Those three little words that were schooled into my head as a boy: “I forgive you.” My encouraging parents made sure that following every little spat I had with my little brother, the instigator would say, “I’m sorry” while the victim would follow with, “I forgive you.” Often times distortion of who was the instigator and who was the victim existed, so more often than not, we both would end up saying each response to the other. I give much credit to my parents for instilling this essential element of relational growth, maintenance, and success into the both of us from a young age, contributing to the close relationship he and I have today.
The idea of forgiveness extends through the ages, grounded firmly as a prime pillar for many faiths, including Christianity.
I am a Christian. According to what I believe, extending forgiveness to another, regardless if it is requested or not, and regardless of my inner self’s sometimes reluctance to do so, is a core principle of living out my faith. Showing Jesus Christ to others through this sacrifice, because I too am forgiven for my earthly transgressions by Him, is essential to why this extension of forgiveness is necessary. Forgiveness, though, has been explored through both scientific and psychological lenses as well.
For instance, much research has been done on the personal, intrapersonal benefits of forgiving, and the detriments of not forgiving another. That is, studies show people unwilling to extend forgiveness to someone who has done them harm will often withdraw from social relationships and tend to experience deep loneliness. Additionally, a loss of trust occurs more often than not, discouraging them from ever developing future close relationships. Depression and anxiety are often leading causal reasons, but one particular motivation often overlooked is deeply rooted in stress.
It has long been discovered that our bodies are incapable of dealing with stress; that is, high-levels of stress can lead to a deterioration in health. One study of many, linking stress with an unwillingness to forgive, examined the immediate emotional and physiological effects occurring when participants recalled hurtful memories and harbored resentments (i.e. unforgiving) equated when they nurtured empathic viewpoint taking and perceived extending forgiveness toward real-life wrongdoers. Results indicate unforgiving feelings encouraged more aversive emotion, significantly higher electromyogram (EMG), skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure. With physical deterioration comes the emotional and mental decline as well. Take adultery for instance.
Loss of trust is an expected repercussion of marital infidelity. From discovery of the unfaithfulness, uncovering the extent of the unfaithfulness, and dealing with the long-term residual memories of the unfaithful’s deeds are often devastating to emotional and mental recovery. However, extensive research, from a variety of infidelity cases, supports the overall conclusion that although infidelity causes significant relational damage for couples and results in a loss of trust and relationship stability, that couples can be reconciled and trust may be returned as couples work through forgiveness. Sometimes, though, reconciliation never comes, leading to separation and eventual divorce.
In these cases, victims of infidelity are often left emotionally and mentally stunned. Unable to function. Unable to focus. Unable to move on. Left asking questions like, “How will I be able to trust, find happiness, or even get out of bed again?” Though there are multiple avenues one in this situation may go down in order to reach full recovery, one vital stage is this: forgiveness.
Through much of my own research, I’ve explored the thoughts, motives, and feelings of both instigators as well as victims of marital infidelity. Though each participant’s response was respectively unique to each situation, one common theme arose: extending forgiveness was essential to personal healing. In all of these cases, although exercising complete forgiveness was sometimes a process for them, when forgiveness was finally extended, these individuals received emotional satisfaction and an intrinsic desire to progress forward with their lives regardless of whether or not reconciliation had or might occur. All participants holding this overall collective view indicated they would have otherwise felt justified to hold resentment and bitterness against their spouses for those offenses.
You may have been wronged by someone along the line of atrocity that goes beyond the bounds of human comprehension. You do not have a choice of whether you can be guaranteed this person will ask, “Will you forgive me?” But, you do have a choice to say, “I forgive you” regardless if they hear you say it or not. A large degree of your happiness depends on it. Your relational progression is essential to it. Your health is even at risk because of it.
Forgiveness: A simple word instilled in many of us from childhood, though only one essential ingredient to personal and relational fulfillment in this life, running hand-in-hand with grace and selflessness.