The idea of forgiveness – asking for it and offering of it – is deeply rooted in many societies and faiths and is often seen as a universal panacea to release otherwise apparently unresolvable resentment, anger or pain. It’s understandable that people are attracted to the idea when it appears to offer a solution of this kind, the release from difficult feelings or inertia. Especially when there seems no other route to peace or reconciliation.

But does it actually work?

We are told by teachers, religious leaders and spiritual guides that forgiveness is the ‘right’ or the ‘good’ thing to do. We are even told that if we forgive others God will forgive us in turn. Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as saying “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”  This kind of judgement hangs over those who are struggling to forgive and often wounds them again, making them feel more inadequate. The social pressure to forgive also often allows the perpetrator an escape from their responsibility and guilt. When the cost of their actions is excluded someone else will pay the price. 

People hope that they can ‘forgive and forget’, whether it’s their parents, their enemies, their partners or themselves. However, it is rarely as simple as that and forgiving can cause confusion, resentment and inertia in individuals, families and organisations. Resolution usually requires something more nuanced and more respectful.

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“When someone says to another ‘I forgive you’ he is in that moment pronouncing the other guilty. He raises himself above the other and degrades them. This suspends the human relationship of equal to equal. It endangers the relationship instead of rescuing it.”

Bert Hellinger

A fresh perspective on familiar patterns

Forgiving your parents

When the hope for or expectation of love, acknowledgment or safety doesn’t appear (or suddenly disappears) a growing child may try and forgive their parent for the lack, or the hurt. What they are often really ‘saying’ to themselves is more like: ‘I can’t forgive you, it wasn’t enough/it hurt too much. I wish you would have given me more love/attention/safety. I’m only trying to ‘forgive’ you in order to find a way of surviving. A way of moving on. But I’m stuck.’

Forgiveness of a parent – for not being enough for the child in one way or another or for a painful act – puts the adult and child out of the natural order of life and so everyone loses their true place in the family. It is often the source of other failed attempts to forgive and then a search for forgiveness and balance in life in general. It can create a deep entanglement and a string of ‘surrogate parents’ who let them down as they repeatedly try to learn the ‘right way’ to forgive or fix what happened, as though fixing another event and learning to forgive would fix the original event.

Of course, this is not possible but looking at what happened systemically can offer insights that enable compassion and openness for and towards the parent. Without the insights, the child may remain ‘big’, burdened twice over (‘Why can’t I forgive?’) and develop an arrogance towards and contempt for the parent, rather than looking at and facing into, the pain of what has happened.

Only when we look at multiple generations can we see the proper context for actions and very often there is nothing to forgive, but a lot to understand that puts the harm and pain in proper context. When you reject someone through ‘forgiving’ them you double the distance between you and throw away the gifts and the clues that could lead you back to the source of the original pain and then the resolution.

“Forgiving your own parents for what they did – or didn’t do – takes only a small part of the wider system into account and without proper context.”

Lynn Stoney

For example, a mother who doesn’t really see, isn’t present for her daughter, may be looking for her own mother to acknowledge her. Her mother may not have been acknowledged by her mother and so it goes on back through the line of women and their relationships. Each daughter looking for her mother and so each unavailable to their own daughter. The level of insight and understanding from this much larger context can lead to a deep compassion – and forgiveness is neither needed nor an appropriate response or resolution.

In this example the woman can instead begin to see the gift and say to herself something like this: ‘Dear mother, you were not fully present for me and it hurt. I would love to forgive you for that, but it’s not appropraite and it’s not my place. I’m just your child, you are the parent, my mother, the source of my life. Thank you, I’ll do something useful with what you gave me. When I see the larger context with compassion I can begin to understand why you did what you did/were not available. I’m no better than you but please smile on me if I’m able to find another way. I want the pattern and the pain to stop with me.

This allows the judgements to soften and the pattern to change. So, when an adult child doesn’t feel that one or both of their parents gave them enough and tries to forgive them it is better for both when the child can say, in their heart: “You gave me life. Thank you. That was enough. I will do the rest myself.”

This kind of respectful inner language honours what was given (life itslef) when it seems as if there was nothing, and returns self respect and strength to the hurt individual. This sense of having received something, something essential, from the parent can be freeing – rather than burdening people with a sense of responsibility for forgiving their parents.

The deep inner movement being described here takes more work than forgiveness and is not based on judgments about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ about virtue or sin, but on looking through a wider systemic lens, with compassion and humility. This approach restores balance and allows the offender to stand in their own guilt. Only then are they likely to express their remorse and offer restitution.

“Forgiveness can be an attempt to rebalance the relationship system, disguised as an act of kindness or virtue. The ‘forgiver’ takes a superior position as ‘the good one’ and absolves ‘the bad one’ of guilt. For example, when someone ‘forgives’ their sibling they may sometimes also be trying to re-establish their place and, if they are the older one, their ‘higher place’ in the order of the family system, when that feels like it’s been lost.” 

John Whittington

“There is often a hidden gift in our childhood wounding,
but forgiveness is not the way to access it.”

John Whittington

A parents asks their child to forgive them

When a parent asks a child to forgive them, they violate the natural order of life by making the child too ‘big’ and the parent too ‘small’ and so the child loses their parent twice over. Once due to the offence, and again when they have to take on the burden of forgiving them.

First they are hurt and then they are asked to forgive that hurt. The balance of give and receive, of EXCHANGE and the order of TIME are out. The child loses his or her PLACE. When children are required to forgive their parents, the responsibility for putting the ‘wrong’ ‘right’ is put onto the child, in addition to the injury they have already suffered, adding ‘insult to injury’.

This is especially painful when the parent says, ‘You must forgive me.’ In that statement they are refusing to take their own responsibility and burdening their child.

Another way is for the parent to stand fully in their responsibility and say to their child something like this: “I can see that my behaviour hurt you. I am sorry and understand that you will need some time before you can trust me again.”

As a result of this approach the child will feel their freedom again and be able to say (even just to themselves) something like this:  “What you did Mum/Dad really hurt me, and the responsibility for it I leave completely with you. And you are always my mother/father.”  This allows the child to go back to a state of love, openness or connection while leaving the responsibility for action and change with the parent.

Parenting without forgiveness

Using forgiveness in an attempt to resolve tension between a parent and their child where the parent has wronged them can lead to entangled relationships, weak boundaries and anger held in the system for years.  It can also leave the child wondering what’s wrong with them, that they had to incur that burden.

This dynamic is often seen in a divorce where a child asks “Was this my fault?”. Children can very quickly make things their fault at these times and create self-limiting stories around who they are as a result. Lasting damage can occur as a result.

A child can grow and learn about responsibility and limits when their parent says to them:

“I’m sorry. What I did hurt you and that’s my responsibility.” And/or: “You need to know that this wasn’t about you and this wasn’t your fault.”

And/or: “I take responsibility for what I did. If it can be put right, I will do all in my power to put it right. If it cannot be put right, I stand with my full responsibility for my action, and I will take the consequences. You can leave the responsibilty for this with me.”

In these ways both parent and child can grow.

In 1973 Marian Partington’s sister Lucy was abducted and killed by British serial killers Fred and Rosemary West. Marian speaks and writes about how she went ‘in search of forgiveness’ as a result. After a long long journey to find that forgiveness she explains how she transcended the idea and instead developed a compassionate understanding of the traumatised familiy and family-of-origin systems. As a result of this inner stance and understanding she has done something powerful and healing with all the pain, something that honours her sister.

She recognises that she has migrated towards something more valuable than forgiveness, something that is in effect a systemic perspective and acknowledgement of the traumas in the system. She has returned responsibility to where it belongs and can see the much larger context with insight. This in turn has allowed her to develop what she calls an ‘unconditional compassion’ for the Wests, and her life’s work has become sharing her sister’s story.

Forgiveness in a couple relationship

When one person asks for forgiveness in a couple relationship and it is freely or quickly granted the couple are then out of balance and the relationship and bond between them is weakened. When forgiveness is extended as a matter of course like this the patterns and the insights can be lost and there is no growth.

✣ In a couple forgiving can be experienced as not taking the offender seriously. The one who forgives gets to be bigger and sometimes holds it over the other one forever. There is no way to create equality and the perpetrator cannot hold their ‘weight’ and may become resentful and leave to find someone who will take them seriously and demand that they take their responsibility.

✣ When a relationship is over, particularly if completion wasn’t possible, it’s tempting to try and ‘forgive and forget’. But this doesn’t respect or include what was, or what was lost. In these circumstances it is often better to say, innerly, something more like:  “What we shared was wonderful and I learnt a lot, thank you. I will keep it in my heart. What was difficult at the end hurt me and it hurt you. The part that was my responsibility I will keep and learn from. What’s yours I leave with you.”

✣ When you beg your partner for forgiveness you are avoiding responsibility for the harm and hurt you have caused. That is not a solution. There are many ways of saying sorry which actually mean: “I refuse to take my responsibility for this.

✣ The quality of an apology is essential to resolving an imbalance in a couple of any other relationship. There is a significant difference between ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please forgive me.’ and ‘I have done something that harms our relationship. I am so sorry and wish I had not done it. I take my full responsibility for it.‘ An adult apology doesn’t ask for anything from the other person and acknowledges the simple truth of the wrongdoing. Respectful remorse in a couple or other relationship doesn’t lead to ‘I forgive you’, it leads to ‘Thank you and I’ll leave it with you.’

“Forgiveness is not a good way to leave a relationship and it is not a good way to repair it either.”

Lynn Stoney

‘A separation works best when the partners can say to each other:

“I have loved you very much, and everything I’ve given you, I’ve given gladly. You have given me a lot and I’ll hold that in a place of honour. I accept responsibility for my share of what has gone wrong between us, and I leave it to you to take responsibility for your share. Now, I leave you in peace.” ‘

Bert Hellinger

Forgiving yourself

Sometimes we say or do things – or fail to do things – that may hurt others and ourselves, something we regret or wish we’d done differently. This is particularly common as parents when thinking about our own children. We may try and forgive ourselves, hoping for relief. But forgiving yourself can be as limiting and entangling as other kinds of forgiveness.

However, taking responsibility for yourself with great compassion whilst also learning from the experience can lead to much more productive energy. Standing in your responsibility for yourself with compassion leads to growth and growing ease and self-respect. Extending compassion to yourself offers understanding about one’s larger context and personal difficulties in proper context, especially if they have a systemic origin.

If you are willing to look both at what you’ve done and what happened in the generations before you, you can then become a source of wisdom and insight. Being willing to look, acknowledge what happened and feel it, you can make a conscious choice. A choice between retreating and punishing yourself, or seeing a much larger context. The larger systemic perspective allows you to separate out due responsibility and restore balance, then emerge out of a pattern and make a difference.

You don’t need to forgive yourself but you may like to explore to whom your actions are an unconscious act of loyalty. Understanding your own unconscious loyalties can be key to understanding your reactions and behaviours. In these ways your inner ‘life sentences’ can become ‘sentences for life’ like this:

From this kind of ‘life sentence’: “I am trying to forgive myself for being a poor parent” to seeing the larger context and this kind of ‘sentence for life’: “I struggle with parenting,  just as my parents did. Like me, they did their best with what they had and what they were given….” 

And an inner sentence that respectfully begins to soften the limiting dynamic may be along these lines: “Please look kindly on me Mum/Dad if I am able to do it a little differently. In this way my children may then do a little better than I”.

The combination of self-compassion, inclusion of the larger system and respect for life as it is and was can offer a releasing of limiting dynamics, growth and learning that strengthens.

Teaching what we need to learn

Those who are greatly hurt may become religious leaders, determined to change the world through the power of forgiveness. They may teach that forgiveness is all powerful, the answer to life’s troubles. But they are often those who have been seeking forgiveness themselves, or wish they could forgive another, often a parent. They may for example have been deeply hurt by their parents’ absence or abuse and wish that they could resolve this pain through forgiveness.

But the search for balance through forgiveness can create a deeper imbalance, one which often leads to anger. The anger has to be hidden if the individual is a faith-based believer in forgiveness, and so the pain comes out in other ways – including zealous, insistent teaching and preaching on forgiveness. Religions of many kinds offer a useful cover for this pattern and so perpetuate the dynamic, confusing and wounding others. As a result there is limited learning or growth.

“Forgiveness pre-supposes that we had nothing to learn here. It makes us victims. Looking to see what we can learn changes that into wisdom, insight and understanding in which case forgiveness then becomes redundant.”

Judy Wilkins-Smith

Fervent teaching about forgiveness can cause hurt and imbalance in relationship systems as it comes with entangled beliefs and ideas about right and wrong that limit growth and hinder respectful contact and reconciliation.

The global industry – books, workshops, retreats and teachings – that’s built on the idea of forgiveness can help, but largely because of the common framework of suffering and sense of community and belonging they create. But when that is not enough to heal, people can become more angry or depressed, secretly feeling twice-injured and somehow ‘wrong’ for not being ‘good’ at forgiving, not being able to forgive. In this way the painful dynamic repeats and the learning and opportunity for growth are lost.

After 16 year old school girl Thordis Elva was raped while almost unconscious from alcohol poisoning by her boyfriend Tom Stranger she spent many years trying to come to terms with the trauma. In May 2005 she wrote to Tom and so began an email exchange which led to a meeting, a book and a Ted-talk in which they describe their journey

“Forgiveness is not the core of my story. The core issue here is responsibility.” Thordis Elva, rape survivor and co-author with the man who raped her Tom Stranger of ‘South of Forgiveness’


✣ Forgiveness is an ancient way of trying to manage pain and achieve resolution. Its deep connection with multiple faiths and religious practices makes it complex for people to navigate and often burdens them with additional confusions.

✣ Through the systemic perspective forgiveness is seen for what it sometimes is – an understandable attempt to forget and to avoid pain, guilt, responsibility and learning. Systemic thinking invites a larger perspective of the wider system and the guilt and responsibility to be returned to where they belong.

✣ For some people it takes them a lifetime to forgive another – as if they are saying to themselves: “I will travel this path for as long as is possible until I have found a way of forgiving you”  With a systemic perspective they can say instead: “The responsibility for what you did I leave entirely with you. The learning from all this pain I will keep and use.” Each case requires a different path and inner ‘sentence for life‘ to release. 

✣ This approach settles the system and allows each to take their responsibility appropriately. Many people however are not aware of this and may spend their whole lives searching for a way to forgive. Society, religion and most belief systems support this quest. However, this often keeps everyone and everything connected to the issue stuck. And limits learning and growth.

✣ When we give forgiveness, we are often making ourselves bigger and the other person smaller, in an attempt to re-balance an already out-of-balance relationship dynamic. If we imagine a perpetrator, the one who has wronged, we might feel their higher ‘power-place’ and the disempowered, lower place of the victim. When we ‘forgive’ we are sometimes attempting to invert this by taking the higher place in terms of being ‘right’ and being covertly ‘bigger’ than the other.

This power reversal, a taking of ‘the moral high ground’, doesn’t solve anything, it just inverts the pattern and the victim becomes the perpetrator. It’s a way of getting the wronged person feeling back ‘on top’ again. But it’s not a balanced position that leads to real resolution.

In this way forgiveness can cause an escalation that can further expand into a multi-generational pattern or even a societal pattern. This can keep people and wider systems caught in a cycle that enables a ‘prosper via victimhood’ mentality.

✣ Forgiveness often doesn’t allow an appropriate place for the necessary balance of justice and so re-injures the one who has been hurt.

” ‘I forgive you’ is sometimes another way of saying:  ‘I am ‘bigger’ than you. I am better than you. Your action is one I am above committing myself. You are beneath contempt’ This doesn’t resolve anything and keeps people stuck.”

Lynn Stoney

✣ Sometimes it’s not about the victim or the perpetrator themselves. Often neither are the original victim or perpetrator; both may be repeating a pattern held in the system, in which case it’s not theirs to forgive or be forgiven. The better option is to see where the pattern began and to do it differently from now on.

✣ Habitual forgiveness can be part of what is known as ‘enabling’ behaviour in addictions and co-dependency. For example when a person with alcoholism hurts their partner but is then ‘forgiven and taken back’. This may not require them to take responsibility for their actions or behaviour and the seriousness and destructiveness of that. Growth is limited and the painful pattern often repeats.

– The re-frame is to name the place of responsibility. For example: “What you did has caused me great harm. The responsibility for what you did is yours, and I  leave it with you.” or: “What you did has really hurt me. Your action which harmed me is your responsibility, and I leave it completely with you. I will take care of my own recovery. All the rest I leave with you.” Or:  “What you did has hurt me and there are consequences for this.” The consequences need to be clear and have a timeline or deadline. After which this is talked through until the listening is complete and then this is given a place but not used against the other again.

✣ Forgiveness can be used to obfuscate guilt, anger or pain. Rather than looking at what we have done, we ask another to forgive us and so avoid being willing to look at what is really going on. We avoid looking at the emotions and responsibilities.

✣ The quality of an apology is vital if resolution is to be found. An apology that attempts to avoid responsibility for actions or demand anything from the injured party only redoubles the difficulty. Real remorse can be well expressed in an apology and when its heartfelt the response isn’t ‘I forgive you’ it’s simply ‘thank you.’

✣ By asking for forgiveness rather than taking responsibility we may hand over our work to others hoping that it relieves us, only to find the pattern repeating in or around us later on.

✣ Forgiveness can be used as a mechanism for engineering belonging and getting back into ‘good conscience’ with the system, an attempt to stay innocent, rather than looking at what needs to be seen and having the courage to move beyond the limits of the system – which may require us to be in ‘bad conscience.’

✣ When awareness and acknowledgment of the injury, compassion as a result of seeing the larger context, mindful remorse and a respectful invitation to regain a relationship is extended, there can be lasting resolution.

✣ People say that they have forgiven someone. However this often means that they have found a way to look at what happened in a larger frame and have developed compassion as a result. That they have then integrated the pain, returned the responsibility and guilt where it belongs and done something special and useful with it all. They have grown and become wiser and more grounded. You can see these qualities in them.

“Return responsibility and guilt to where they belong, with compassion and respect.”

John Whittington

This article was authored by John Whittington in consultation with Judy Wilkins-Smith.
The articles in this series do not offer specific advice but stimulus for your own reflections. They provide only an introduction into what’s possible in a systemic coaching or workshop constellations process. This way of looking and working can be combined with others to give an understanding of the human condition. The writing is always a work in progress as the authors continue to observe and articulate the dynamics in human relationship systems.
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