A couple of weeks ago, I revisited the topic of contrition (see: Contrition Revisited) and the crucial role it plays in the mending of broken relationships. But contrition alone is not sufficient to rebuild a healthy and loving relationship. Contrition must necessarily be accompanied by repentance. The two are inextricably interconnected. And just what true repentance entails from a psychological perspective is worth some further discussion.
Repentance is not so much a feeling or sentiment but rather a process. It’s the process of honestly and thoughtfully reviewing one’s past actions, one’s motivations, sentiments, and underlying “issues,” and committing oneself to the task of “turning away” from old, negative patterns and making a conscientious effort to adopt and reinforce very different, healthier ways, thus becoming a new and better person. It’s an arduous process. And like all difficult endeavors, it can rarely be accomplished alone. That’s why when someone claims they’ve turned over a new leaf but have not actively engaged in some kind of constructive guidance or rehabilitation program, their promise of reform is likely to prove quite empty.
Unfortunately, too many times, aggrieved parties in dysfunctional and abusive relationships forgive their relationship partners when those partners have not yet demonstrated repentance. Forgiveness is a wonderful thing. It’s benefit is primarily to the victim, not the victimizer. The purpose of forgiveness is not to let the wrongdoer “off the hook,” but rather to rid the wounded party of the lasting impact of the hurt they sustained and the additional damage that can be done by letting a wound remain open and fester. But forgiveness in the absence of repentance is not only unwise but also dangerous. When you “let go” of the hurt done to you and blindly resume trusting in the absence of repentance, you only open yourself up to renewed and perhaps deeper wounding. It’s bad enough that even those sincerely working on personal reform will occasionally “slip” and hurt you again, but it’s sheer folly to put your trust in someone unwilling to shoulder the burden of true repentance.
As mentioned earlier, repenting always involves “turning away” from unhealthy, destructive ways, and turning one’s mind, attention, and energy toward healthier alternatives. And as anyone who’s ever done it can testify, breaking old, bad habits and replacing them with new, good ones is a very difficult task. That’s why most sincerely repentant folks seek out some kind of therapeutic or spiritual guidance. Now that’s not to say that the very weakly repentant won’t abuse the guidance process by making the whole endeavor more for “show” than for substance. But even a person strongly committed to reform would have a difficult time achieving it on their own. So, they’ll typically “use” whatever therapeutic process they might choose as both a support and guidance vehicle for change. In the end, the best indications that someone is repenting is not that they’re engaged in a therapeutic process but rather that their ways are indeed changing. Someone shouldering the burden of change not only demonstrates the sincerity of their contrition but also honors the therapeutic process as well as the relationship they purport to want to save. The actions that accompany such reform speak louder than any words and testify to the quality and sincerity of any love they profess for the partner they have wounded. And because merely turning over a new leaf is generally insufficient to repairing the damage someone’s bad behavior has done to a relationship, those actions must always necessarily a person’s humble acceptance of the obligation to do whatever it takes and for as long as it takes to regain a partner’s trust. Contrition, repentance, and acceptance of the duty to make amends go hand-in-hand.
I’ve counselled many couples whose relationships was marred by betrayal and infidelity. One particular situation sticks in my mind. A man came to see me at the behest of his wife who’d caught him red-handed trying to arrange a romantic liaison with another woman online. He readily admitted this behavior but blamed it on a momentary weakness because his wife had not “been there” for him sexually or emotionally during a time of duress. And he insisted he was sorry, that he would never abandon his wife or family, and that he’d rather just put the whole affair behind him and move on but would still be willing to see me because he knew his wife wanted him to do so. He didn’t mention that this latest affair was just the most recent in a long string of similar incident, several of which progressed far beyond the point of trying to arrange a tryst. And he didn’t tell me of all the other acts of betrayal he’d engaged in over the years, or the kinds of deceptions and manipulation tactics he’d used for years to keep control in the family while regularly reneging on his commitments. I told him I certainly couldn’t visit with someone simply to placate someone else. I also told him that as I saw it, there were huge character issues in the family, all stemming from each selfish person’s unwillingness to allow their lives to be guided by a higher governing principle or set of principles. Needless to say, he was neither amenable to my interpretation of problems nor the solution I proposed. One of the family members came to see me years later. It seems everyone was in some sort of counseling, many at the behest of relationship partners, and they’ve all been having the same kinds of problems and dealing with the same kinds of issues despite being involved in therapy for 15 years or more. This family member wondered what it would take for anything to really change.
The story referenced above is not only a testament to both the power and limitations of therapy but also to the importance of true contrition and repentance. For when true repentance is present, a person can use just about any guidance vehicle you can think of to help accomplish the goal of personal reform. But when a person is neither contrite nor repentant, no amount of therapy is capable of making a difference. Therapy provides the tools. It’s how a person can go about the process of improving their life. But the decision to do better and be better is a matter of the heart. It begins with “metanoia” or a change of heart and mind – a change inextricably bound to the experience of contrition and the process of repentance. In my book The Judas Syndrome, you can find numerous other examples of the crucial role contrition and repentance play in restoring health to relationships.
23 thoughts on “Repentance and Forgiveness”
This is sooo important… my life changed when I abandoned the modern way of thinking which relegates repentance to the dusty recesses of old fashioned religiosity. It was a revelation. And a shock.
I then turned to the Catholics for help… they have a process that involves confession and penance. But the penance thing did not work out… one ends up deluding oneself that you can buy yourself out of past wrongs by doing penance. Most serious wrongs cannot be fixed. It’s too late.
I think, now, that there are two parts to this turning… opening one’s heart to the pain of remorse, and then committing to, and carrying out, an action that will, with grace on our side, alter the person. I think this is one reason people go on pilgrimages. So they could become someone who’s been changed by the deep experience.
What do you think?
It’s the person-altering action that counts the most, which takes not only sincerity of heart, but also firm resolve. True repentance shows in the actions, which speak so much louder than words.
Dr Simon, the Contrition link does not work.
Thanks. Working on the fix.
Hi Dr. Simon: Thank you for an excellent post on one of life’s most difficult challenges – to not only apologize for wrongdoing but to also have the temerity to demonstrate repentance. I wonder how many victims are quick to forgive an insincere apology. It takes too much emotional stamina for an embittered victim of betrayal, who already bears a low sense of self-esteem, to endure the arduous repentance journey of a straying partner. In the short term, the acceptance of a quick apology relieves pain and uncertainty, but in the long term, the difficult journey of repentance forces both parties to do hard emotional work needed to sustain a healthy future relationship.
Thank you, Teresa. Some points very well taken and well worth sharing.
Now I need a response to the queries “can you not just forgive your [CA] mother?”
My CA never asked forgiveness!
Claire, my NPD mother uses apologies and “begging” for forgiveness as part of the abuse cycle. Of course, I fell for it my entire life, until two years ago. The old me would think: She knows what she did, she’s sorry, she’ll learn from it and grow. I was duped! She’d start acting out again almost immediately, either overtly or covertly, which was tougher to see. There’s never been any real growth. That’s been one of the hardest things for me to truly understand… I always thought people *wanted* to grow. Nope. They don’t. Some people use whatever they have to use to get what they want when they want it.
Don’t know your specific situation, but if it’s anything like mine, you could respond to those queries by saying, “My CA uses my forgiveness against me.”
I’m curious: What is “CA” mother and “NPD” mother?
CA is short for covert-aggressive, an unscrupulous, subtle manipulator determined to get their way.
NPD is short for narcissistic personality disorder. Someone with that personality disorder has inflated self-esteem to the point of (usually) passively disregarding other people and their needs and rights.
Not sure about “NPD mother uses apologies and “begging” for forgiveness”.
Based on Dr. Simon’s books and articles… Aggressive personality may use apology/begging as a tool. Aggressive behavior does have root in narcissism. But, a diagnosed narcissist personality (I mean, certified NPD) apologizing looks unrealistic. A narcissist aggressive will expect other to have soul-wrenching contrition, followed by self-flagellation based repentance. Ok ok, maybe not so dramatic, but something that makes the narcissist feel superior and righteous.
If a narcissist does apologize, it will be like they are writing sorry on a brick and then throwing it at you, “damn you, you don’t move on without a sorry, well you got it now, happy?”
People do not understand and it is best not to respond, or to respond with “oh well I’ve definitely moved forward from it and am focused on other things, if that’s what you mean.”
My CA mother is just a horrible person and I almost got away from her and came really close to having a normal life, it was therapists who urged me to go back and attend therapy with her. It was a total setup on her part. It was just awful. I always thought she was neglectful, but in those sessions I saw this woman was out to “win” against me. The therapists (my personal therapist and the family therapist she hired) were SOOOO naive, I felt if anyone should understand an NPD person, it would be professionals. They were clueless, useless, and did more harm than good. They enabled abuse and put the needs of a 70-something CA above those of a promising 30-something woman.
Claire, I sympathize with you. The answer to these people is, “she has never asked for forgiveness.” As she is 70 something, the likelihood that she will ever change is vanishingly small. Asking for forgiveness is probably outside her capabilities. If I can offer anything to help, it might be this — according to Ephesians 1:4, God chose you _before the foundation of the world_ to be His child. If you can look back over your life and realize, as I have, that His protecting hand has been over you all the time. You see now that your biological female parent is deeply flawed, and will likely never change. But YOU can change. If you can, start a small notebook and, every day, date a page and jot down one or two things that happened during the day for which you are thankful or grateful. It doesn’t sound like much, but it has helped many people to focus on the good things in their lives. It can be as simple as “I saw a beautiful rainbow today” or “Louise complimented me on my pretty blouse.” Or “I found a bit of help today on Dr. Simon’s website.” At 30 something, you still have half your life ahead of you. You’ve learned that not all “professional” therapists can be trusted. Can I suggest that you look up Victoria Secunda’s book, When you and your mother can’t be friends. In some respects, you will have to be your own pathfinder, BUT, I have done it, so have many others, and SO CAN YOU!! Always ask for God’s guidance and He will give it to you. Start your days, always, with prayer and thanksgiving, and I believe you will find that, slowly, it will make a difference in your life. If you want to read the Bible in today’s English, I strongly recommend J.B. Phillips’ The New Testament in Modern English. You can find it online at Biblegateway.com. My hard copy is 50 years old, and is fraying around the edges. I’ve underlined it here and there. When I was your age, I was still struggling with problems, but at almost 73, I’m grateful that God has had His protecting hand over me all my life. I do sympathize and empathize with you, and will hold you in prayer, that God may help you find peace in your life. Best wishes from Elva
PLEASE PRAY FOR ME.
I AM A 56 YEAR OLD WHO GREW UP IN A FATHERLESS HOME (BY DEATH).
MY “DEVOUT CHRISTIAN” “MOTHER” (JUST LIKE HER MOTHER!) DID NOT TALK WITH OR SPEND TIME WITH ME. YET SHE DID BUY ME THINGS! SO IT APPEARED THAT SHE CARED THROUGHOUT THE YEARS.
SHE ATTENDED MY BROTHERS AND BROTHER’S FRIENDS BAND CONCERTS, FOOTBALL GAMES……………ETC. THE OTHER BROTHER WAS TREATED LIKE A PIECE OF TRASH!
SHE NEVER HAD THE TIME TO SEE ANY OF THE GAMES I CHEERED AT FOR 3 YEARS, ETC………..
SHE ADORES 3 OF MY BROTHERS AND THEIR FAMILIES! THEY CAN DO NO WRONG! SINLESS! SPOTLESS!
SHE IS THE SWEEEEEEEEEETEST PERSON TO THEIR KIDS, AND AVAILABLE TO TALK WITH THEM.
I CAN DO NOTHING RIGHT! BROTHERS WOULD PICK ON ME AND I WAS TOLD “DON’T BE SO SENSITIVE” “OH…….DON’T TAKE THINGS SO……..”
MY HUSBAND AND I MET WITH HER TO CONFRONT HER ON THE HATEFUL BEHAVIOR. SHE GOT ANGRY AND SAID THAT “SHE EXPECTS HER BROTHERS TO APPRECIATE HER!” WE SAT THERE IN SHOCK AT THE HEARTLESSNESS.
I LIVE ~ A MILE AWAY FROM “MOM” AND TWO OTHER “CHRISTIAN” BROTHERS.
ONE #1 LOCAL BROTHER AND HIS WIFE HAVE BLAMED MY HUSBAND AND I FOR THINGS WE HAVE NOT DONE, JUST SO THEY CAN DIVERT ATTENTION AWAY FROM THEIR OWN ABUSIVE, DECEPTIVE POWER STRUGGLES. BY THE WAY, MY BROTHER IS THE “NICE” HEAD USHER AT THE LOCAL CHURCH!!
ANOTHER #2 “CHRISTIAN” BROTHER MOVED TO OUR TOWN A FEW YEARS AGO. HE WAS SEXUALLY ABUSIVE WHEN I WAS YOUNGER. HE HAS NOT EVEN CONTACTED MY HUBBY & I TO LET US KNOW THAT HE HAS MOVED HERE! HE ACTS LIKE WE HAVE ALREADY DIED!
WE ARE OFTEN EXCLUDED FROM “FAMILY” GATHERINGS. WE HAVE FOUND OUT “AFTER THE FACT” THAT RELATIVES HAVE VISITED AND WE DIDN’T EVEN KNOW THEY WOULD BE IN TOWN.
MY OTHER “CHRISTIAN” BROTHER #3 –WHO LIVES OUT OF STATE-IS THE GOD OF ALL!! MOM WORSHIPPED HIM FROM DAY #1. WE GREW UP HEARING ALL ABOUT WHAT HE DID RIGHT. MY HUBBY AND I TRIED TO TALK WITH HIM WHEN HE CAME TO TOWN ABOUT WHY WE DON’T FEEL COMFORTABLE GOING TO “FAMILY” GATHERINGS ANYMORE. HE TOLD US THAT MOM IS A “DEVOUT CHRISTIAN WOMAN.” I TOLD HIM THAT I HAVE TRIED TO HAVE RELATIONAHIP WITH HER, I TRIED TO REACH OUT. HE SAID, “ALL I’M HEARING IS THAT I’VE TRIED.” I AM NOT DOING ENOUGH!!!!
THE OTHER BROTHER SHOWS UP YEARLY FOR RELATIONAL CRUMBS. WE NEVER HEAR FROM HIM EITHER! WE SPEAK UP, AND WE ARE DISCOUNTED, BLAMED AND WRITTEN OFF.
I CANNOT LIVE THIS WAY ANYMORE! I DECIDED TO GET SOME HELP, AND WENT TO A “BIBLICAL COUNSELOR.” I WAS GIVEN HOMEWORK TO DO ON BITTERNESS AND TO READ THE BOOK ON FORGIVENESS BY NANCY LEIGH DEMOSS. I AM TO FORGIVE, WHICH I UNDERSTAND, AND ALSO TO “LET GO” OF ANYTHING THAT HAS EVER HAPPENED! I TOLD HER THAT IF THIS IS CHRISTIANITY, PLAYING CHURCH WHILE LIVING A LIFE OF DR. JECKYL AND MR. HYDE, THEN I DO NOT WANT IT!
HUBBY AND I HAVE BEEN INVITED TO ATTEND THANKSGIVING DINNER AT “MOM’S” HOUSE. (FOR WHAT?????) MOM SAID THAT IT’S GOOD FOR THE “FAMILY” TO BE TOGETHERI HAVE STOMACH ACHES ABOUT GOING AND CANNOT SLEEP.
MY COUNSELOR THINKS IT IS MY PROBLEM! SHE SAID THAT I AM TO HONOR MY PARENTS!
I RECEIVED THIS E-MAIL FROM MY COUNSELOR. THIS IS THE FONT THAT SHE USED.
I CANNOT CARRY THE WEIGHT OF THIS BY MYSELF!
“Trust you are letting go of the years of bitterness toward certain people in your life…When you harbor it, you’ve accepted it as your own and it will control your emotions from that point on! Not worth it!
There is freedom in forgiveness! Review once again the pages I gave you before on bitterness/forgiveness, and finish Nancy’s book on forgiveness. This is what you can control….not what they did, but your response to it! :)”
I AM WILLING TO FORGIVE THEM, BUT THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT I WANT TO RETURN TO THE TRASH CAN.
IS THERE ANYONE OUT THERE WHO HAS EXPERIENCED THIS CRAZINESS????
Esther, I’m reading your comment two years after you posted it, but I’d like to tell you that I can relate to you! Your story resonates with mine, except that my abusers is my mother-in-law and all my husband’s evil relatives. I’ve also tried to find validation with a Christian therapist, but I ended up feeling worse and spiritually abused, so I stopped the therapy. Some of my Christian friends, who are well-meaning people, have also told me exactly the same your counselor told you. Although these people may have our best interest at their hearts, they also contribute to keep us in the fog, which only makes us allow more pain and emotional abuse in our lives. Ultimately, it might even hinder our relationship with God – if we do believe that God wants us to keep being our abusers’ hostage in order to be good Christians. I found peace of mind and soul reaching to Jesus Christ alone, who gave me the right answers by leading me to Dr. George Simon’s page and books. I also recommend that you search for Sister Renee’s books and page on Facebook (she has a ministry called Luke 17:3), and Southlake Christian Counseling with Shannon Thomas (she also has a page on Facebook). I’ll pray for you! Hope you will find the peace you deserve! God bless you!
*my abusers are
I am a Christian too and because of that I tried staying too. There are a lot of Christians that will not support this, I am very conservative in my beliefs and do not support having to be a scapegoat. I hope you stay connected to the site and I will answer more of your post. Read all of Dr. Simons books and especially The Judas Syndrome which I just repurchased and started to read again after 2 years.
Another good website is out of the FOG. Meaning Fear, Obligation and Guilt which the manipulators use to pull our strings to keep us triangulating and by putting the blame on us.
Dr. Simons site is the best by far and the only one I felt compelled to reach out in and I am glad I did. There are many caring people here who have shared your pain and are willing to listen and support you. Please stay for awhile and see if some of your burden of guilt which it sounds like others are trying lay on you might be lifted. Blessings
I am now in my early 40’s. Your kind words mean a lot to me. Bless you.
My husband has admitted to some of the things I’ve said are abusive and repented. He’s changed in many ways over the last couple of years (eg I’ve stopped running after him whenever he cries for help, so he’s had to start thinking and doing for himself. He also now accepts that I have the right to say ‘no’ to physical contact – though he resents it.) But now it seems he feels justified that he’s done a lot to mend our relationship and hints that it’s my turn.
He has done quite a lot, but there’s still a lot of manipulative things happening that he won’t accept – they are just my opinion, my experience, he didn’t mean that, I just felt like that but it wasn’t what he was doing etc.
I’m now struggling with how to respond to the way my husband ‘uses’ what I say to him to somehow get at me.
He always seems to have a plausible way of explaining that what he is doing and saying is the same as what I’m doing and saying. If I request he listens to me and he does (though it feels more like he tolerates me speaking rather than actually taking it on board) then he reckons I am obliged to listen to him – whatever. He can’t see the difference between the stuff I say that he doesn’t like (the challenges to his behaviour that ‘hurt’ him) and the stuff he says which is actually damaging – manipulative, blaming or denying.
If I sound angry (or even just have a “harsh edge to my voice” as he puts it), he calls me on it – like I have no right to be angry, regardless of what I’m talking about or what he’s done. He interrupts and makes out it’s hurtful to him for me to sound like that and he shouldn’t have to put up with it. So if I then call him on sounding angry, he is in the clear and it’s OK because I do it too.
If I won’t listen to him (whatever he wants to say, in whatever way) then he makes it clear that he feels justified in not listening to me. “Oh yes, I have to listen to you but you won’t listen to me” or “Oh, so you can be angry with me but I’m not allowed to be angry with you?”
If i try to explain the difference between what and how he is communicating, and what and how I communicate, he won’t accept it. He says “How can you know what I mean or what I’m feeling or why I’m doing it? How can you say I’m being manipulative, that’s just your opinion and as far as I’m concerned I’m just being honest, the same as you.”
If i leave the room or say “stop it” when he’s done some manipulative thing or angrily denied or thrown back something at me, he makes it clear that I’m being unreasonable because I’m refusing to engage in dialogue.
Unfortunately, in the couple of years before I read Dr Simon’s book, I realise I’ve talked to him a lot about the importance of communication and ideas from popular psychology. He is so intellingent he seems to use it to twist everything and it becomes a weapon. How does one respond to that sort of mind set?
If I have to remove all traces of emotion from my dialogue with my husband in order to communicate, I don’t think I can do that. I AM angry. I DO get to the end of my tether. I don’t think I can be as dispassionate or detatched as Dr Simon is in his therapy sessions. I’m not a therapist, I’m a hurting human being trying to survive and learn how to respond better to protect myself.
How do I counter his “Oh yes, I have to listen to you but you won’t listen to me” and “Oh, so you can be angry with me but I can’t be angry with you” statements?
Rose, It sounds like the two of you need to make an agreement between you on how you will interact, communicate, etc. There needs to be an agreement on the table. If you can not reach a fair agreement then that is a huge problem in and of it’s self…….you are not on the same page……….decision making time. If you can make an agreement that sounds fair to both of you then you have something to work with. When one person violates the agreement, there is something solid to point to. The agreement can be renegotiated but you both have to agree to the terms. Things like, not yelling, calling names, sarcasm, making faces, leaving without saying why and when you will return.
No interrupting, giving feedback on what you heard the other person say, etc. even how long one person will “have the floor”.
Thank you so much for this, Dr. Simon. I ‘put in a request’ for this topic and I’m so grateful to see this.
It takes away so much of the confusion for many who are now alert to the dangers of believing there is change when there isn’t, but don’t want to lead a life trapped in resentment.
I feel you’ve made some difficult but vital distinctions in a very wise and judicious way.
As ever – ‘don’t look at the promises, look at the behavior’. But also – ‘don’t look to them, look to yourself’ — two key Simon themes if I might say so! –
i.e. (in the second theme) Forgiveness is not a vote of confidence in the abuser, it is the start of liberation and transformation for oneself.
Regarding infidelity: I have a facebook page that I created after my ex cheated and I left him. There was never contrition and repentance, no apology, only denial and continued lies. On my page, many people who post there say those who betrayed them often begged forgiveness, but I don’t ever read anything about true contrition and repentance. In all fairness, those who had experienced such might not be inclined to visit a page entitled “Cheating Cannot Be Tolerated”, I guess.
What lead me to this site was the link at Tracy Schorn’s blog site, chumplady.com. I found her blog soon after she launched it and it, which was shortly after my break-up, and it is the greatest site on the net for anyone who has ever had to endure cheating. I’m glad she linked your site, Dr. Simon. Thank you for some very good reading material!
Hello Moda…and…. it all comes down to the actions we take, when all is read and done. I hope you link Dr Simon’s site to your facebook page too Moda, the more people who are aware of his insights the better, I believe 🙂