When Is It OK Not to Forgive Someone?

Young man reaching out to his wife after having an argument on the sofa at home

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Most people learn about forgiveness fairly early on in life: a kid does something mean, they apologize, you tell them that they're forgiven. But later in life, it can be much more difficult to let go and forgive people for their wrongdoings.

What Is Forgiveness?

Because it's so often thought of in religious contexts, forgiveness can be a difficult word to succinctly define. That said, Joanna North, a philosophy professor at the University of London, described the idea behind forgiveness in her book, "Wrongdoing and Forgiveness":

"The value of forgiveness lies in the fact that it essentially requires a recognition of the wrongdoer's responsibility for his action, and secondly that forgiveness typically involves an effort on the part of the one wronged: a conscious attempt to improve oneself in relation to the wrongdoer."

Step 9 of the 12 steps in Alcoholics Anonymous might help you better understand what North is trying to say. It involves making amends, and while they're very clear that this step is rooted in action as opposed to simply apologizing, the description of this act does a good job of explaining, in succinct terms, when asking for forgiveness is the right move:

"Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others."

The program suggests that in order to make spiritual progress, the person must attempt to make amends, but notes that people shouldn't "buy our own peace of mind at the expense of others." While this is in reference to people struggling with alcohol use disorder, it can be helpful to realize that asking for forgiveness does not denote action.

Similarly, your decision to forgive someone shouldn't depend on their future actions. You cannot control what they do in the future, but you can set up boundaries to protect yourself from the recurrence of past behaviors.

When It's OK Not to Forgive Someone

This comes down to what you mean by forgiveness. Do you mean that you plan on letting the person that wronged you back into your life regardless of their willingness to change? Or do you mean that you will refrain from mentally holding a grudge against that person in order to free up your mental space? The second is preferable.

John Lockwood Huie

Forgive those who have injured you - not because they deserve your forgiveness, but because you can never be happy until you release your anger and grant forgiveness.

— John Lockwood Huie

This quote is important because it highlights the rewards of forgiveness. That said, it says nothing about pursuing a relationship with the person you're forgiving.

Remember that just because you're forgiving someone, it doesn't mean that you're condoning their actions. You also don't have to tell someone that you're forgiving them, this is particularly relevant if you don't want to maintain the relationship.

Reasons Why It's OK Not to Forgive Someone

While it's fine to forgive someone that wronged you, it's not advisable to let someone back into your life who has consistently exhibited a pattern of abuse. Here are some instances where it would be better to hold off on forgiving someone:

  • If you're still experiencing PTSD as a result of their actions (particularly relevant for childhood abuse).
  • If you really feel, even after someone has expressed their apology and offered to amend their future behavior, that you're not in a place to forgive them. It is OK to tell them that.
  • If forgiving someone guarantees that they're back in your life, and if that puts those around you (like your children or family) at risk.
  • If that person pressures you to partake in negative behaviors, for example, drinking if you're sober.
  • If that person doesn't respect your boundaries. If they're contacting you at all hours of the day and night begging for your forgiveness, they aren't thinking of your wellbeing.

Never feel pressured to do something that you don't want to do. Also, be mindful of the risks posed if offering your forgiveness guarantees that the person will see it as a door back into your life.

Psychological Benefits of Forgiveness

If you choose to forgive someone, this doesn't mean you have to tell the person; there are definitely psychological benefits.

One study looked at the benefits of forgiveness by following a group of 332 adults over five weeks. They had them report on their "state forgiveness," which they described as "to foster an intentional, purpose-driven disposition bent toward forgiveness." The study also had the participants report on their levels of perceived stress and mental and physical health symptoms.

In the study, forgiveness was defined as the "cognitive-motivational-emotional experience of decreasing negativity and increasing positivity toward an offender in the face of adversity. The study participants reported a continued improvement in stress levels and their mental and physical health symptoms for the five weeks.

Another study looked at the link between psychological stress, wellbeing, and forgiveness with 148 young adults. They discovered that people who had more lifetime stress and lower levels of forgiveness had worse mental health outcomes as they age. That said, lifetime stress did not predict poor mental health outcomes in the volunteers who scored high in forgiveness measures.

In married couples, one study found that the ability to forgive predicted marital satisfaction for men. Similarly, self-compassion predicted marital satisfaction for women. The psychologists concluded that marriage counselors should work with young married couples to hone these skills early on. Individuals could also carry these skills over into friendships and relationships with family members.

A Word From Verywell Mind

Whether you're just letting go mentally or having a conversation directly with the person, the decision to forgive someone is personal. That said, remember that the benefits of forgiveness favor the person forgiving perhaps more than the person being forgiven. Don't let past situations control how you feel about yourself and your relationships in the future.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Toussaint L, Shields GS, Dorn G, Slavich GM. Effects of lifetime stress exposure on mental and physical health in young adulthood: How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health. J Health Psychol. 2016 Jun;21(6):1004-14. doi:10.1177/1359105314544132

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