Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

What Do You Do When There Is No Apology?

April 8, 2005

What do you do when someone close to you won’t apologize or does nothing to right the wrong of a grievous offence? Is your only choice to forgive or not forgive?

Cheap forgiveness. Forgiveness given too easily is likely to be forgiveness that is superficial and undeserved. It is given before the hurt party has a chance to process the impact of the violation. It doesn’t ask enough of the offender and short-circuits many steps that need to occur for safety and trust to be restored.

When forgiveness is given too quickly, the hurt person lives with a self-imposed prison of hidden pain, anger or rejection he or she can no longer legitimately discuss.

Refusing to forgive. By refusing forgiveness, the injured party wants to punish the unremorseful offender and uses their refusal as an angry and continued protest of the violation. Protesting injustice becomes more important than happiness or peace of mind. Clinging to hate may be a way of hiding from pain.

Refusing to forgive can be a futile attempt to get the offender to care. Sometimes people who refuse to forgive confuse forgiveness with compassion or reconciliation, neither of which they are prepared to offer. Withholding forgiveness gives a ready weapon in future disputes.

By not forgiving, the victim chooses to live within a self-imposed prison of anger, rage, bitterness and obsessive preoccupation with injustice. By refusing to consider any offender’s efforts as worthy of forgiveness, this creates a permanent wedge between themselves and the offender. Unfortunately this untreated wound drives others away also.

Genuine forgiveness. Forgiveness comes as a transaction between the victim and the offender. The offender’s actions are important in meriting forgiveness. The offender invites forgiveness by understanding and acknowledging the harm that was caused, making amends, giving heartfelt apologies, and making a commitment to not repeat the wrongful behavior.

The hurt party lets go of resentment and further retribution. Healing occurs in the context of a caring relationship. It is hard to forgive when the offender isn’t available or shows no remorse.

Acceptance. In her book, "How Can I Forgive You?" psychologist Janis Abrahms Spring outlines a middle path of acceptance between cheap forgiveness and refusing to forgive. She cites Rabbi Susan Schnur’s distinction between the rigid categories of forgiving and not forgiving:

"We may partially forgive, vengefully forgive, contingently forgive, not forgive yet reconcile. We may mourn yet not forgive, achieve understanding yet only forgive certain parts of the betrayal; become indifferent, become detached."

Acceptance is a healing journey you make by yourself. Genuine forgiveness is a journey you make with the offender. Acceptance can bring healing just as forgiveness can.

Acceptance is a response that can be given unilaterally when the offender is unavailable, uncaring, unrepentant or clueless as to their culpability. Acceptance gives the victim a healthy way of staying in a relationship and offers the offender time and an opportunity to earn genuine forgiveness.

Spring outlines the benefits of acceptance. When you accept someone:

- you honor the full sweep of your emotions. You give voice to a full appreciation of the violation. You replay the injury again and again until the whole truth sinks in. It is facing the pain and feeling the suffering of the losses and deprivations that come with injury.

- you give up your need for revenge but continue to seek a just resolution. You are more important to yourself than the need to bring justice to the offender. Punishment doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction. Finding a place where your hurt can be understood and validated does.

- stop obsessing about the injury and re-engage with life. Obsessive, repetitive thoughts cause distress and take away energy and focus from your life.

- you protect yourself from further abuse. You can accept someone and still not put yourself in harm’s way. Acceptance doesn’t mean reconciliation with someone who is likely to harm you again. One of the dangers in forgiving too quickly is not paying enough attention to the offender or the offense.

- you frame the offender’s behavior in terms of his or her personal struggles. Don’t get caught up in the mistaken assumption that you caused or deserved the wrongful behavior. The mistakes are about the offender and not about you. Understanding the offender will help you respond in ways that are less vengeful, obsessive or apologetic. Understanding the offender doesn’t mean you are offering forgiveness.

Spring further suggests, When you accept someone:

- you honestly look at your own contribution to the injury.

- you challenge false assumptions about what happened.

- you look at the offender apart from the offense, weighing the good against the bad.

- you carefully decide what kind of relationship you want to have with the offender.

- you forgive yourself for your failings.

The goal of acceptance is to transcend the injury, achieve inner peace, find emotional resolution, get back to your best self, and find renewed meaning and value in life. It may be the best response when the offender either doesn’t care, can’t apologize or won’t apologize.

Besides being a separate response to injury, giving acceptance can also be step in a pathway to genuine forgiveness. This enables the injured party to stay in a relationship with an offender. It allows time for the offender to grasp the gravity of the offence and to do what it takes to earn genuine forgiveness.