In college, I had a long-term relationship with a boyfriend I sincerely loved. We cared for one another deeply and had fun being together. Unfortunately, however, we also had a lot of trouble relating to one another in a healthy way. He would often lose his temper with me, yelling and blowing up for the smallest reasons, like being ten minutes late when driving in from out of town or when our potty-training puppy had an accident in the house. Although I was certainly able to stick my neck out and yell back for a while, in the end I would always resolve the argument, accept his apology, and feel a little bit worse about myself. Even though I knew that nothing had changed and it would just continue to keep happening. I thought that’s what forgiveness meant: just “make up” until the next time the same thing happens again.
Since then I have come to learn that the word for that is “enabling.” According to Wikipedia the psychological definition of enabling is “dysfunctional behavior approaches that are intended to help resolve a specific problem but in fact may perpetuate or exacerbate the problem.” I have learned that by simply trying to smooth over my boyfriend’s episodes of rage without insisting on counseling or anger management help, I was actually as much a part of the problem as he was. I was enabling him to continue this negative pattern in his life, and eventually it destroyed our relationship.
Now, years later, I am in a happy and healthy marriage. Does my husband make mistakes? Oh definitely. Do I make mistakes? Absolutely. But perhaps the key is that he and I have learned the difference between forgiveness and enabling. When a problem between us has been recurring for a while, one of us will say, “we need counseling.” We know that taking part in the same unhealthy patterns over and over will only wear down our marriage. There have been times when we have sought counseling because we knew we were “stuck,” and we couldn’t see how to form new patterns ourselves. Counseling has been very helpful for us to stop enabling each other at different points in the past decade.
On the other hand, true forgiveness is a necessity in a healthy relationship. Forgiveness in my marriage means that when my husband makes a mistake in his relating with me, I can talk through it with him and then refuse to hold it against him. Forgiveness also means that if he is falling into a negative pattern of relating pretty consistently, then I can say that I still love him and don’t hold it against him—but something does have to change. The same is true for him to say to me, of course. It doesn’t nullify the forgiveness to also require that the person take steps to become healthier. It means that you are showing respect to yourself as well as the other person.