Latest update: May 22nd, 2012
Question: I’ve had some problems getting over the anger I’ve carried throughout my life towards my father. He left my mother for another woman and my mother never really recovered. Even now, 20 years later, I still have difficulty dealing with him because of that. He hasn’t ever apologized, blaming my mother for sharing the information with me, and expects me to forgive and forget. Every Yom Kippur becomes a painful experience – feeling immense pressure to forgive and the guilt of my not wanting to. I feel I must forgive him but don’t know how.
An angry daughter
Answer: Your situation brings up various issues about family breakups and divorce. But your question about forgiveness is quite personal as its definition is truly unique for each individual. I decided to pose your question to my Facebook friends and get their thoughts on the topic of forgiveness. As you’ll see, many grapple with its true meaning and purpose. Below are some of the responses:
Vicki Lansky: I like, “don’t let the one you are angry with live ‘rent free’ in your head.”
Randy and Monica Zachary: I’ve personally learned that as I forgive I’m able to be whole and free and even get personal healing. If I don’t forgive I feel stuck, miserable and bitterness will set in and rob me of living the life I was meant to live. I make mistakes and I say things I shouldn’t, but as I go to the person I offended and ask for forgiveness my relationships grow and I can move on and grow as an individual.
Sandy Kaye: I think in order to live your life honestly, you have to forgive – no matter the offense. To forgive is not to forget, but to release the toxins and venom from your own body in order to live in the present. Forgiving is not giving the other person, people, event or circumstance a free pass, but giving yourself the power to heal and love again.
Steven Geller: Forgiveness, absent healing is empty, yet forgiveness is the first step in healing. Perhaps what we’re leaving unsaid is that for forgiveness and apology to last, it must be genuine and sincere. For a long time, I’ve lived by a principle I refer to as hineini. As you know, it literally means, “here I am.” To me it means, “right here, right now.” I am in this moment at this place. It means live right now… don’t forget the past or forsake the future, but don’t live there either. Learn from the past, plan for the future, savor the now.
Heidi Chaia Wald Mandl: I can forgive almost anything. But I feel like it would be foolish to forget. It leaves you too open and vulnerable to potentially painful situations.
Forgiveness is often asked and granted without great thought or emotional understanding. Like asking someone “how are you,” apologies become perfunctory. I find with deeply painful issues, like the one you’ve experienced, many people feel such pressure to forgive that they rush to it without really achieving any internal peace. Like my friends above, I agree that forgiving is generally cleansing and calming, however, too often it isn’t, because it hasn’t been dealt with in a manner that truly helps the one offended find peace.
Ideally, there should be an apology (unlike the situation you are in where your father seems to have never done so), and it should be one that verbalizes the offensive so the offender can begin to understand what his or her actions did to you. Saying “I’m sorry,” has little healing effect unless there is some genuine discussion about how this hurt you. Almost always, it’s crucial for you to be given a chance to describe how it was for you. At this point you may be willing to “forget” because you feel the person now understands how hurt you are and that, in itself, will significantly reduce the odds of it happening again.
However, if you’ve seen this offensive behavior repeated many times, then you should be wary. Don’t forgive so easily if you know this person is capable of hurting you in the future. Unless this person gives you firm reasons as to why these behaviors will change (he or she has gone to therapy, changed a part of their lifestyle, will give you more transparency into their lives so you can see the behaviors have changed), it behooves you NOT to forget and to expect similar behaviors in the future.
In your case, where an apology has never been forthcoming, forgiveness becomes largely about you and not about your dad. You want to find a way to heal internally and forgiveness can help. But the true issue is forgiving yourself. When we are hurt as children, we carry pain that comes from a belief that, in some way, this hurt was deserved, familiar or in some way our fault. Commonly when we get hurt as adults and can’t get over it, we likely have allowed a deeper spot of pain to be activated, reminding us of a past hurt or humiliation. Healing this inner pain is what allows us to forgive others. It helps us understand that people cause pain because of inner issues that drive their ugly behavior, not because anyone deserves to be treated that way. Getting rid of this pain is getting rid of the feeling “I am a person who deserves this.” It’s believing that the offender is a sad, possibly pathetic individual who allows their issues to get in the way of being a better human being.
In situations where there is no apology, it would clearly be unwise to “forget” and open yourself to similar emotional treatment in the future. Again, we’re discussing truly offensive issues here and not our garden-variety issues – being late for dinner, not being as polite to our spouse as we should and such. In these situations we want to ask for and receive forgiveness quickly but still, depending on how much it hurt, the interaction should be with a genuine desire to better understand one another and become closer through this understanding.
In upcoming columns, I’ll discuss the issues of children when there is an infidelity. But for now, identify more clearly how much of your ongoing hurt over your father’s actions has to do with your loyalty to your mother who “hasn’t recovered.” Simply put, would your pain have subsided and your relationship with your dad been much different if your mother recovered and moved on with her life emotionally? If the answer is yes, then you need to consider whether you are helping your mother by maintaining this loyalty. I believe, after 20 years, your mother has every right to feel however she wants, but you should no longer be expected to feel any of her pain over this, at least not to the extent that it gets in the way of your own pain and relationship with your father. Perhaps a conversation with your mother is in order to help you be rid of any of these loyalty issues.
If you never have had a conversation with your father about this issue, it might be time. But tell him what you want from the conversation. Explain up front that you are not looking for him to assess blame, but just to understand how hurtful it was for you to lose his presence or love. If he begins to blame your mother, bring him back to “we are only here to salvage our relationship” and how that will come through his understanding your hurt – regardless of exactly how much was his fault.
About the Author: Check out Gary’s web program where he interviews couples who share their struggles and innermost thoughts and feelings at mgaryneuman.com. Facebook or Twitter Gary at mgaryneuman. M. Gary Neuman is a NY Times best selling author and a frequent guest on the Oprah show. He lives in Miami with his wife and five children.
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