Forgiveness In Families

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None of us "does" family perfectly. We sometimes say and do things that offend loved ones. All of us are guilty of "sins" of commission or omission toward those we care about. Forgiveness is an essential part of strong, healthy relationships.

Judeo-Christian beliefs teach that nobody is exempt from forgiveness; we should forgive all wrongs that have been done to us, regardless of their severity. The Family: A Proclamation to the World (¶ 7) singles out forgiveness as an essential feature of successful marriages and families. Once thought to be exclusively a religious doctrine, the notion of forgiveness has rapidly movedp beyond religious borders into mainstream society.

One definition of forgiveness is the ability to release the mind and the heart from all past hurts and failures, all sense of guilt and loss. Forgiveness enables us to overcome anger and feelings of resentment or a desire to punish or get even with someone who has crossed us. Forgiving involves changing your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in relationship to the offender. Bad feelings and judgment toward the offender are reduced, not because they don't "deserve" that treatment, but because we willingly view the offender with compassion, benevolence, and love.

What happens when we don't forgive?

Health professionals tell us that the body manufactures "high voltage" chemicals like adrenaline and cortisone when you don't forgive. Too many of these chemicals can result in tension-related ills such as headaches and abdominal pains. Left unchecked, this can result in more serious problems such as ulcers, gastritis or irritable bowel syndrome.

When couples and families fail to forgive, unequal relationships are created and maintained. True closeness is an impossibility because the "offended" is in a position of holding the "offender" in bondage, and the obsession with being wronged and seeking revenge holds the victim in bondage as well. The person who made the mistake or hurt the other is kept in a "one down" position of being indebted to the other. The following phrases are common to such a situation:

  • "I'm (the offended) going to make you (the offender) pay for what you did."
  • "You're (offender) never going to live this down."
  • "You (offender) owe me. I'm (offended) going to get even with you."
  • "I'll (offended) hold this against you (offender) for the rest of your life."
  • "I'll (offended) get you (offender) for this."

Forgiveness researchers suggest that family members from all families must humbly seek and grant forgiveness so that their relationships can survive.

The benefits of forgiving are recently being discovered by science and have long been taught by religious organizations. Scientifically validated benefits of forgiving include the reduction of chronic pain, cardiovascular problems, and violent behavior; increased hope; and decreased levels of depression and anxiety. People who don't forgive typically have higher heart rates and blood pressure and other physical problems. The unforgiving responses of blame, anger, and hostility have been linked with poor health, particularly coronary heart disease and even premature death. Most people who have forgiven others will testify of the joy experienced as the emotional burden they had been carrying was released.

Countless family situations present the need and opportunity for forgiveness. One regular battle between a teenage son and his father ended when the youth retreated to his bedroom, packed his bags and left the house in great anger and resentment, despite his mother's tearful protests. As he left, his father called out saying, "I know I haven't been the best father to you. I'm sorry for the pain I've caused you. I love you." The young man boarded a bus for a distant town. As he traveled, his father's words--"I'm sorry----I love you"--rang in his ears. His boiling resentment cooled, and he began to weep. He bought a return ticket at the next stop. The youth arrived home late that night to find his father in the rocking chair with his face buried in his hands. The youth whispered, "Dad" and they ran into each other's arms. The son later wrote, "Those last years at home were the best ones of my childhood."

Is there a family member you have not forgiven?

Here's an exercise suggested by authors Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and Susan Blumberg in their best selling book Fighting for Your Marriage. You can apply the tips to all kinds of relationships. They may help you tap the healing power of forgiveness.

First, reflect on areas where you may harbor resentment, bitterness, and lack of forgiveness in your relationship with family, friends, work associates, or others. Do you hold grudges? Write these down. How old are these feelings? Do you bring up past events in arguments? Are there patterns of behavior that continue to offend you? Are you willing to push yourself to forgive?

Second, reflect on situations where you may have hurt a family member. Have you taken responsibility? Did you apologize? Have you taken steps to change recurrent patterns that offend? You may be standing in the way of reconciliation if you've never taken responsibility for your part of the problem.

Here are some steps to make forgiveness happen:

  • Set aside time to discuss the issue one on one. Make sure it's a good time to talk.
  • Identify the problem or harmful event. You must both agree that you're ready to discuss the issue.
  • Fully explore the pain and concerns related to this issue for both of you. Talk openly about what has happened that harmed one or both of you. Don't try this unless each of you is motivated to listen and show respect for each other's viewpoints.
  • The offender asks for forgiveness. A sincere apology is a powerful addition to a request for forgiveness. "I'm sorry. I was wrong--please forgive me" is one of the most healing things that can be said between two people.
  • The offended agrees to forgive.
  • The offender commits to refrain from doing the thing that caused the offense.

Expect forgiveness to take time. A relationship has the best chance to heal when each party takes appropriate responsibility to make things good again in the relationship.

What if the other party has wronged you and won't take responsibility, won't apologize?

"You can still move ahead and forgive," say Markman, Stanley, and Blumberg. "It may be hard, but if you don't, you and the relationship will suffer added damage. You put yourself at risk for psychological and physical problems such as depression, ulcers, high blood pressure and rage. That's no way to live."

Marriage and family therapists James Harper and Mark Butler offer additional help in forgiving and seeking forgiveness from others.

Seeking forgiveness from others:

  • Engage in self-confrontation - regularly examine your actions and motives. Ask "Is it I?" - be the first to confess and apologize, and, if appropriate, reconcile and restore your relationship.
  • Self-disclose - share your feelings and story with family members or loved ones.
  • Avoid confessions in which you blame or fail to accept responsibility (such as saying, "I'm sorry, but if you wouldn't have said that . . . . ). Search for solutions instead of blame.

Forgiving others:

  • Live your own forgiven-ness - we all have experiences where others have forgiven us.
  • Remember that every person's sense of worth is important - realize that by forgiving them you aid in their personal experience of forgiveness.
  • Seek with all your heart and mind for anger to be lifted. This may often include prayer, meditation, or some other activity to rid yourself from anger's poison.
  • Develop empathy and emotional understanding for the situation of your offender. For example, do they have parents or children? What were the circumstances surrounding what they did?
  • Avoid unnecessary retelling of the offense - dwelling on such reinforces an unforgiving heart as well as solidifying the event in your mind.
  • Remember that forgiving rarely entails memory loss but freedom from preoccupation with the offense - do not let your thoughts, emotions, and reactions be consumed by the offense.

Forgiving one another from our hearts helps restore the peace and contentment that can be a part of every family. But forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. By forgiving another, regardless of the actions of others, you do yourself a great service. You let go of bitterness, contempt, vindictiveness, and desires for revenge that sap you of mental and emotional energy you could use in other areas of your life. It is important to let these things go because if you don't, the other person - even if you never see them again - continues to hold power over your emotions and your thoughts - and you.

Written by Trampas J. Rowden and Sean D. Davis, Graduate Research Assistants, and edited by James M. Harper, Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, and Stephen F. Duncan, Professor of Family Life, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


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