September 6, 2023

Defining Forgiveness

What does forgiveness really mean? How important is it for our relationship and our own health? As we approach the High Holidays, we reflect on these questions and more.

For many of us who identify as Jewish, Yom Kippur is a holiday that looms large. As a kid, big topics like atonement, sin, prayer and fasting were a lot for me to learn about in Hebrew School, but I embraced it. I remember the first year I fasted and how proud I was, how hard I worked mulling over my actions and what I needed to atone for. That first year I figured I had so much to atone for since I hadn’t atoned before. I didn’t spend much time thinking about forgiveness of others. To be honest, I still struggle with forgiveness. Whatever age we are, forgiveness is a difficult topic to understand but such an important one. This I why I want to dive into this topic through a relationship lens – what does forgiveness mean, how does it work, and how can we practice it in our relationship? 

SHALVA clients, who are survivors of domestic abuse, may find that they struggle with the word forgiveness. Many clients have come to us for years and battle with this subject because it can be so complicated for them. When forgiveness is viewed as looking at yourself, instead of absolving someone of their responsibility, it can feel like the right thing to do. Other times the anger and pain make it too difficult to see through, and forgiveness isn’t on the table. Clients also struggle with self-forgiveness. All of these subjects related to survivors of domestic abuse are deeply complicated. Every survivor’s journey is a unique and winding path, and our SHALVA therapists emphasize they are there to support, not force one way or another (please check out SHALVA’s website for more information!

On the other hand, if we are lucky enough to be in a healthy relationship, it's important to figure out what forgiveness looks like within it. Relationships aren’t perfect, and practicing forgiveness within a relationship isn’t perfect either. The most important thing to keep in mind is that when there are moments of hurt from either partner, open, honest and caring conversations around that hurt can start someone down a path of forgiveness, even if they don’t get everything they wanted from their partner (If some of these practices feel one-sided in your relationship or if you are worried about a volatile reaction from your partner if you begin a discussion around forgiveness, these may be signs that your relationship isn’t as healthy as you might think). 

When there is a moment of difficulty within a healthy relationship, there are two sides to it. With forgiveness, however, there is only one side. Forgiveness can’t be about the other person, it’s about you. Often, core to this is acknowledging hurt or anger you’re holding onto and the impact it’s having on you. Letting go can be a major part of feeling better. Plus, organizations like the Mayo Clinic (and other places) have cited forgiveness leading to tons of physical health benefits like lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, better heart health, and more. As you can imagine, there are plenty of emotional health benefits, as well (read more here).

It's always been easier for me to atone for my own sins than it is to practice forgiveness, but I continue to work on it. I’m lucky to be a part of many healthy relationships but no relationship is perfect. The more I can consider what anger and hurt I am holding onto and how I can let it go, the healthier I can be. Forgiveness is a huge topic; I encourage you to keep exploring what it means to you.

Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, happy and healthy New Year. L’Shana Tova. 

Author: Jordyn is the Director of Community Education for SHALVA. She oversees all things Seven Circles. Jordyn’s love languages are words of affirmation & quality time.