By Marina Cantacuzino, Founder of The Forgiveness Project, 1 December 2019

In this blog Marina shares her own experience in connection with holding grudges, when it might be time to stop apologising, and why forgiveness is essential in personal relationships.

A few years ago on Twitter the author and philosopher Alain de Botton came up with an imaginative remedy to solving personal conflict, suggesting: “Once a year, grudges should be disclosed without shame to resolve the horror of people one has upset without meaning to”.

At the time the idea resonated strongly with me as I was just coming to terms with the excruciating experience of having greatly offended a close friend for doing or saying something that to this day remains a mystery. As my apologetic emails remained unanswered and my phone calls ignored, I watched our friendship whither before my eyes. I had transgressed and my punishment was to be put into exile.

Betrayal had always been a big theme for my unforgiving friend and I certainly wasn’t the first to receive the brunt of his cold shoulder. Almost certainly he falls into the category that psychotherapist Ben Fuchs describes when he says that for some people forgiving and letting go of a grudge, “can be very unattractive because it means giving up a hard-won sense of power...It means giving up the moral high ground that comes from identifying myself as the person betrayed and you as the betrayer.”

I have never really understood this black and white, all or nothing, victim/perpetrator way of looking at the world. Banishing others from your life without room for discussion feels so brutal and final. Keeping friendships and sustaining intimate relationships is surely about managing our expectations, so that when disappointment sets in (which it invariably will) we can respond with compassion and forgiveness rather than blame and punishment.

Of course when a relationship becomes too malign, dangerous or toxic, it’s wise to walk away but I’m not talking about extreme cases here. I’m talking about the normal ebb and flow of human relationships when stuff happens and people get hurt; when we fall out with people who we care about - our friends and relatives who may have been in our lives for years, people we’ve loved and laughed with, sometimes married, our life-long friends, close colleagues.  

Taking umbrage with siblings, not responding to calls or emails from loved ones, disregarding offers of remorse and apology – are all weapons we use when we’ve been hurt. In time the rift usually heals but how should we respond when one person wants to make up and the other does not? Should we keep trying? Walk away? Forgive and forget?

When I founded The Forgiveness Project fifteen years ago I made sure the charity occupied a subtle space within the field of forgiveness, one of inquiry rather than persuasion.

Pushing or prescribing forgiveness is unhelpful because it can easily become a kind of tyranny.

However, when it comes to the rough and tumble of daily life, I have come to see forgiveness as the oil of personal relationships because without it resentment, animosity and cold shoulders just multiply and persist, leading to divorce, relationship bust-ups, family estrangements etc.

The English poet and philosopher David Whyte has written that “all friendships of any length are based on a continued, mutual forgiveness.” And in one of his blogs Patrick Wanis, a human behaviour and relationship expert for CNN, notes: “the most common denominator of the pain, mental and emotional affliction that I see people suffer is the lack of forgiveness – the anger and pursuit of revenge against mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle or self for something that someone did or didn’t do.”

If you want to be forgiven for some transgression it helps to have a vigorous conversation about the past with the person who’s been wounded. Apologising for something means giving respect to the person who’s been hurt, thus resetting the relationship back to where it was. Witnessing someone experiencing shame or humiliation for the way they behaved can help to mend a broken heart or rebuild broken trust as well bringing a kind of absolution to the wrongdoer.

Michael McCullouch author of Beyond Revenge has said, “Apology is really important, because when I apologize to you for something I’ve done, you see me squirming. You see me uncomfortable. You see me trying to reassure you that I’m not going to harm you in the same way again. You see me giving you respect as a human being with feelings. And all of a sudden, I’ve turned on a lot of the slider switches that make forgiveness happen in your head.”

Eve Ensler’s latest book, The Apology, is not about forgiveness but about healing. Written in the voice of her abusive and sadistic long dead father she has written the apology she always longed for but never received. “Many people need an apology. They need a reckoning”, she says, stressing that an apology must be both rigorous and genuine so that the person apologising is able to “remember, reconnect and reattach” with what they’ve done in the past.

For Ensler, like a psychological sleuth, writing her tyrannical father’s imagined apology allowed her to transform the pain of her past and even acted as a “kind of release” for her abuser.

But what happens when an acknowledgement of one’s guilt or responsibility for an error is not accepted, no matter how hard you try to apologise?

When my apology was thrown back at me I found myself at first feeling angry and then trying even harder to make amends. The trouble was the harder I tried the more it became a kind of humiliation as I handed all the power over to him.

In the end, and over several years, I learnt to let go completely. This meant first giving up trying, then accepting the friendship was over, and eventually ceasing to care. The simple learning for me was that people have the right to change their minds about who they love and who they want to be friends with, and the only way to come to terms with this is to give up expecting that they don’t.

This blog first appeared as an article in the November 2019 edition of Planet Mindful.

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