When something’s not okay: pondering reconciliation & relationship.

What forced forgiveness often feels like.

What forced forgiveness often feels like. Photo credit.

I wrote recently about one of the most empowering things I’ve learned recently:  that it’s okay to not be okay.

Today, I’m going to touch on a related topic that has been equally empowering (and very confusing): I don’t have to pretend that it’s okay for people to do bad things.

This mostly comes up in small ways for me. When an apology is uttered, it’s my instinct to reply, “Oh, it’s okay,” with a dismissive wave of my hand and smile on my face to prove Just How Okay it is, all the while my inner monologue mutters, “No, it’s not okay, but I don’t know what else to say here and I don’t want to make it even more awkward and it shouldn’t matter so much anyway.” Then, of course, there’s the bigger and harder times that it comes up, like when shortly after my assault I was challenged that I hadn’t forgiven my attacker yet.

You know, the word “forgiveness” gets thrown around a lot in Christian circles. Particularly at women. Particularly at women when they notice injustice and dare to speak up about it (or even, like in my case, just confiding hurt in a friend). Ephesians 4:32 or the Lord’s Prayer is whipped out before anyone can do any critical thinking, and the mantra “forgive one another as Christ has forgiven you” is recited as a tool to silence, to shame, to force those with no power into submission.

There’s quite a lot problematic with that approach, and I’m a bit hesitant to get into the problems here. Suffice it to say that this definition of forgiveness that I was taught implicitly and explicitly over the years told me that forgiveness meant that I had to act like the offending party hadn’t offended, that I had to be willing to reconcile with them, just as Christ reconciled us to God. It taught me that my emotional, mental, and sometimes even physical well-being were disposable for the sake of keeping the peace, keeping appearances.

Working from that definition — that forgiveness equals reconciliation — I no longer believe that forgiveness is a blanket mandate. I no longer believe that I have to forgive everyone. Given that definition, I must agree with my friend when she says that forgiveness is bullshit.

For the record, I am aware that some people define forgiveness in a different way, but for me the act of forgiveness cannot be separated from reconciliation (or a willingness to reconcile) so in this post, I will be talking about reconciliation a lot because to me, it’s pretty much the same thing.

Moving on.

There’s so much that’s tricky in figuring out boundaries, relationships, and not-okay situations.  For the first time in my life, I’m faced with the question of when to be open to reconciling with someone instead of operating from the default that I’ll absorb all badness with a smile. This gets even further convoluted when I consider that I interact daily with a host of people that I’ve never actually met and with whom I have no substantial relationship. For one thing, it’s easy for an apology to be part of the cycle of abuse or manipulation. It’s easy for it to be the trump card pulled to make sure that the person who was hurt now has the obligation to stop hurting and reconcile with the abuser. It can be really difficult for me to know when to say, “No, I’m not okay. This situation is not okay. And our relationship is not okay,” particularly since I’m naturally inclined to think the best of people (let alone the fact that I grew up feeling morally obligated to immediately forgive when an apology is issued).

As an analytical intuitive introvert, I rely quite heavily on my gut feelings about situations. This is something I’ve had to learn to trust myself about recently, but it has served me well. (Hännah has an excellent piece related to trusting your instincts. I highly recommend reading it.) I naturally tend to stand back and observe my surroundings and the social interactions of those around me, both in physical and digital settings. I spend a lot of time gauging attitudes, noting patterns, considering rhetoric and whether the pattern of behaviour matches how the person wants to be perceived. I do this mostly subconsciously. And I’ve come to figure out what my process for setting boundaries and interacting with people is:

It all depends on patterns of behaviour, the extent of the damage, and the level of relationship.

Pattern of wrong behaviour with disregard to criticism + widespread or deep offense = no reconciliation for me. No forgiveness. We are not okay. It’s the relationship aspect that often throws a wrench in this formula for me.

A year ago, when there was an online uprising about Hugo Schwyzer and what his place within the feminist community should be, I was a bit taken aback. I had read a couple of his articles and been encouraged by them, so when I heard various survivors speak up about their great discomfort with his involvement and advocacy, I sat and watched quietly to see what would take place. Grace from Are Women Human? wrote a fantastic overview of the situation that highlights clear patterns of abusive behaviour resulting in extensive damage. This pattern of abusive behaviour and his disregard and even sometimes delight in the pain he has caused (and thus continues to cause) made me feel secure in my decision to not be okay with him. However, I have no relationship with the man beyond reading his work. Therefore, my course of action has been to steer clear from spheres in which he is present.

That’s my usual pattern with various media in situations where I have no relationship with the person. It’s easy, really. If I have no relationship to a public figure, reconciliation isn’t an option and it’s not hard to set and enforce a boundary in my life in which I will not encounter them or have to pretend to be okay with them.

It gets trickier once a situation occurs within relationship.* (Please see update at the bottom of this piece.)

Last week, there was quite an uproar among my peer group on Twitter. A woman that I admire used a slur casually in a tweet. When confronted, she reacted extremely defensively in a way that said to me that she was no longer a safe person for me to follow. Frankly, I was shocked. This seemed extremely out of character. The occurrence prompted some discussion about privilege and the language of oppression in situations where there is still a power play, but I ended up quietly unfollowing her on all of my social media and went about my day. While it didn’t appear to me to be in pattern with behaviour that I had observed in our acquaintanceship, the deeply felt damage of both the slur and her reaction to critique tipped the scale for me into non-reconciliation territory.

Until she posted an apology and made sure that the people she offended the most saw it.

I’ll be honest — I really don’t know Stephanie at all. I know her better than I know Hugo Schwyzer, but not as well as I know my best friends, or even as well as I know some of my other blog friends. I honestly wrestled with whether or not to respond, and if I did, how I would respond. I couldn’t help but think of how kind she has been to me specifically in the past, despite the fact that we are strangers on the internet. And in the end, I opted to give her another chance — because I’m not convinced that she is habitually abusive, because the relationship I’ve had with her in the past has been positive, and because I know what it’s like to say something deeply offensive without knowing. I know how hard it is to swallow my pride and say, “I was so wrong, there is no excuse for this, and I’m sorry.”

I want to be clear here: I don’t think my decision is for everyone. I think we are each individually the experts on what we are comfortable with in our lives, and I don’t share this as a way to pressure anyone into agreeing with me or even as a way to show off what a wonderful loving person I am. I share it to demonstrate how relationship affected my usual formula for creating boundaries in relationships and media.

I’m still processing how to interact with people. I’m still figuring out that it’s actually healthy for me to be able to tell people, “What you did isn’t okay, but I appreciate that you see that and we are okay.” I’m still parsing my surroundings and interactions and learning to discern a person’s character before I make conclusions about their behaviour. This is still a work in progress for me. But I’m making progress, I think. And I think it’s worth it to learn both when to say, “No more of this” and “let’s move on together.”

What do you think? What sorts of boundaries and guidelines help you when media or social interactions get messy?

Updated December 2013: I just want to say that while I still stand behind the spirit of this post and the formula I outlined, I now wish I had used a different example than I did. The decision I made to give Stephanie another chance and continue to follow Stuff Christian Culture Likes is a decision I came to bitterly regret, and this is definitely an instance where I wish I had trusted my gut. Live and learn.

19 thoughts on “When something’s not okay: pondering reconciliation & relationship.

  1. I have the healthiest relationship with my best friend. We’ve been friends for nearly 9 years now, and my friendship with her has basically taught me how to have a good relationship with someone.

    Anyway, last year, she really hurt me. She’d been in general being a kind of shitty friend, and then during a particular crisis of mine, she blew me off. I’d spent nearly a year doing “it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay” and letting all these things happen. I couldn’t anymore.

    She finally texted me an apology. No qualifiers, no “you need to understand” just “I’m sorry I’ve been a shit friend to you and wasn’t there for you when you needed me te most.”

    And I went to reply “it’s okay” and for the first time I was able to think, “No. No, it’s not okay at all.” I didn’t respond to that text, and in fact she ended up continuing to be a sucky friend until we got into a huge argument – I’m pretty sure I told her I hated her – but the argument was necessary for us to finally *talk* about all the things that were wrong, and about what could make things better.

    That’s what forgiveness and reconciliation are supposed to be about. The other person saying “I’m sorry I was shit, what can I do to make things right?” without any expectations from you. Without apologizing expecting forgiveness. And then you only forgive and reconcile if the relationship is worth it to *you*, if you can decide that the hurt isn’t bigger than the good things in the relationship. But no one else can determine that but you.

    • That last paragraph – that’s it, that’s it EXACTLY. It’s just taken me 23 or so years to figure that out, and I’m still programmed to want to forgive & pretend to forget.

      Also, with the “I’m sorry I was shit, what I can do to make things right?” they’ve GOT to be willing to accept that maybe there’s nothing they can do. If they keep pushing, it stops feeling like they want to make amends with you and starts feeling like they just want to be the good guy again.

  2. I don’t know how to react to this except to feel sad that so many people’s experience of Christianity has been so damaging in some profound ways.

  3. You are right. When people hurt us it’s not “okay.” When I taught preschool, I taught the children to say, “Apology accepted.” If they said, “It’s okay,” I immediately explained to them that it in fact was NOT okay. It is never okay to hurt anyone and you can’t say, “It’s okay” to make it okay. Those cute little kids got really good at saying the big words “apology accepted.” And that’s how I look at it in my relationships. Sincere apologies are welcomed and accepted. But I don’t have to let anyone know what I’m really going to do with it. Maybe another chance. Maybe not. Maybe I can forgive, maybe not. But in either case, I can at least accept the apology and tell the person so.

  4. Interesting post. I have two examples:
    I have not forgiven my abusive older paranoid schizophrenic sister who abused me physically and emotionally my whole life. I would like to but my requirement is that she does not abuse me again, and she and my parents have all admitted she can not promise this. (My parents however still try to force me to be in a relationship with her and expect me to be a sacrificial lamb for the sake of a false family harmony).
    I do not forgive grace and Dianna e Anderson for speaking out so fervently and ignorantly about the “I am adam lanza’s mother” post. Clearly neither of these ladies have lived with a violent schizophrenic and yet declared themselves expert enough to ridicule the author and thus further silence survivors such as myself – apparently I’m not allowed to speak about my sister as being “mentally ill” even though anyone with real experience in these matters knows how difficult and drawn out the process of an official diagnosis is.

  5. Just this week I finally had the guts to set boundaries with certain authority figures. It was the most liberating feeling ever! I wanted to tell you that some of your previous posts influenced me to be brave and speak up–so thank you and please keep these posts coming. Your courage helps many.

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  7. I agree so much with you that forgiveness does not necessarily have to lead to reconciliation. they are not one and the same. I have had to cut a few people out of my life. Not to be spiteful but because the depth of the hurt necessitated a surgical removal of that person in order to ever be able to walk in forgiveness. Forgiveness is a journey and a process. the more depth the the relationship and the size OR the frequency of the hurt, the more layers ( like an onion ) that need to be peeled back for healing to take place. I have a brother i no longer speak too. I am working on full forgiveness, but there has been years and years of little and big hurts. I don’t want to play anymore :) so i took my ball and I went home. Any other type of wound and we are given the advice to let things heal. Break an arm and no one expects you whip it out of the cast the next day and start playing with it, why do we think that our spirits are any less fragile?

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  9. anyone living on “forgiveness=reconciliation” is a simplistic moron. i hope they don’t have children! if my father molested me, and other children, with no apologies, no recognition of sin, etc. i’d have to be a complete fool AT BEST to allow my children to be with him alone. at worst, i’d be negligible or culpable if he touched my children!

    should i reconcile with an unrepentant husband that beat me and raped me? so he could continue to abuse me, and possibly our children? would Jesus really want that? is there anything remotely responsible about that???

    i think that forgiveness and reconciliation are two COMPLETELY different things. i think God models the difference between reconciliation and forgiveness for us in how he relates to us. God forgave me my sins not based on anything i did. i didn’t earn forgiveness. it is a gift. i forgive, because Christ forgave me, and i so i have forgiveness to give. i forgive to release hatred and bitterness towards others that poisons me and all those around me. i forgive without any action required on the part of the person that wronged me. i forgive because it reminds me of how precious forgiveness is, and of what a gift God gave me when he forgave me.

    but reconciliation is a two way street. even for me to be reconciled to God! to be reconciled to Him, to have relationship restored with Him, i had to acknowledge my sin, my error, my wrong. i had to call it what it was and not try to play it down or make it seem like a mistake instead of a conscious choice. i had to ask for forgiveness, knowing i didn’t deserve it, i wasn’t “owed” it, and that if He chose not to forgive me, he had every right to! He had every right to never have a relationship with me.

    forgiveness is godly. but a lot of the time, reconciliation is not. when God ruled Israel, rapists didn’t reconcile with their victims. they were stoned to death. God is on the side of the victims, the weak, the marginalized. He’s on our side.

    • i should make clear that forgiveness is REALLY hard for me. when i say “i forgive” i should probably say “when i manage to let go of my death grip on hatred and forgive.”

      the hardest part of forgiveness for me is that it’s not a one time deal. i can manage to forgive someone, but every minute/day/year/so often, something happens that reminds me of my hurt and i have to forgive them all over again!

    • I see where you’re coming from. But I don’t think refusing to forgive someone necessarily has to mean that I’m holding onto bitterness or hatred – or even if it did, that bitterness and hatred are wrong reactions to have about abuse. The most healthy, affirming, freeing thing I have ever done in this regard is to allow myself to feel what I feel, be ready to act certain ways only when I am able to. I can’t force myself to forgive – it’s not a process I can rush or make happen. I have to allow myself to go through whatever emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and experiential process that I need to go through without forcing my way through any steps. And I have to do that for others as well. It’s not up to me to decide for someone else that they need to forgive or make any decision or choice. (Not saying that’s what you’re advocating or trying to do here – just adding further thoughts.)

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  12. This is the best essay on forgiveness I’ve ever read. I was too quick to forgive a clergyman who revealed that our three-year pastoral relationship had been motivated by his sexual desire for me (and, he assumed, mine for him). Two years later I finally left the church and estranged myself from this man.

    When it comes to clergy sexual abuse (or any kind of abuse), I consider “forgiveness” the F-word. After years of recovery, I can’t begin to understand what it means to forgive. I hope he is healing from the sickness that caused his harmful and callous behavior, and I sometimes can even pray for him. But I still have anger about what he did, and I don’t intend to reconcile with him ever, ever, ever. It took years to recover my life from his toxic impact. I’m not willing to put that at risk. So, have I forgiven him? Only God knows.

    By the way, I don’t know Hugo Schwyzer from Adam, but he regularly praises this man in his essays. Another piece of the pattern, it seems.

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