Part of our series on America’s struggle for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is often viewed as the “happily ever after” ending in a story of wrongdoing or injustice. Someone enacts harm, the typical arc goes, but eventually sees the error of their ways and offers a heartfelt apology. “Can you ever forgive me?” Then you, the hurt person, are faced with a choice: Show them mercy — granting yourself peace in the process — or hold a grudge forever. The choice is yours, and it’s one many of us assume starts with remorse and a plea for grace.
It’s reasonable to expect an apology when you’re the one who has been hurt or betrayed. But that’s not how it works in practice. In fact, therapist Harriet Lerner writes in her book Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, the worse the offense, the more difficult it can be to get an apology from the person who harmed you. In those instances, Lerner writes, “Their shame leads to denial and self-deception that overrides their ability to orient toward reality.” And beyond this, there are other reasons you might be unable to get the apology you deserve. Maybe the other person isn’t aware of the harm they did to you, or they’ve disappeared, making contact impossible, or they’ve died.
Unfortunately, that puts you in a tough spot. How do you forgive someone who isn’t all that sorry, or who you can’t actually engage with?
To answer this question, Vox spoke to two experts: Robert Enright, a professor of education psychology at the University of Wisconsin Madison and a leader in the scientific study of forgiveness, and Laura Davis, the author of several books about estrangement and reconciliation, including The Burning Light of Two Stars: A Mother-Daughter Story. Both have worked extensively with people who have experienced serious personal injustice, including survivors of child sexual abuse and gender-based violence. Enright and Davis say that forgiving someone who is unrepentant is absolutely possible; here’s how to approach it.
Expand your view of what forgiveness is
In some ways, it’s easier to define forgiveness by what it isn’t. “Forgiveness is not excusing what the other did; that behavior was wrong, is wrong, and will always be wrong,” Enright says.
Both Enright and Davis say that forgiveness exists separately from reconciliation, and also from accountability — which is why forgiving someone doesn’t require an apology or even their participation. “Reconciliation is a negotiation strategy between two or more people trying to make their way back together to mutual trust,” explains Enright, whereas forgiveness is a one-way endeavor. Put another way: Forgiveness might be a step on the path to reconciliation, but you don’t have to traverse the full route if you’d prefer not to.
Enright also points out that while forgiveness is separate from accountability, it’s not at odds with seeking justice. “Many people think it’s either/or, rather than both,” he says. Forgiving someone can help you take a more clear-eyed approach to justice because you’re no longer, as he put it, “seething with rage.”
Perhaps most importantly, forgiveness doesn’t require you to pretend the hurt didn’t happen, to forgive and forget, or to ever speak to the person again. “When you forgive someone, it doesn’t mean you have to have any kind of ongoing relationship with them,” Davis says. “It’s an internal shift, where you’re no longer carrying the wound in the same way.”
Enright defines forgiveness as a moral virtue. Moral virtues (like kindness, honesty, and patience) are typically focused on how they benefit others; these are things you do primarily for another person’s sake, regardless of whether or not they have “earned” it.
“Forgiveness is a special kind of moral virtue that always and without exception occurs when the other person has been unfair to you,” Enright says. “When that person is unfair to you and you willingly choose to forgive — it’s not forced upon you — you are basically good to the one who was not good to you. You’re deliberately trying to get rid of the resentment and offer goodness of some kind: respect, kindness, anything that is good for the other person.”
Think of forgiveness as something you’re doing primarily for yourself
Because forgiveness is defined as offering goodness to another person, it can be hard, mentally, to want to get there — after all, you were the one who was wronged, so why do you have to now give them something? But it can be helpful to consider that you don’t have to literally give them anything, or even tell them you forgive them. Forgiveness doesn’t have to exist anywhere outside of you.
“Forgiveness is what we call a paradox,” Enright says. “It appears to be a contradiction but is not. It looks like you as the forgiver are doing all of the giving, and the other is doing all of the getting.” That mindset, he says, overlooks all of the benefits that you as the forgiver will likely experience. According to Enright’s research (which includes several meta-analyses of other forgiveness studies), people who have gone through the process of forgiving someone experience “characteristically, a reduction in the clinical variables of anger, anxiety, and depression, and increase in self-esteem and hope for the future.”
“Forgiveness is my safety valve against the kind of toxic anger that could kill me,” Enright says. “Waiting for the apology is to misunderstand your free will, and it’s to misunderstand the medicine that is forgiveness, that you should be able to take freely, whatever you want.”
Once you remove reconciliation as a goal, it’s easier to see how forgiveness will benefit you as much as — if not more than — the other person, giving you an opportunity to fully cut your mental connection to them. “Forgiveness begins to help you sever that connection so that you can be free,” Davis says. “I think it’s essential for people to eventually let go of their anger, their rage, their hurt, so that they can move on in their own lives.”
Don’t let fear of “losing” stand in the way of forgiving someone
Being willing to let go of the anger and hurt can be one of the hardest aspects of forgiving someone, especially someone who isn’t sorry or who hasn’t apologized. In these instances, it can sometimes feel like your wound is all you have: It serves as proof that an awful thing happened to you and really was as terrible as it felt. Forgiving someone, then, can feel like you’re capitulating — like you’re acquiescing to their view of events, when you know in your heart they did something wrong.
Enright says it’s reasonable to want to tend to your anger when someone has hurt you. “You can hang on to anger for a short time because it shows you’re a person of worth and dignity, and no one should treat you this way,” he says. “But then my question would be, if you hang on to that anger, what is it doing to you? Yes, it will empower you for a while. But characteristically over time, it brings us down with fatigue, rumination, becoming far more pessimistic in life.”
There’s real work involved in forgiving, and it takes time
Enright has studied forgiveness extensively. He says his research group at the University of Wisconsin Madison was the first to publish a scientific study on forgiveness, in 1989; in 1993, they became the first to publish a scientific study of forgiveness therapy. Their research has led to the development of a step-by-step process for forgiveness, which can happen in therapy (ideally with someone who is trained in forgiveness therapy), or through a self-guided process using his workbook.
He says that forgiving someone via this process happens in four major phases.
1) The uncovering phase. The person who has been treated unfairly focuses on the effects of the injustice in their life. These effects might be things like monetary costs, lost time, ongoing anxiety, depression, anger, sleep problems, or a more pessimistic worldview. In a lot of instances, Enright says, people don’t even realize how much the injustice is still impacting their life.
In this stage, you’re also asked to think about what solutions you’ve already tried for these problems and the extent to which they’ve led to meaningful improvements or change. “We say, ‘If nothing satisfying has worked, how about trying forgiveness?’” Enright says.
2) The decision phase. This is where you’ll determine whether you want to try to forgive the person who hurt you. And the answer might be no! Maybe it’s too soon and the pain is too fresh, or you just know you’re not ready to let go of the anger. That’s okay; this is a process you can always return to, and, eventually, you might find that you want to forgive.
It’s also important to be sure you’re attempting to forgive because you want to, not because you’re being pressured into it by, say, friends or family who are tired of having to navigate the fallout and just want everyone involved to move on. “We have to be drawn to the idea of forgiveness ourselves, and never be coerced into it,” Enright says.
If you decide you want to work toward forgiveness, Enright says the next step is a homework assignment: Try to do no harm to the person who wronged you. You don’t have to feel positively about them, but you should try your best not to disparage them, and don’t seek revenge. If even that feels impossible, you might not be ready to forgive them yet.
3) The work phase. At this point, you’ll aim to broaden your narrative about the other person and develop empathy for them. So you might think about how they were raised, what difficult things happened in their life that led them to this point, and the ways in which that person is vulnerable. “You widen the story,” Enright says. “As you start telling that story to yourself, over and over, we see a little bit of empathy, a little tiny bit of compassion, a little bit of softening of the heart. That takes time, and definitely can’t be engineered through therapy; it has to emerge.”
The next part of the work phase, Enright says, is “standing in the pain.” He says one way to do this is to think of your pain on a scale of 1–10, and to visualize that amount of pain in a heavy sack that you are holding on your back. “Acknowledge that it’s there, be aware of it, and stay with it,” Enright says. “Don’t try to run away from it. Don’t try to take anything out of it. Just let it be. What we find is, when people do that, that sack tends to shrink. As I deliberately say yes to the pain and stand in it, the pain begins to lessen.” He says that this part of the process can also help you rebuild self-esteem because it’s a reminder of what you’re capable of.
4) The discovery phase. This is when you’ll reflect on the meaning you’ve found in your life from this experience. “What we tend to find a lot of times is people become much more attuned to the wounds within other people,” Enright says. You may realize that you’ve become more patient with strangers, or less judgmental of coworkers or friends, because you have a newfound understanding of how they might also be struggling.
Going through this might also have made you feel more connected to other people, as you realize you’re not alone in the injustice you suffered. Or it may have given you a sense of purpose by inspiring you to help others who might have experienced something similar, or who are at risk of being wronged in the same way you were.
Don’t be too hard on yourself if you’re struggling to forgive someone
Being ready to forgive someone who hurt you takes time, as does the work of forgiving them. It’s impossible to know when — or if — you’ll ever be ready. If now doesn’t seem to be the time, that’s okay. “We’re in relationships with many people over the course of a whole lifetime,” Davis says. “Things can shift in surprising and sometimes dramatic ways just with the passage of time.” Many of the people she’s interviewed have spoken about their feelings changing when they entered a different life stage; for example, a person who isn’t ready to forgive a parent might start to see the situation differently after they have kids of their own. (It can also have the opposite effect, making them feel even more hurt by their parent’s behavior.)
“These things evolve over a lifetime,” she says. “If you had told me when I was in my late 20s and deeply estranged from my mother that I would end up taking care of her at the end of her life, I would have looked at you like you were completely crazy. Yet that’s what I chose and wanted to do.”
“I think that forgiveness is something that comes at the end of a long process of healing,” Davis says. “In my personal experience, it was a gift. I didn’t see it as the end goal of resolving an injury. I did my own work, and naturally, feelings of forgiveness arose.”