The difference between forgiveness and reconciliation

The difference between forgiveness & reconciliation | Such the Spot

Is there someone in your life with whom you just cannot see eye to eye? There is in mine. Our differences have resulted in an estrangement that has lasted nearly seven years now. Though not blood-related, she’s a member of my family and so the absence of a relationship there is difficult, to say the least.

Yesterday a card arrived in the mail. It was a thank you note sent in response to our Christmas gift. You might remember that instead of buying material objects, Jeff and I opted to honor those on our gift list by donating to charitable causes in the names of the people we love. This estranged family member was no exception. We gave a bike to a needy family in a developing country in honor of this particular estranged family member. When I went to the mailbox and saw that thank you card yesterday, butterflies developed instantly. There exists such contention between us, I tend to dread any communication with her. Yesterday’s note serves as a perfect illustration as to why.

There was a sentence that almost verbatim read like this: I wish you could extend the same kindness to your family members as you do to others (in this case, the “others” in question were the recipients of the bike we donated).

My heart sighed a heavy sigh.

There is a certain exhaustion in trying to understand people with whom you just. can’t. relate. Know what I mean? In this particular case, estrangement was not the first response. There was, first, the attempt to overlook a slew of hurtful comments and actions. Eventually, though, the overlooking proved too strenuous a burden to bear and so there was a discussion in which grievances were aired and certain boundaries were put in place.  It seemed at that point as though we had maybe crested a hill and that relations going forward wouldn’t be so strained. It was only a short matter of time, though, before fresh new hurts took the place of the old ones. That’s when the estrangement began, but even then it was a difficult decision. At the time–and, still, really–it felt like the only option because when another human being is hurting you and you tell him or her in no uncertain terms how they are doing so and they continue to hurt you in a way that is completely avoidable, well, what does one do but walk away? Forgive, yes, but walk away still.

And here we are.

I’ve come to a point with this individual at which I have very little hope that anything will change. There is this impasse because when she says in a thank you note that she wishes we would extend the same kindness to her as we have extended to children in developing countries I want to pull out every last strand of my hair. I want to pick up a telephone or shoot an email or pen a note and ask if she is kidding. I want to say that there is a difference between being kind and being walked upon. I want to say that there is a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I want to say that forgiveness is mine to give whether it is requested or not but that reconciliation can only begin when there is a) repentance and b) a change in behavior.

I happen to know that the estranged family member in question will indeed see these words. And so, if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I have something to say directly.

That is:

I don’t pretend to understand your motivations. The actions you have taken and the words you have spoken over the years have been so very hurtful. I’m capable of listing at least two dozen specific instances in which you have been either disrespectful to my marriage and my family or downright mean in your behavior. I don’t think you can say the same, and if you can, I’d truly like to know the specific instances in which actions I have taken or words I have spoken have hurt you. If that were the case, I would be truly repentant. I suspect that your alleged infractions would amount to nothing more than a list of occurrences that are the result of an estrangement (for instance, “you didn’t call on my birthday”). Whereas you want to continue on in a relationship in which you are free to do and say things that are hurtful without repercussion, I have withdrawn that option by simply walking away. That choice was not an easy one and it does not stem from unkindness. It stems from necessity. Though we have adjusted to this reality, don’t be fooled into thinking that my family doesn’t grieve the loss of your presence in our lives. Don’t kid yourself and think that we never needed you in the first place. You were meant to play a unique role in each of our lives and the absence of that role is both felt and missed.

My intention in writing this post today was not to air my dirty laundry for all the world to read (hence the anonymity), but rather to share a very real–and potentially relatable–situation in a way that, I hope, is respectful and sincere. With regard to this relationship, the true intent of my heart has always been unity.

Here’s where I’m at now: I can honestly say that I don’t harbor a grudge or ill will. The unfortunate flipside, of course, being that I also don’t harbor much in the way of hope for a loving relationship anywhere down the line. There was a time in my life during which I would have said that there is no hope. None at all. But Isiah 59:1 promises that,

“Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear.”

Note there that the word ‘LORD’ in all caps indicates that–in the original Hebrew–the word would have been “Yahweh” which denotes God’s relational characteristics, as opposed to Elohim, which would be used in situations that refer to God’s role as creator of the material world. It seems like a weird, random fact but when you consider that a very relational God–Yahweh–is exceedingly capable of salvaging a very damaged relationship, well, there is hope in that. I guess I’m just going Bible geek on you now, but it speaks to me. And maybe it will speak to you, too.


  1. <3

    My parents 'walked away' from my grandmother when I was born. It was not easy, but it was best for their marriage and their children. And that's where your obligation lies! I know it isn't easy though.

  2. This person is not on your level by any means…. Anyone who could make such a selfish statement as to where their gift was (in any sense of the word) all the while not realizing your act of genuine kindness and blind act of faith is not worth your heartache… at all! But, I know that is so hard to deal with. You did the right thing! Thinking of you!

  3. Thank you for your post. I am deeply saddened by your pain for I can relate to it. I now have this same time of relationship with my parents. I keep trying to move forward with forgiveness, however, they keep saying hurtful comments. I have recently decided to just keep my distance and just send the birthday cards or Christmas presents with a hope that time will help heal.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing! I know we all go through things and I too have certain estranged family members that I don’t understand why it is the way it is. When you write about true life, I definitely do not see it as you airing your dirty laundry but like you said, it is a very real and relatable- situation. It helps to reassure a person struggling that they are not alone. Plus, it is very easy in the social media world to look at others and think they have everything so perfect when in reality…we all have struggles. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts!

  5. I’m sorry. That situation just sucks! She is missing out on so much. I would like to see her response :)

  6. Thank you for sharing. I too have someone exactly like that in my life, but unfortunately she is on my husbands side of the family – my sister-in-law – husband’s brother’s wife. She really is all those things that you mention above (maybe they are related somehow) and I choose NOT to have that drama in my life (I have enough of my own without inviting other peoples inside). I’ve never really done anything about it, because it’s not my “family”. My husband has tried to make some sort of peace with her actions by talking to his brother, but he just takes her side and makes excuses for her. Did I mention she’s bi-polar. So for now, we avoid them. Very sad for our children, who are very close in age and really only get to see their cousins maybe once a year (they are an hour away). But what can you do!

  7. All I can say is “nothing” as I was raised if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing

  8. I sympathize with this situation. Actually I remember being at your house when the person in question was present and the tension was palpable. I may have told you I had a similar situation with my ex-wife’s family to the point I refused to visit the state of Massachusetts ever again (still haven’t, but if Kelly ever wants to go, I will). Very stressful, but I’m glad that you and Jeff are strong enough to thrive in your relationship despite the stress.

  9. I can relate so much to this, unfortunately. In our case, the person in question is my mother-in-law. Thankfully, my husband sees her for what she is as well, so there are no issues with our marriage. In our case, though, my mother-in-law has burned so many bridges that she truly does not have any one in her life besides my husband and his brother. Therefore, we can’t just walk away. We have gone to great lengths to set boundaries, but still, seeing her sends me into a mental place I do not want to be in. I am also finding forgiveness is very difficult when the person never acknowledges the pain she has caused, nor is she sorry for anything.

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