As I was working on Monday’s mantra I kept reliving some of my own relationship challenges. While it can be painful to walk down memory lane, it was also helpful to revisit some of the lessons learned. One of the biggest concerns in dealing with challenging relationships, at least in my experience, is the failure of unhealthy people to recognize the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. Most people, especially in the Bible belt, use those terms interchangeably but they are, in fact, very different. As we amp up for the holidays I thought it might be helpful to share what I’ve learned about these two terms. I hope this clarification helps someone the way that it helped me.
Forgiveness is dismissing your demand that others owe you something, cancelling your right for some sort of in-kind return for wrongdoing. This is a singular, individual choice to move on and stop letting someone else control your emotional responses. Forgiveness is about you. It’s you acknowledging that bad behavior has hurt you and choosing to move forward on your own. Forgiveness isn’t stuffing your anger, denying that you were hurt, or being a doormat. It’s an active choice not to allow those emotions (ie anger, bitterness, etc) to control your life… because they really do control your life. And it does take time to forgive. So don’t put extra pressure on yourself to forgive on someone else’s timeline. Let your mind and your body take the time you need. Feel the hurt, release it, and move on. Don’t let anybody else dictate that process to you.
As an example, Hubbin and I were deeply wounded by a family member’s behavior patterns and habits of speech early in our marriage. It took three years of extremely limited contact – a necessary boundary that created the space to prevent new wounds during the process – before we were truly able to say that we had forgiven that person. There were so many feelings of anger, betrayal, hurt, confusion, and sadness to work through and it took us a long time before we were able surface from all of that. There were other family members, though, who hurt the process with endless manipulation, failure to respect the expressed boundaries, and lectures on our seeming unforgiveness that it actually impeded the process. We stood our ground, though, and are better for it.
Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires both (or all) parties be involved in the reestablishing of trust. For this to happen the offender has to demonstrate changed behavior and and a desire to earn a restored relationship. Reconciliation is reciprocal, it has limits, and it is completely conditional upon the offender’s willingness to engage change. A lot of people wrongly believe that if there is not reconciliation, then you are harboring unforgiveness. I think that is a symptom of the fact people don’t like to be held accountable for their own behavior. There will likely be resistance from those people, so expect it. This is never about waiting for time to heal your wounds, because there are truly some people who won’t allow healing. This is a careful evaluation of where the lines have been crossed or blurred and you holding the offender accountable to new boundaries and discipline. Reconciliation is a measured response which involves a lot of self-protection. It can be a lot more difficult than most people want to recognize; ultimately it is up to you to hold your offender accountable to the new boundaries.
To follow the example above, we did eventually reconcile with that family member but the relationship is still fairly limited. A lot of this was because of that person’s response to our requests for healthier boundaries; the excessive anger and prideful outbursts set back early conversations about reconciliation. Most of our interactions remain intentionally public and we still dictate the terms of those gatherings. The post-reconciliation relationship looks much different than the relationship before the fall-out. It took over a year of meeting us on our terms before the boundaries were relaxed and that person was allowed into our home. It took yet another year before we set foot in that person’s home again; that visit was definitely less than ideal and the result was a renewal of some of our stronger boundaries. This was not an easy decision and we still struggle with it from time-to-time. We continue to receive criticism from other family members, who often accuse of using the silent treatment to get what we want; this criticism and manipulation often leads us doubting our decision. But we know there is a difference between the silent treatment and healthy, self-protective boundaries. And we know that it was the right choice for our family. I can’t say that it we did it all beautifully because emotions are tricky little things, but it was a real learning experience.
I also struggle with how to model this as a parent and talk to Tiny about situations in which reconciliation has not occurred. After all, I don’t want to expose her to adult situations she can’t understand or control. This is a difficult subject to touch on with kids without exposing them to overly-mature ideas. I certainly don’t want her grow up thinking that forgiveness means she has to overlook wrongdoing and continue be best friends. So how do I teach her about this?
First, I try to model meaningful apologies for her. If I lose my cool, which most parents do on occasion, I get on her level and demonstrate that I understand what was wrong with my behavior. There have been times when she told me, in her own three-year-old way, that she wasn’t ready to hug me or forgive me. I accept that need for space and wait lovingly and patiently for her to work through her sweet little emotions. I’m not perfect, though, and sometimes I mess this up, too. But it’s important for her to see me acknowledging my imperfections.
Second, I talk about this in a bigger context with her friends. Several months ago, for example, we invited one of her little friends over to our house; it ended up being the playdate from hell. The kid locked himself in the bathroom, kicked the dog in the face, broke several toys, and managed to release all the contents of a locked cabinet. It was a disaster. Tiny was uncomfortable with her friend’s behavior. She was scared by the interaction by the dog. And she was brokenhearted that he had broken her toys. So we talked about it. She sat on my knee and we talked about her feelings and agreed that future playdates should be at a park instead of our house. I gave her the space and the vocabulary to define her feelings and her new comfort level (ie boundaries) and it was a pretty successful discussion. I feel as though Tiny walked away understanding that she could keep her friendship even if it had different rules than before.
If you are looking for more info on the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, here are a few resources for you.
I like this blog on “The Beautiful Place.” It’s from a more Biblical perspective but it is also a very vulnerable recounting of how the author personally learned the difference between the two. These posts on “Flying Free Now” and the Joyful Heart Foundation are also very good.
And if you are looking for a resource to help you navigate the need for buondaries in your relationships, I highly recommend the book Boundaries by doctors Townsend and Cloud. It’s from a Biblical perspective but it chock full of relationship wisdom that I continue to value. There are also several more niche Boundaries books for, as a couple examples, for raising kids and in marriage.