How to Differentiate Between 3 Types of Forgiveness

It’s important to let go of past offences, but it can be hard sometimes.

Dr. Liz Hale shares breaks down the different kinds of forgiveness that can strengthen our marriages and families.


Definition of Forgiving = “For Giving Ourselves a Gift”

The biggest mistake we make about forgiving others: We make it all about them.

Forgiving is much more about us!

The 18th century English poet, Alexander Pope, gave us the antidote; “to err is human; to forgive divine.” People are indeed acting in a divine way when they forgive.

Forgiving our partner may be one of the hardest tasks to do in marriage especially when the hurt runs deep. Forgiveness is a complex and flexible act that no matter what the circumstances are or how painful they may be it may always be possible to forgive but forgiveness does not look the same across the board.

“Forgiveness,” although a simple word, is a complicated concept. A UCLA psychiatrist, Dr. Stephen Marmer, distinguished three types of forgiveness:


Common circumstances where exoneration fits:

-Genuine Accident

-Unintentional Hurt

-Responsible, Remorseful & Reparative

This type of forgiveness is used after accidents, or when children are involved who don’t know any better, or if someone like a partner or family member is truly contrite about their actions or behaviors. This is closest to what we usually think of when we use the word, “forgiveness.” Exoneration is wiping the slate entirely clean and restoring the relationship to its original state. Exoneration is “for giving” yourself the gift of a fresh start with others.

To not be willing to forgive under this category would not only hurt us and our relationship but the greater wrong would be us more than the other person.

In this matter, our partner (or whoever this other party is) has already done everything they could possibly do to make amends and rebuild the relationship again. To choose to hold onto old wounds would mean to choose anger over the relationship.

The second type of forgiveness is a bit more complicated:


Common circumstances where Forbearance fits:

-Partial Apology

-Inauthentic Apology

-Apology Mingled with Blame

You should always assess your responsibility in a communication breakdown. And, even when you sincerely bare no blame, you will likely want to exercise Forbearance if the relationship matters to you. Forbearance requires tolerance and restraint. Forbearance is used “for giving” yourself the gift of self-restraint.

The need for Forbearance is when our partner makes a partial apology or mixes in their sorrow with blaming us for their bad behavior. While our partner is offering an apology it is not nearly what we had hoped for.

For example, let’s say we felt hurt that our partner said or did some mean things because they were angry. While our partner may feel somewhat sorry, their excuse is that we caused them to say or do those mean things.

Forgiving here will be a lot more difficult especially when you feel you had no responsibility. Forbearance requires understanding, tolerance and self-restraint. We will still be able to continue in the relationship with our partner or the other party who, while far from perfect, is still important to us.

While you cease dwelling on the offense, and do away with grudges and fantasies of revenge, you retain a degree of watchfulness. This is similar to “forgive but not forget” or “trust but verify.”

By using Forbearance, you are able to maintain ties to people who are imperfect and important to you. Forbearance is
“for giving” yourself the gift of security with verification

It’s even possible that after some time and changes from the other person’s side, Forbearance can rise to Exoneration and complete forgiveness.

The third type of forgiveness is harder yet and by far the most challenging:


Common circumstances where Release fits:

-No Acknowledgement of Hurt

-Obviously Insincere Apology

-No Reparation or Amends Attempted

I see this in cases of adult survivors of child abuse, or in businesses where one partner cheats another, or in family or friend relationships where one betrays another. Even with all this pain there is still a personal solution: Release.

Release does not exonerate the offender. Nor does it require Forbearance which again is “forgive but not forget” or “trust but verify.” That would be unwise in certain circumstances. Release does not even require that you continue the relationship.

Do not define your life by past hurts! Instead, release the bad feelings and your preoccupation with the negative things that have happened to you.

Release does something that is critically important: it allows you to let go of the burdens that are weighing you down and eating away at your chance for happiness. If you do not release the pain and anger and move past dwelling on old hurts and betrayals, you will be allowing the one who hurt you to live rent-free in your mind, reliving forever the persecution that the original incident started.

When we choose to hang on to the pain instead of letting it go we are choosing to be a victim over our circumstances, which in turn makes us feel powerless, resentful and bitter. Choose to let go of the hurt and anger and move forward, not for anyone else but yourself!

By Releasing old wounds, we are able to let go of the traumatic past even when the other types of forgiveness are not possible. Releasing is for giving yourself the gift of freedom!

Whether you get there through your own efforts, through psychotherapy, through religion or some other method, Release liberates you from the tyranny of living in the past.

To forgive may be divine; and when we understand its dimensions we find that it is within our ability to do so.

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