Fake Forgiveness Is Toxic For Relationships

by Katie Cloyd
Originally Published: 

Next month, I’ll have been married for fifteen years, and I was with my husband for three years before that. When you’ve been sleeping next to the same guy for pretty much half your life, you really get to know each other. I’m not really sure who I’d be without him, and I hope I never have to find out. He’s a good, solid man, and he loves me like I deserve to be loved. I am an excellent wife to him because I know what he needs. We’re a good pair. Because we want to stay in love until we are old and gray and rocking on our front porch, we have learned the art of true forgiveness, even when it’s hard as hell.

Obviously, we weren’t always great at it. We got married at 21 and spent our early twenties muddling through a really grown-up relationship with half developed brains and personalities. We had to figure out who the heck we were, and there were a lot of growing pains. But somehow, in the midst of all of that, we ended up developing some really healthy strategies, totally by accident.

I recently read a fascinating article about forgiveness. In his column, “How to Build a Life,” writer and professor Arthur Brooks describes different kinds of forgiveness and how they can benefit relationships. I found myself nodding along, thinking about times when I totally crushed this forgiveness game, and started patting myself on the back about how well I’ve learned to preserve my relationships and my peace.

What he said next made me cringe.

When he started explaining the two types of toxic fake forgiveness, I was almost embarrassed. I can think of lots of times that I chose those, too. In case you’re wondering, nothing good happened.

You can read Arthur Brooks’ column for all the details on healthy types of forgiveness. It’s worth the few minutes.

The super quick summary is that you can have a discussion, use non-verbal communication like affection (make-up sex anyone?), voice an explicit expression of genuine forgiveness, or you can use minimization, which means you decide it’s not worth a fight, and just truly let it go.

But y’all. That toxic fake forgiveness. Whew. Can we talk about that? It can be a destructive force in any kind of relationship, and recognizing what it looks like is half the battle.

A quick note before we begin:

I can’t write about forgiveness without making this distinction: Everything I’m about to say only applies to happy, significant relationships that you want to keep. Relationships where both participants are generally loving, respectful and kind, but you’ve hit a snag. Actively choosing genuine forgiveness over toxic fake forgiveness is important for maintaining relationships worth saving.

Some relationships aren’t worth the time it would take to find a way to forgive. I haven’t consulted the science on this, so take my opinion with a grain of salt, but I grew up in a religion that conflated forgiveness and reconciliation. This led to people being coerced to set aside literal atrocities to “forgive” their abuser and retain the relationship.

Respectfully, screw that shit. If someone victimizes you, stay mad. Use that anger to get yourself to safety. Abusers don’t deserve second chances.

When you’re safe, you can find a way to release the anger and pain so it doesn’t eat you up — but your abuser deserves zero absolution.

ANYWAY, back to that toxic fake forgiveness. Let’s explore two types, shall we?

First up, let’s chat about conditional forgiveness.

Conditional forgiveness, according to Brooks is forgiveness “in which vindication is deferred and stipulations are made.” To me, this feels like the toxic evil twin of a healthy discussion.

Instead of rolling up your sleeves and having the hard conversation, you just attempt to feel in control by saying, “I’ll forgive you when I see you meet this list of demands I’ve crafted out of my own anger, pain and expectations, and not a minute sooner.”

Well, we would never say that out loud because it sounds demanding and childish and ridiculous, but when we put a long list of conditions on our forgiveness, that’s pretty much what we’re doing. I say “we” because I have so done this. It’s so embarrassing to remember myself doing this, but I totally have.

Literally all this does is let you stay pissed or hurt, and exert some control over the person who hurt you. Control is a good way to assuage your fear of being hurt again, but ultimately, attempting to control another person is futile, and will drive you bonkers. It’s just going to hurt you.

While you’re staying pissed and hurt, you are also attempting to remain in relationship with the person. How can anything healthy happen when you’re trying to move past an offense without making peace with it? If you’re committed to forgiving an offense, there’s a little risk involved. You can’t actually be sure the person won’t do it again, and your list of demands won’t change that. Choosing a healthy way to communicate so you can reach a place of actual forgiveness is much harder, but it’s also scientifically proven to be better for your relationships. You’ve got to try.

The second kind of fake forgiveness is called pseudo-forgiveness.

If conditional forgiveness is the evil twin of discussion, pseudo-forgiveness is the evil twin of minimization. Rather than truly deciding a person is more important than the argument and choosing to set it aside for the sake of love and relationship, you just sweep it under the rug and stay mad. Silently.

Do I really need to explain why this is an awful idea? Walking around secretly ticked off and pretending everything is fine is a recipe for relationship disaster. If you know for sure that you are too upset and you can’t let something go, minimization is not the right forgiveness tactic for that situation. Pick something else. Pretending it’s fine is going to turn you into a ticking time bomb — you deserve more than that, and so does the person you love.

Actual science backs up the idea that fake forgiveness is harmful for relationships.

I’m not a scientist, but I would argue that just telling the person you refuse to forgive them would be less destructive than this conditional forgiveness BS.

If you aren’t ready to forgive someone, just tell them that! At least everyone would be coming at the problem from an honest place. If you need time, say that. Discussion is healthy forgiveness, remember? It’s okay to say you’re not there yet.

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