as quitting a job with an difficult boss or deciding to leave a dysfunctional marriage or partnership. It doesn’t work in parent-child relationships unless the child is fully independent. In dismissive forgiveness, you as the forgiver decide not to waste time, energy, or emotional space on the hurtful event and to put measures in place—boundaries, distance, or both—to ensure it never happens again. It is a kind of cultivated indifference; a decision that the offender no longer has the power to hurt you or the privilege of being a meaningful part of your life. At the same time, though, you decide not to seek revenge or retribution, which is why dismissive forgiveness is still forgiveness. You walk part or all of the way away, without carrying the burdens of hatred, resentment, or the need for vindication with you. Dismissive forgiveness can be used for small slights with people who are not a major part of your life, and, when necessary, with big-time betrayals such as infidelity, depending on whether or not you want to preserve your relationship. Among the types of forgiveness, dismissive forgiveness offers the greatest benefit to the forgiver and the least to the forgiven, who is usually cut out or marginalized from the forgiver’s life. Though it can be harsh, there is nothing wrong with dismissive forgiveness, and sometimes it constitutes the only way forward.
- Grace. I saved grace for last, because it is of an entirely different order than the other three types of forgiveness. Grace is not ours to grant but (if you believe in God) God’s. For believers, God is the ultimate forgiver, and, at least for me, the one to whom we are ultimately accountable for our transgressions. Grace is not something we merely ask for but something we must reach for with whatever type of repentance we make, because grace is extended and not just given to us. In Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel scene of God creating Adam, with both God’s and Adam’s hands reaching and extending, fingers not quite touching, grace—both the giving and the receiving—is portrayed as the essence of creation, the essence of our humanity, and the essence of one’s connection to and relationship with God (if one has such a relationship). Grace is forever attainable (just millimeters and one tiny additional bit of effort away), but not a “given” or a guarantee, because (since the fingers are not touching) it is not yet attained. The attaining, it turns out, is in the trying, the reaching, the commitment to continued effort—as well as in your extending grace to others with the knowledge that none of us is perfect. And it is this continued effort that makes unconditional forgiveness work, on both the human and, I believe, the spiritual level. Thus, grace is both eternally complete and forever incomplete. In the words of Anne Lamott:
I do not understand the mystery of grace—only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.
Mystery explained: Grace meets us where we are as long as where we are is continually reaching.
Understanding the four types of forgiveness, what they do for us, and when to apply which type gives you a set of tools to handle any type of hurt, while helping you determine the healthiest and most appropriate response that will best serve your needs.