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Why Forgiveness is Overrated

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After divorce, no matter how badly we are treated, we're told by clergymen, counselors and well-meaning friends that we need to forgive to move on. We're told that forgiveness is the only way to let go of the negative feelings that are eating us up inside, that if we don't forgive we are doomed to be bitter and blaming forever, that forgiveness is the only way to heal.

Both forgiveness and the desire for revenge are natural human responses to being hurt. We want to forgive--to let go of hurts--especially if we don't want to hurt others, such as our children, or ourselves by having to be tortured with ongoing anger and bitterness. Or we may want to repair our relationship with him for the sake of the children and feel that we need to forgive to do that.

The desire for revenge is also a natural human response to being hurt. We want justice when we're wronged, it feels unnatural to just accept and forgive without some kind of restitution. These two desires are often at war after divorce.

The real goal, however, is to make peace with yourself so you can heal. Getting sidetracked by the search for revenge, usually through the courts, or trying to forgive whether or not you feel like it or are ready to do it, are both futile paths only leading to more pain.

The problem is that we're taught we must forgive in order to heal, to stop carrying around all that anger and hatred. But how is that possible? The very definition of forgiveness means you're supposed to stop being angry about something you have every right to be angry about. In order to do that you have to twist yourself and your emotions into a pretzel, or admit you've failed at yet another aspect of your marriage--your divorce. More guilt gets pushed on you, as if you didn't feel enough guilt.

Forgiveness was a dilemma for me because I couldn't see myself forgiving what I felt were unforgivable deeds. I talked to my rabbi about it and learned that the emphasis on forgiveness in our society comes from Christianity. It's what Jesus did, and since we are basically a Christian society, following the example of Jesus has become the gold standard.

In the Jewish tradition you don't have to forgive unless you feel like it, or unless your ex has made amends. You will not necessarily suffer if you don't forgive. Forgiveness is not the only way to heal from hurt, betrayal, emotional or physical abuse. You will move on anyway because unless you hang on to your hurts, nursing them with more and more attention, they will naturally fade with time. Forgiveness may, or may not, have anything to do with moving on. We are human, our wounds heal, hurts of the past recede into the past and the pain they caused lessens over the years. Just like any other kind of grief, the pain caused by betrayal or abuse fades whether or not we forgive our exes. Forgiveness often happens organically, after enough time has passed.

Before talking to my rabbi, I certainly had no idea what my own religion taught. Unlike the Christian approach, which is based on doing what Jesus would do, Jews base their beliefs on doing the right thing. In the Jewish tradition you're not obligated to forgive someone unless they've sincerely expressed remorse and convinced you of their sincerity. In fact the offender is mandated by God to ask for forgiveness three times and only then is the victim religiously required to forgive. However, if the wrongdoer does not apologize there is no religious obligation to grant forgiveness. Additionally, in Judaism, a wrongdoer must apologize to those he has harmed in order to be entitled to forgiveness. A person can only obtain forgiveness from God for wrongs done to God, not for wrongs done to other people. My ex certainly never apologized for leaving me for another woman. Did yours?

I'm not alone in this struggle. Many of you want to forgive your ex and can't find it in your heart do to so. Then you wind up feeling bad about your inability to forgive, which just adds insult to injury. What we rarely ask is why we have to forgive to move on? Why forgive an ex who betrayed you, abused you, was cruel, dishonest, and never expressed remorse or apologized, in fact blamed you for his bad behavior? As women, haven't we done enough time on the cross? Isn't it more appropriate, not to speak of self-respecting, to say, to hell with him, he has to live with his sins. I'm focusing on myself.

So give yourself a break girlfriend. Work on yourself and let him go. Let Jesus forgive him, it's not your responsibility.

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