Should we forgive someone who isn’t sorry?

Dale Richner
Sep 21 · 15 min read
Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

The heart of forgiving is a belief in the other person’s understanding of what they did as seen from your perspective. Without that, what is there to forgive? General malaise over things having gone awry? There is a world of difference between a person who is sorry for what they did and one merely lamenting the inconvenience of hurt feelings.

But what if the other person can’t understand your perspective? What if they are an otherwise good person who just doesn’t get it? Or, what if they do get it but still stand by their actions? Can we, and should we, forgive people without their contrition?

My husband and I got married in October 2014. We sent save-the-date cards that spring, and prior to that, in late 2013, reached out to tell close friends and family. For most in our families, it was their first experience with a same-sex wedding. Across the board the response was humblingly supportive, with one glaring exception. My stepmom, Candy.

Both of my parents, who divorced when I was 12, died years ago. After that, Candy, Dad’s wife for 16 years at the time of his death, was the only parental figure this now-51-year-old had left in the world. Back when she first came into the picture, I expected to hate her (“the other woman”) but instead immediately loved her. By late 2013 when I told her about our wedding plans we had been a part of each others’ lives for over 30 years, and aside from a brief period during high school when my teenage surliness led to a couple minor dust-ups, our relationship was solid.

Which is why her response to our plans was so shocking.

“I’m happy for you & we love you but because of what we believe is God’s plan we probably won’t be coming out in October. I know you have your beliefs & I respect that but we are basing our definition of marriage on our faith & I hope you understand. We hope you know we do wish you the best always.” (She is remarried now; the ‘we’ refers to her and her husband, Jerry.)

Reading her email was like being sucker-punched at my own birthday party. I did not see it coming. I had to re-read her words about eight times. I kept hoping I had misunderstood. But I hadn’t.

Over the following days, shock ebbed and other feelings crept in: disappointment, betrayal, rejection, feelings I never dreamed I would encounter in our relationship. I had watched her do the right thing a million times, sticking up for those in need at every turn. She is warm, upbeat, compassionate, and has always been a loving, trusted ally. How could this be happening?

Candy was not the type to march in a PFLAG parade, but nor was she judgmental in any way about my being gay, at least not to my knowledge. Her kindness to both me and my husband, Shawn (as well as a couple serious boyfriends along the way), was unwavering. Never did I have a reason to suspect that, should I one day get married, she would boycott my wedding. It seems such an extreme thing to do.

I was conflicted because I didn’t know if I had a right to feel what I was feeling. After all, what we extended was an invitation, and surely people have the option to decline an invitation, don’t they? Besides, she didn’t say she hated me, only that they would refrain from attending our wedding. That’s not so bad, right? I was probably being overly sensitive.

Still, for weeks I struggled with whether or not to say anything to her. On the one hand, it hurt like hell and I could not see myself staying quiet. On the other, we gays had better practice tolerance if we ask tolerance of others.

After much consideration, I decided I had to share my feelings with her. As I wrote in my reply, “If I don’t, it does a disservice to the long relationship we have, which means so much to me.” I went on:

“The last thing I want to do is fail to respect you. Shawn helped me to see that this is different because what’s on my mind is not to push back or criticize, but rather to share my feelings. If I can’t share my honest feelings with you when they affect our relationship, then that’s not being respectful either, to our relationship or to you or to myself.

I have to tell you: it hurt me. I don’t know what your church says but I am confused about how it could be relevant. Our wedding will be a civil marriage, under the laws of the State of California, not affiliated with a church. We will be celebrating the happy, loving, lifelong commitment we make to each other to share the rest of our lives together. I don’t understand how that could be so offensive that you can’t be present. Since I don’t understand it, I feel rejected. I know that is not what you intended, and I know you would never intentionally hurt me. But even though I know it in my head, this is how I feel in my heart.

You said, ‘Because of what we believe is God’s plan we probably won’t be coming out in October.’ I have to ask: do you think Shawn and I are going to hell? Is that what you mean by God’s plan? I respect your right to believe whatever you want, but I can’t say that certain things wouldn’t affect our relationship, and this is one of them. I never wanted to be gay. I wanted to die when I knew I was. I was so afraid of what I knew I’d be in for, how cruel some people would be, and they were. But I have two choices. I can either live forthrightly or not. The few people I have known who believe in their heart that I am going to hell over this are people I can no longer allow myself to be close to because it violates my dignity. It’s not my intention to argue or disrespect you, but I need to know.

As for the wedding, more than anything I want you to do what you think is right. We’re sending you and Jerry a save-the-date card and invitation because no matter what you are welcome and I love you, but if you have issues with being there then it’s probably best that you don’t come. It’s important to us that only people who want to be there are part of our special day.”

This was her response:

“Dear Dale,

I had no intention of hurting you or making you feel rejected. If you recall in my e-mail I said I wanted you to be happy, wished the best for you, and loved you. That is still true.

Our Church teaches what the Bible has spelled out as God’s commands and His plan. He created Adam and then Eve, a woman, to be his partner, not another man. Later He says, “Husbands love your wife” and “Wives submit yourselves to your husband” not husbands love your husband or wives submit to your wife.

Because of our society a law was made to make a civil union legal and I believe the law calls it a marriage, whether it’s blessed by God or not. I have to stay strong in my faith and true to what I believe and if that offends you or makes you feel like you can’t have a relationship with me I feel bad. I can’t judge where you’ll spend eternity, that is between you and God.

People can have different opinions about things and not always like what their family/friends do but that doesn’t mean you don’t still love them and enjoy their company.

I respect the feelings you and Shawn have for each other but I don’t know that I can celebrate what I don’t believe is a marriage.

I appreciate that you shared your feelings, that’s what relationships are about. If our honesty is what keeps us from having a relationship, I’ll be sad but want you to know I’ll always love you and want you to be happy.”

How my stepmom’s response strikes you, your gut reaction to it, depends a lot, I believe, on whether you are LGBTQ or not. I was enraged.

In her original message she already reduced my marriage to a belief, something she would never do if I was heterosexual, but I was ready to overlook that, had she not dug the hole ten times deeper.

First, she dodged my question about going to hell. She insinuated it, but when pressed she won’t say, and I have strong feelings about that. If you mean something (religiously motivated or otherwise), be proud and speak up, and if you don’t, be gracious and back down. Pick one, don’t straddle a noncommittal line trying to have it both ways. Her “that is between you and God” answer only serves to paint her as holy at my expense, while absolving her from having to answer for it. She says she “can’t judge,” while in the midst of judging.

Second, she conflates two things that have nothing to do with each other: legal marriage and church marriage. She reacted as though we were attempting to marry in her church, even after I made it crystal clear that is not the case. The word “marriage” does not belong exclusively to the religious world, and certainly not to one church, so I am increasingly exasperated by people’s refusal to disentangle the two. No religion has standing to object to a civil contract administered by the state, one that is available to all, including atheists. Conjuring a religion-based precondition is misguided at best, and, at worst, selfish. Her church has no more relevance to my legal marriage than the State of California has dictating who her church joins in holy matrimony.

Third is that part about people having different opinions and getting along anyway. Easy for her to say. Of course it would be easier for her if I forget that she just poked me in the eye, and go on chattering benignly about the weather. But why? Why should we compartmentalize hurtful behaviors of unrepentant people, when it only paves the way for them to avoid the consequences? Have you ever noticed the only people who say this, about getting along despite differing views, are people with cruel or demeaning views they want you to ignore?

Fourth, we invited her to be part of our joy, not cast a vote on the legitimacy of our relationship. Where does she get off making our lives about her church? Until gays came along, it was universally understood that a wedding invitation is not a request for validation. As a wedding invitee myself, it never occurred to me to presume I was bestowing personal or spiritual approval. Now, suddenly, only for gays, churches are galvanizing their flocks to stand up to some imaginary affront, commanding them to “stay strong.” Have those same flocks ever boycotted the wedding of a heterosexual couple who wouldn’t qualify for marriage in their church?

My emotions were on a high simmer but I needed to exercise restraint to keep from saying something I would later regret. The best I could manage was, “Dear Candy, I still don’t understand what a civil marriage has to do with beliefs about holy matrimony. But that’s your business and I’ll have to accept that.” That was in April 2014, four months after her initial message and six months before our wedding.

Our wedding day came and went. It was beautiful. They did not attend. She sent a Pottery Barn gift card. I guess supporting gay weddings is acceptable from that perspective; you can shower us with material things, just not love. As expected, I missed her presence. She should have been there. Based on who we are to each other, how close we have been, and what kind of occasion it was in my life, she should have been there.

Months passed with little contact between us. Then months turned into years as 2015, 2016, and half of 2017 rolled by. During that time, I tried everything I could think of to process my feelings without her, to allow things to go back to the way they were. She is a good person, I kept telling myself, get over it. After all, she loves me and did not set out to hurt me, and she wants me to be happy. Isn’t that enough?

Turns out, no, that is not enough.

In June 2017 I found myself unable to let it go. I imagine it is not easy for her to reconcile my being gay with her church’s teachings. But she chose to link her salvation to my right to buy a marriage license, not me. And for what? Instead of some noble, Christ-like, peace-and-love outcome, all this produces are hurt feelings and relationships in ruins.

I was also forlorn that she never acknowledged the validity of anything I said explaining my feelings, which suggested to me that, given the chance, she would do it all again.

I felt compelled to reach out once more:

“Hi Candy,

I wanted to write to explain more about how I feel.

I am still hurt and sad about the whole thing. I can’t understand why you felt it necessary to say, “because of what we believe is God’s plan we won’t be coming.” It was as if you had to let me know of your moral disapproval. I’d really hoped you could be there, and if not I wish you would have just declined the invitation and not said that.

It is confusing trying to understand how someone can love me, be happy for me, and want me to be happy, and at the same time refuse to be present at my wedding. It seems like it should be the opposite. Every person who was there: loves me, was happy for me, and wants me to be happy. For them, those were the reasons to be there. It’s been three and a half years and I still don’t understand. Your presence is all I was asking for. I was not asking for your or your church’s approval. That’s why it seemed, to me, confrontational and mean-spirited.

I have asked myself a thousand times: is it Jerry who has a problem with me and you just went along to present a united front? Or did your church convince you to treat me that way? Or was it really from your heart and I never knew that part of you? I still don’t know.

Marriage means two different things: there’s legal marriage and then there’s religious marriage. They are separate. A couple can be legally married and never get married by a church (or even believe in God), or they could be married in a church but never get legally married. When I hear that your religion says marriage is only for a man and woman, I understand that but it pertains to religious marriage, in your church.

Legal marriage is not dependent on what anyone believes. It is a civil contract, governed by man’s laws. Do you see why I’m bringing this up? Our wedding was a civil service. So what you believe about religious marriage is not pertinent. I’m not trying to be flippant, it is just a fact: any two people who get legally married are exactly as much legally married as any other two people who get legally married.

So it really stumps me that you felt the need to go out of your way to cite religious belief to not be there. That was (and still is) deeply hurtful to me. Does it surprise you that I’m hurt? Because I can’t imagine a person in my shoes feeling anything else.

For all I know you aren’t the only person we invited who feels the way you do. But you are the only one who felt the need to say, basically, ‘Marriage is something you will never have and to demonstrate my disapproval I refuse to be there.’

I keep hoping I’ll wake up one day and see it differently. I reflect on all the good times, and on how much I admire you. Yet the person I know would not have said that. It comes down to that. I feel like I don’t know you anymore. I don’t know how to be close to you. And honestly, I don’t want to be around you if that’s how you feel. I think I deserve better. When you won’t even allow yourself to be in the same room for the happiest moment in my life, for a reason that has nothing to do with what I’m happy about, you have lost me. I am disappointed that when I needed you your reaction was to turn away.

I don’t know if any of this makes any sense from your point of view. All I can do is explain how I feel. I love you and I miss being connected to you.”

I sent that letter in June 2017. It has been over two years with no response.

Last December we both attended my brother’s wedding. It was the first time we had seen each other in several years. I was nervous. Frankly, I would have been fine not speaking with her at all, that’s how alienated I still felt, but it became unavoidable. She was all smiles, warm and cheery, chatting away about work, family, and the weather, as though none of this ever happened.

Now what?

After 5+ years of laboring over this, this is what I know: A wall exists between us that wasn’t there before, and each of us has 50% of the power to tear it down. Her 50% is on the table as long as I consent to her terms, which means accepting that her boycott was morally justified (i.e., she didn’t do anything wrong). The future of our relationship rests on whether I pony up my 50%.

People say there is peace in forgiving, but can you really forgive someone who isn’t sorry? My stepmom is not sorry for any of it, only sad that things went awry. She has shown no interest in my forgiveness, which, I suppose, shouldn’t surprise me. Seeking forgiveness involves acknowledging hurtful behavior, which she can’t very well do while claiming holy justification.

Maybe I have to ask myself what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is about letting go of resentment and thoughts of retaliation, but any resentment I felt was fleeting, and I never wanted retaliation. Forgiveness is also about the love and generosity of granting pardon to a fellow human, but, since she would do it all again, any pardon I grant flies away in the wind, unreceived and pointless.

Is forgiveness even relevant? Or is the other half of “forgive and forget” the real prize? I could force a smile and adopt a “we’re both right so let’s just forget about it” attitude. I could swallow my pride, focus on the positive, tell myself I am being the bigger person, and reboot with a clean slate. If I don’t, the awkward shadow of cordial superficiality that hangs over us will settle in for the long haul, and chances are I will go down in my family history, at least in some minds, as the temperamental queer to whom liberal protest was more important than family. Is the principle really worth the drama?

I decide to forgive her. I have to. I want to.

There is just one problem.

“There are times when you must speak, not because you are going to change the other person, but because if you don’t speak, they have changed you.” — Mary “Maud” Quinn

My conscience foretells what life is like for me if I abide the notion that exchanging vows with my spouse is sufficiently offensive to God to warrant a morality-based love embargo. (You can gift-wrap that in as many layers of sunshine and smiles as you like, it is still there.) I start feeling like an abused dog, one who never knows what he did wrong but believes he deserves the abuse. Hard-fought self respect withers. Shame and self doubt fester, and I end up validating a perception I have worked for 35 years to dispel: that because I am gay I am lesser.

People think the playing field is level for LGBTQ folks now that we have gained rights and wield political and social clout. I think it myself now and then. Put down the Pride banners everyone, Harvey Milk’s dreams have come to pass. But the playing field is not level. Laws and court rulings can’t change what is in people’s hearts, and as long as weddings are boycotted and otherwise-good people feel virtuous treating gays with sugar-coated cruelty, the field is not level.

The way I see it, loved ones of LGBTQ people have to choose. Either they are prepared to demonstrate the support they pledge, including when it challenges them, or they concede that the pledge was never without conditions and only applies in certain situations, of their choosing.

LGBTQ people have their own choices to make. We have to decide if there is a point at which happy memories and harmonious family reunions are eclipsed by self preservation and dignity. We have to decide how much we are willing to live with in the name of peace, and whether that peace is worth it.

As for forgiving my stepmom, I tried but I can’t. We all have to draw boundaries. No two situations are exactly the same, and the only wrong answer is one with which our conscience won’t let us sleep at night. I love her, but she has lost a measure of my respect and my trust, and I don’t want to be around her. The door is always open, but, for now, she is doing what she needs to do, and so am I.

Dale Richner

Written by

Fifty-ish gay introvert, lives to touch people’s lives with words

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