The Heart of the Matter IV: When Forgiveness is Absent

Some time ago I wrote a couple of blogs describing my view of forgiveness.  In the first I wrote that forgiveness is best understood as a virtue or trait of character and secondly established the necessity of forgiveness through the use of Buber/Brueggemann’s “I/Thou” theory—the idea being that human identity is defined through relationship and is therefore required for healthy living.  In this blog I’d like to again address the topic of forgiveness and specifically write about what it looks like when forgiveness is absent in relationship.

All relationships have moments where things go wrong.  Sometimes things go wrong unintentionally—we may say something intended for fun that ends up hurting.  Other times things go wrong intentionally—acts of spite, insults, etc—not our proudest moments to be sure.  All acts of wrong—whether intentional or not are acts of injustice.  The problem with injustice is that its presence drives a wedge between people in relationship.  What is more is that when its presence is not dealt with adequately it spreads like a poison which eventually destroys the relationship.

Unfortunately a common way in which we human beings attempt to deal with injustice is by seeking retribution.  Although retribution claims to be founded on fairness (“an eye for an eye”), it ultimately fails to reconcile.  Instead of focusing on healing the injustice and the long-term health of a relationship, retribution focuses on punishment and making the other hurt the way we’ve been hurt.  Retribution thus often looks much more like malicious revenge than an act of justice.  What is more is that the person seeking retribution often loses perspective of the situation because of their hurt.  This causes them to overreact and instead settling the score actually end up making the situation worse.  In the world of conflict management this type of behaviour is called “escalation”.  As violence begets violence so does retribution beget more retribution—the end result is an outward moving spiral where two people who were once close have their relationship dissolved.

For those visually minded consider the following image.  In its original context this picture described the destruction of a friendship.  However the same principle applies to all types of relationships–romantic, professional, parental, etc.  Imagine that a small act of injustice occurs at the left of the image and that each ‘loop’ represents an act of ‘retribution’ which pushes the circle further and further apart.

Page 53 William W. Wilmot and Joyce L. Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict 6th Edition. New York:   McGraw-Hill, 2001.

While this image is (hopefully) helpful, nothing helps communicate better than an example.  Although a personal example may be entertaining for all of you—I’d instead like to turn to an unlikely source for an example of how real relationships work:  Hollywood.

Although Rom-coms are not known for depicting how relationships work in the real world there is at least one notable exception—a sort of black-sheep of the genre—an anti-rom-com if you will—the 2006 film staring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn:  The Breakup (see the trailer here).  Instead of telling the story of how two people fall in love and live happily ever after, the movie tells the story of how a ‘happily-ever-after’ couple slowly sabotage their relationship ending with its break-up.  What makes the movie work is that the story of their break-up is so believable.  The conflict starts off small—Gary (Vaughn) does not buy enough lemons for his girlfriend Brooke (Anniston) who is hosting a dinner party.  This sparks a heated argument which eventually snowballs out of control.  Before you know it the two are sleeping in separate beds, redecorating their home (separately from each other), putting their shared condo up for sale, and yes breaking up…

Although the movie works it is not the type of movie I like to watch over and over again.  This is because there are so many moments along the way where I wanted to yell at the screen “just say you’re sorry” or “forgive each other”.  However it is precisely the absence of forgiveness that allows the story to end in the breakup…

I hope this gives a glimpse into why I think that forgiveness is one of the most important of all virtues.  Its absence leads to the destruction of relationships while on the other hand its proper practice can diffuse the power of injustice and restore closeness in relationship.

However even while being one of the most important virtues, my future blogs will show that  forgiveness is also one of the trickiest to practice.  Up next I will show why forgiveness takes two…