How to Forgive Someone Even When You Know They’ll Never Apologize

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Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Especially when you know the person will never apologize. It’s also problematic and complex because we, by nature, are so demanding. Self-centered.

Proud.

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I probably shouldn’t speak for you, but I can speak for myself. And I’ve been in many situations that required forgiveness. Asking for it. Giving it when it wasn’t asked for. Times where it seemed that an apology wasn’t even considered. Times when forgiveness wasn’t about the other person at all, but to set myself free.

Relationships are hard. Be it parent/child, sibling, spouse, friend, co-worker, acquaintance, we are bound to have conflict. We are going to have misunderstanding, offense, strain and, sometimes, division. But that is never the end of the story.

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I believe we’ve got three choices when relationships get sticky. In, out or wait.

In: You dive in and do the work. You gather and speak truth in love. Harvest the soil in the attempt to nurture tiny seedlings into new life.

Out: You walk away. Sever communication, cut ties, pack up your bags and go home.

Wait: For something … someone … some word or act, apology or occurrence. A period of time to pass. Something for which you feel you cannot proceed without.

In, out or wait. Where do you find yourself?

I ask because I know you’re in the midst of something and you find yourself in one of these places. Or you’re uninvolved but trying to help from the periphery. So you’re involved. You’re kind of in. Watching. Waiting. One foot precariously close to the line. Maybe waiting for someone who will never apologize. Praying for both parties to be all in. But one is in … and one is out … and it’s delicate. And yet so fierce.

As I stand on the sideline, I wonder, how can you “not care” and yet be so vicious? Hurt so deep it’s difficult to touch. History. Pain. Tender wounds. Fragile, violent, angry, seething, malicious words cut like a knife. Moving on, getting out, waiting, supposedly indifferent and yet bitter to the core. Silently poisoned.

More often than not, we just throw rocks at each other until nothing remains but a banged up, dented in, gnarled vestige of a relationship. An artifact. Something that was once of great value.  

Destroyed by our own hands.

Forgiveness is hard. It’s even harder when the person who hurt us, it seems will never apologize. But we can still forgive them. There are three choices in relationship conflict: in, out or wait. Find out where you are and how you can move on to find peace. As you consider your place in the struggle of relationship and forgiveness—in, out, or wait—I have a few suggestions for the road:

1. Don’t say or write anything you will regret.

If you’re not ready to work on the relationship then say so. Ask for time. Have the courage and integrity to ask for what you need so you don’t do further damage. You are not the only one with feelings.

2. Be honest.

No relationship can even hope to move forward if you can’t be honest. Pick three specific hurts or challenges in the relationship to address that move the relationship forward. Quite possibly you will have to choose to overlook many offenses because they’re quicksand. Either they’re not essential, there’s no way you’ll come to agreement, or discussion or resolution of the issue will not move the relationship forward. Pick your battles.

3. Find accountability.

If you’re married, hopefully your spouse can hold you accountable for your thoughts, words and actions. In my marriage, there is no way my husband lets me get far with a bad attitude, let alone bad action toward another person or family member. It just isn’t acceptable. He is strong enough to not be persuaded by my interpretation and holds me to a higher standard than my circumstances or irritable mood. Find someone who will not be influenced by your side; who can be objective and tell you when you’re out of line. Someone who will encourage you to pursue peace, even if that means walking away in a way that is respectful and kind. Not all relationships work out, but you are responsible for your behavior on the way out.

4. Grow up.

Consider that your grudge or withholding of forgiveness may simply be prideful, selfish or childish. I don’t think I need to elaborate, if this applies to you I’m sure you already know.

If you’re in and the other person is out, or waiting for something from you, you might have to forgive them for yourself and move on. Forgiveness isn’t really about the other person at all. I’ve been blessed with the unfortunate luck of getting to forgive a few people for things for which they will never apologize for. I remember initially thinking it was impossible to forgive someone without them realizing their fault and asking for forgiveness.

But after years of waiting, I realized I was only punishing myself as I waited for something they were literally incapable of doingThe waiting kept me small. Stuck in the victim role where I allowed the anger and hurt to smolder. The longer I held it, the more bitter I became. It infected my spirit.

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And I realized forgiveness doesn’t excuse the offense. It doesn’t mean you relinquish the pain or say it was OK or doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary. It merely takes the heavy burden of waiting, convincing and punishing off your back. It sets the other person free to come to you on their own, but, more importantly, it sets you free to boldly move forward. Not excusing the offense, but letting it go nonetheless. That is true strength.

If you’re out and you’re punishing someone who is trying to work on the relationship: Be honest. Grow up. Ask for what you need and be kind.They may never apologize but you don’t do yourself any favors by being mean.

Choose your place: in, out or wait and be happy.

Don’t choose your place and be mad about it and punish the people around you. Because it’s your choice. If you’re miserable where you are, then try another choice. Don’t be the one to never apologize either. There are only three choices. Move. Have the courage to be honest, ask for what you need, and be respectful and kind. You teach your children and others around you who you are, and what you value, in the way you deal with conflict and difficult situations. And whichever place you land, seek peace.

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This post is taken from an excerpt in my recent book, Pretty: Breaking Free From the Illusions of a Superficial Life, where I share my journey of coming to terms with the reality of my past and how I was going to use it to boldly design my future.


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Tammy Strait
Tammy Strait is a mom of 3 boys, writer, and non-lawyering lawyer living in beautiful northern Idaho. You can find her blogging at Grace Uncommon and join her on her Facebook page.