Forgiveness in stages

Wronged! Betrayed! Let down! Used! Worse yet, it was by someone you knew well and counted on as a friend. The offense was no accident. It was deliberate, self-serving and malicious. Now this "friend" is coming to you and asking for forgiveness. H...

Wronged! Betrayed! Let down! Used! Worse yet, it was by someone you knew well and counted on as a friend.

The offense was no accident. It was deliberate, self-serving and malicious. Now this "friend" is coming to you and asking for forgiveness. His or her words seem cheap after what you've been through.

How do you forgive? How do you get rid of the anger and hatred, the hurt and the humiliation - the shame of it all? What does it mean to forgive?

Psychologist Michele Killough Nelson from Midlothian, Va., and part-time faculty member at Virginia Commonwealth University, researched the process of forgiveness. She has broken forgiveness down into seven stages:

    1. Recognition - a belief that an offense has occurred. Recognition doesn't always happen immediately. Sometimes it occurs only after a victim has reflected on what happened or following a period of denial.

    2. Response - an experience of at least one intense, negative emotion such as anger, hurt, shame, etc. What emotion a person experiences varies with their usual response style and the nature of the offense.

    3. Re-evaluate - a re-evaluation of the meaning of the offense and one's relationship with the offender. In order to keep the relationship, the offended party looks for explanations such as mitigating circumstances, excuses, and his or her own role in the process, and tries to recall past happy memories.

    4. Reframing - the hurtful offense is defined differently. Whatever positive feelings were generated during the evaluation phase are contrasted with the bad feelings. To resolve this conflict, the person now tries to change the way he or she views the offense and the offender. By changing his or her beliefs about what happened or about the offender, the person reduces the intensity of his or her bad feelings.

    5. Reduction - a softening of bad feelings about the offense and toward the offender. There is some ill will, but the person tries to set aside some or most of the negative feelings to re-establish the relationship.

    6. Restoration - a partial restoration of the relationship. The primary purpose of forgiveness is an attempt to restore the relationship in some form. At this point a meaningful dialogue may lead to apologies and/or restitution along with a renegotiation of the relationship.

    7. Release - bad feelings surrounding the offense have dissipated. The relationship is fully restored and can grow to new levels. This means valuing and trusting the offender enough to risk being hurt again.

    The two key parts of forgiveness are 1) reduction of bad feelings and 2) a desire to maintain or restore the relationship. Nelson shows how combinations of these two factors result in different kinds of forgiveness.

Detached forgiveness. The bad feelings are gone, but there is no reaffirming of the relationship. People forgive in this way when they realize their negative emotions are sapping their own energy and preventing them from moving on to more positive pursuits.


This is self-protective. This type of forgiveness happens when the offender has not apologized or made restitution, when the original relationship was not close, or when the victim believes the offender cannot be trusted.

Limited forgiveness. Both positive and negative feelings exist toward the offender. Forgiveness is limited because it interferes with the growth and intimacy of the relationship. The hurt party is careful, cautious and looks at things differently since the offense occurred.

During times of stress, bad feelings about the past surface. Limited forgiveness happens when a person is unsure about the offender's actual ability to change or when the offense has profoundly disrupted the relationship.

It is appropriate to remain angry or hurt; especially when the offender is unlikely to change. Bad feelings are held onto as reminders to be careful.

Quasi-forgiveness. Forgiveness is given out of a sense of guilt, duty or low-self-esteem. The relationship is partially restored even though the intensity of the bad feelings remains. This often happens when the offender is in a position of power over the person offended.

Resentments also persist when forgiveness is granted too quickly without the offender having done his or her part to earn forgiveness.

Full forgiveness. There is a total absence of ill will and a full restoration of the relationship. This type of forgiveness occurs when the emotional investment is valued and the relationship is allowed to move forward unrestrained.

There is a willingness to be vulnerable and trust that the other person will not exploit this vulnerability. The offender has to be repentant and has proven by his or her subsequent actions that he or she is now reliable.


This takes time, depending on the gravity of the offense. To completely restore the relationship, trust also becomes a factor. Trust is earned. Trust won't occur until the offender has done his or her part to show that true change has occurred.

Whose problem is it, anyway? People often get stuck with bad feelings and need help to forgive. They have to let go of their anger or hurt. Until they do, they hold back, and their relationships can't grow and flourish.

The offender may have done everything possible in terms of remorse, apologies, restitution to the extent possible, and demonstrated by his or her actions that true change has occurred.

When a victim holds on tenaciously to aggrieved feelings and refuses to re-evaluate the offense or the offender, the lack of forgiveness becomes a greater problem than the original offense.

Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families.

What To Read Next
Get Local