By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
There seems to be a widespread belief, especially among those who’ve hurt others, that with forgiveness comes a restoration of trust. In other words, if the offended individual doesn’t trust the offender and resume the same relationship with them, then the offended has not truly forgiven. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Forgiveness is nothing more and nothing less than letting go of bitterness. It is feeling brotherly (or sisterly) love towards someone who has wronged you, and bearing them no ill will. That’s it. That’s all. It does not entail putting them in a position to hurt you or let you down again. It does not entail sparing them from the consequences of their actions. Forgiveness can be freely given. Trust must be earned.
For example, if I hire a babysitter who neglects to feed my children and to change the baby’s diaper, I can let go of my anger. I don’t have to try to ruin this person. I can give them my feedback. I don’t have to gossip about them (although I may warn other parents who ask my opinion). That’s forgiveness. However, I’m not going to invite this person to watch my kids again, because he or she has lost my trust.
Abusive and/or unfaithful partners often want their partner to forgive them, falsely believing that forgiveness will make the relationship “like it used to be.” What they fail to see is that, if their relationship is to heal, it will only occur by regaining their partner’s trust, which often takes much longer than it does to forgive (i.e. letting go of malice and the desire to punish).
Sometimes the partner who was abused and/or cheated on justifiably ends the relationship while saying “I forgive you.” This is totally consistent, again because forgiveness is replacing hate with love and wishing someone well, not restoring them to a position where they can hurt or betray you again.
In your life, it is good to be forgiving. It’s good for your emotional and mental health to abandon bitterness. However, it’s also healthy to protect yourself from repeated neglect, disloyalty, or abuse of any kind. Forgiveness is not the same thing as trust.