In Forgiveness is Power, forgiveness is described as “Giving up the desire to punish”. If you look carefully at this wording you will see that is does not say anything about reconciliation which has to do with what kind of relationship we want to have with the person we are working on forgiving. Reconciliation is a process of re-establishing our relationship with someone. Reconciliation is often part of forgiveness, but it does not have to be. Reconciliation is really a separate and distinct process.
Unpacking reconciliation from forgiveness can really help us to learn how to forgive as it brings clarity and very useful insights into the process. Understanding the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness, and how they fit together, is great way to highlight any potential blocks we might have to forgiving and allows it to happen more smoothly.
Forgiveness is unconditional and always possible; reconciliation sometimes needs to be conditional and is not always possible.
Forgiveness is unconditional as it is always possible to let go of our desire to punish someone whether they are living or dead, whether they are still on our life or long gone. Letting go of wanting to punish someone is solely up to us and can be done independent of the other person.
Reconciliation sometimes needs to be conditional as we may be working on forgiving someone who is a persistent abuser, heavily addicted, a career criminal, or is in complete denial of their behavior. We most likely want to put clear and specific conditions on what kind of relationship we want to have with such a person. We can forgive them, but we can still create clear boundaries around the ways we relate to them. Choosing to forgive someone is a different and separate choice from choosing reconcile with them. In addition, reconciliation is not always possible. The person may be long dead, gone from our life, or just so hopelessly addicted that we cannot reach them. Reconciling with someone is not solely up to us; it depends a lot on the other person’s behavior from now on.
This understanding that you can forgive someone and still decide to have nothing more to do with them (but watch out for hidden vengeance if you decide that) can actually make it easier to forgive them. We would naturally be wary of forgiving someone who is a nightmare for us to be around if we mistakenly assume that means we had to get back into a relationship with them. Realizing we can negotiate a reconciliation in terms acceptable to us, or even decide not to do that part at all, frees us up to forgive as widely as we like.
In forgiving problematic people by all means use the Four Steps to Forgiveness and at some point decide what, if anything, you want to do about a reconciliation. The decision about what you want to do in the way of a reconciliation can also wait till you gain the fresh perceptive which comes from using the Four Steps.
You may find the idea of Tough Forgiveness as a useful way of thinking about how to forgive in challenging situations.
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Four Steps to Forgiveness
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William Fergus Martin