Q. I had a horrible break-up with my boyfriend a few years back. He got heavily into crystal meth and alcohol, and suddenly I was the enemy. He assaulted me verbally every day, and physically more than once. He slandered me to my friends and even tried to get me fired from my job by calling my supervisor and telling her lies about me. I had to get a restraining order to keep him away from me. Now he’s in recovery and has been sober for two years. He made “amends” to me – which mostly consisted of telling me how he couldn’t help what he did because he was an addict. He wants us to hang out together and be friends, and says that, since he apologized, I owe it to him to forgive him and let him back into my life. I have forgiven him for what he did, but I still don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. He isn’t violent anymore, but other than that he doesn’t seem to have changed much, and, anyway, I don’t believe his problems were just caused by drugs. He says that if I won’t let him be my friend then I haven’t really forgiven him at all. I don’t know how to answer that, I just know that I don’t trust him. What can I tell him?
A. I’m impressed that you’ve been able to forgive your ex for all that abuse. But forgiveness is very different from reconciliation, and it might help to think a little about the differences.
Forgiveness means letting go of the weight of resentment against the person who harmed you, and also of the dubious pleasures of revenge and retribution. It’s a lot easier to do if the other person apologizes, but it’s still something you can do on your own, without the other person ever having to know what you’ve done.
Forgiveness means letting go of the past, but reconciliation is about committing to a future. It means returning to some degree of friendliness, and for that to happen, trust has to be reestablished. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation can’t happen unilaterally. If I’ve done you harm, the first step to reconciliation requires that I accept and acknowledge my wrongdoing. If I deny responsibility for what I did, or deny that I did anything wrong, we can’t really be reconciled. If I act as if your feelings don’t matter, or that you don’t have any right to hold me to your ethical standards, you won’t be able to trust that I won’t hurt you in the future.
So genuine reconciliation can’t just be based on the desire for harmony. It requires a mutual commitment to shared ethical standards. There are four ethical principles which are indispensable foundations for meaningful reconciliation. These are: 1) we’re always responsible for our actions; 2) we have a responsibility to put ourselves in the other person’s place; 3) the other person is always worthy of our respect; and 4) there are no excuses for harming others. Unfortunately, forgiveness alone isn’t enough to make reconciliation possible. It’s only possible when both parties in the dispute have the maturity, integrity, honesty, and care that are essential to the process.
Understanding the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation can make it easier to be generous with forgiveness when real reconciliation isn’t possible; and also helps us to avoid the pitfalls of being guilt-tripped into a false reconciliation when the basis for a return to amicability isn’t there. I spoke some years ago with a woman who well understood the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. After months of battery and abuse at the hands of her boyfriend, she finally found the courage to separate from him. Following a long process of emotional healing, she told me, “My heart is open to him, but the front door is locked.”
When your ex claims that you “owe” him forgiveness, he speaks from an unwarranted sense of entitlement. Forgiveness is a gift. It can’t be owed. Nor is friendship something we can deliver on demand. It’s either freely given or it isn’t friendship. His “amends” weren’t a genuine apology, but excuse-making. Your description of his behavior suggests that he has little capacity to put himself in your place. At the present time, he probably lacks the emotional maturity required for genuine reconciliation. If you don’t trust him, trust that feeling. As for what you should tell him, the best thing you can do is not compromise with the truth. Keeping in mind his history of violence and abuse, choose a venue in which you feel safe to talk with him (i.e., in a public place, or over the phone). Keep it brief. Don’t justify, argue or respond to provocations. Assure him that you have forgiven him for his past behavior, but tell him firmly that, going forward, you choose not to re-open your relationship with him.