Forgiveness as defined by culture

Our culture is confused about forgiveness. On the one hand, we are told that we must forgive others in order to move on, and that is absolutely true! On the other hand, we are told to “forgive and forget.”

If we forget the wrongs done to us, we don’t learn the lesson. If we don’t learn the lesson then we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes in future relationships.

Culture is also confused about what forgiveness looks like. Forgiveness is identified by culture as “standing by your man,” “friends are forever,” and the family welcoming back the returning prodigal son.

But what if standing by your man (or woman) is dangerous to you or your children? What if, by returning back time and again you are enabling a person to continue in a self-destructive path? What if your absence from the person’s life is the wake-up call he or she needs to make better choices? What if the person is better served by your loving from a distance, whether they see it that way or not?

And what if the prodigal is not the son who left, but the person who drove him away in the first place? What if the recklessness is generational, and the son was simply carrying on a family tradition of excess and dysfunction that he learned in his youth?

The greatest confusion in our culture about forgiveness is propagated against us by the least likely to take responsibility. Manipulative people would like us to believe that forgiveness, love, and trust are all the same thing.

And because we want to believe only the best about people, we believe them! And in doing so, we keep coming back, over and over, enabling the least accountable to continue in behaviors that are damaging not only to us, but to themselves as well.

We take this incorrect notion of forgiveness and use it to judge others. We see people setting boundaries and assume they can’t forgive. Perhaps that is the case in some instances. But perhaps the person has learned that, in this particular case, with this particular person, loving from a distance is far more compassionate. Perhaps the person has simply redefined love.

Forgiveness redefined

In redefined love, forgiveness, trust, and love are three entirely separate concepts:

Love is not always warm regard and affection. Love requires accountability of yourself and others. Love requires boundaries in which you clearly define where you end and the other person begins. Our capacity for love is infinite, but our time and energy are not. We choose our close relationships with intention, based on mutual respect for boundaries.

Trust is the gift of our time, energy, and affection given to those we have welcomed into our self-made family. The level of trust given is directly correlated with the level of respect given for our expressed boundaries.

Forgiveness is the peace we feel when we have held ourselves and others equally accountable for the wrongs done in the relationship, when we have freed ourselves from the Shame Cycle associated with the relationship, and when we love ourselves and the other person in spite of past wrongs.

The path to forgiveness

Forgiveness has absolutely nothing to do with time, attention, or affection. Redefined love requires respect of each individual’s chosen path. You can do this from a distance if someone’s choices violate your boundaries, integrity, or personal and emotional safety.

In redefined love, forgiveness and love are not the same thing. However, forgiveness is a crucial component in redefining love. When we redefine love, forgiveness will naturally follow. We can’t love someone and also harbor anger and resentment. And since redefining love involves accountability and boundaries we aren’t allowing other people to walk all over us in an effort to forgive.

Redefining love is possible regardless of what the other person did, no matter how awful. Once we have loved ourselves through our anger, we are able to see that this person is caught up on their own Shame Cycle. This person is full of sadness and uncontrolled anger of their own. We feel empathy and compassion for them.

Redefining love allows you to love people from a distance. If someone is toxic in your life, it’s ok to withhold close relationship, not because you hate them (even if the other person says that is the case), and not because you can’t forgive (also a highly likely response). You respect others’ rights to be at whatever place they are in any given moment. But you also respect yourself enough to recognize that you are in a different place.

In redefined love, you make your own family. This doesn’t mean you must dissolve relationship with your family of origin. It is quite possible that you will choose your family of origin to share your life with. The point is that your relationships should be intentional. You should know exactly why you are spending time with this person.

Toxic people use guilt, obligation, and coercion to manipulate your feelings. They try to convince you that you are unforgiving and cruel if you do not allow them access to your life. By equating forgiveness, trust, and love, they hope to blur the line between where you end and they begin. They seek to entrap you back into the Shame Cycle. Don’t fall for it!

Forgiving yourself

Remember that the first step to redefining love is to learn to love yourself. A major component of this is self-forgiveness. This means admitting what you’ve done to harm others, loving yourself through it, and releasing yourself from the Shame Cycle you’ve been punishing yourself with all these years.

We are all fallen creatures. We have all made mistakes. Treat yourself with grace, which means loving yourself through your own brokenness.

Permission to love and be loved from a distance

Obligation, guilt, and coercion are terrible reasons to expend your limited time and energy on a relationship. I am officially giving you permission to choose to love the toxic people in your life from a distance.

You have a right to decide for yourself what your boundaries are in each individual relationship. This includes your family of origin. If your parents, siblings, and other family members are toxic to you, it’s ok to set boundaries. It’s ok to tell your adult children “no.”

It’s ok to expect your spouse to respect your individual needs and identity. It’s ok to put some distance between yourself and that friend from high school who still wants to party every night. It’s ok to find a new mom group if you feel judged. It’s ok to skip out on the latest gossip session at work. It’s all ok.

What these boundaries look like are entirely up to you, and they may evolve over time. You may decide to cut off communication for a time until you feel stronger and more able to enforce your boundaries. You may choose to limit your time to once a week, or once a month. You may choose to only meet a person in a public place. You may even choose to discontinue relationship with a person for the remainder of your life.

That being said, this only works if you’ve followed all the steps of redefining love. If you haven’t been accountable for your own actions, if you haven’t held the other person accountable, if you are still screaming at each other and you shut someone out of your life simply for spite, if you aren’t consistent with your boundaries and are constantly changing the rules of the relationship, then you are still in a Shame Cycle, and you certainly have not redefined love.

We have a responsibility to those we love, and we love everyone, regardless of their toxicity. Our responsibility is to know ourselves well enough to set firm boundaries for a healthy life, and to respect others’ boundaries as well. We must give ourselves permission to let go of relationships that are not serving a healthy purpose in our lives.

We must also allow other people to let us go. We must forgive ourselves for the hurt we’ve caused, and acknowledge that other people have a right to love us from a distance because of this hurt.

If you feel at any point like you want to harm yourself or someone else, seek professional help immediately or dial 911. You are worth too much to the world to choose otherwise.

The author of Redefining Love is not a licensed mental healthcare professional. The information included on this site is for the specific purposes of learning to set boundaries and hold yourself and others accountable with love and grace. For mental health diagnosis questions or clinical mental health treatment or concerns, please reach out to a licensed mental healthcare professional.

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