118: Thoughts on Forgiveness and Clemency

Compared to Sufferers, who conceive of the betrayal in moral absolutes, the viewpoint of Explorers is more fluid. Explorers more readily distinguish wrong from hurtful, paving a smoother road for clemency.

Esther Perel
The State of Affairs


The moment I read this sentence from Chapter 15 of Esther Perel’s book, the word “clemency” lept off the page.

Forgiveness and clemency are not the same act:

  • Forgiveness is something given to ourselves allowing us to let go of anger, resentment, and bitterness.
  • Clemency is an act of recognizing the humanity of others and ourselves with compassion.

Clemency is an act of compassion and empathy. Clemency requires seeing the whole person. It means the hurt, anguish, confusion, and wound is not forgotten but dressed allowing time to heal. The painful experiences still exist but those involved give witnesses to the hurt from the high ground, not the righteous absolutes of the moral high horse.


Forgiveness is a gift we give to ourselves. Forgiveness frees ourselves from those things that hurt us: anger, resentment, bitterness.  Others benefit from the ripples but forgiveness is for us.

Labeling something as “unforgiveable” means we carry the anger and resentment perpetually forward regardless of the harms and hurts proximity in time or space. Regardless of the harm the bitterness does to ourselves.

I’m still struggling with self-forgiveness. I’m so angry at myself for the betrayal of my heart and intentions. I resent the betrayal of my own life. This is a reason, not the only reason, I lied and kept secrets.

Clemency still holds the other person accountable. There is no canceling of the debt with clemency. There is no sweeping it under the rug. With clemency, I still am responsible to do the truthful and vulnerable work necessary to never be in this situation again. There is no forgetting just opportunity and renewal.

I realize, like so much, I have been approaching this wrong: I’ve been seeking forgiveness from C, that is selfish.

Based on the definition, when I ask C to forgive me, I’m asking C to deny her feelings, to pardon my betrayal, to disregard my lies, to overlook my secrets. I’m asking her to stop hurting. I’m asking her to stop being angry and resentful.

Is it any wonder C is still pissed?

As I was reminded recently, and I discuss here, it is a selfish and self-centered burden I am forcing C to carry by asking for forgiveness. It is arrogant to even consider pleading for clemency.


Hurt people hurt people. I hurt C. She looks to hurt me back with silence, flexing her power, and not defending the truths of our life together. She strikes me with sharpened claws.

It works. I hurt. I bleed.

Her actions cut and hurt but I’m not angry or resentful at the moment. I know why I am where I am. Ending the relationship is a reasonable outcome of my betrayal.

She strikes me even now but I do not strike back. This is my burden to carry for now. My focus is meeting every blow with an attitude of clemency: compassion, patience, humanity. Doing this doesn’t make me a saint, victim or martyr. Instead, it is the most loving thing I can offer provide her even if it is from a distance.

Learning to sit in my hurt and fear is my lesson.

I have falsely believed C’s forgiveness may mitigate my hurt but it isn’t her job to mitigate my hurt or anything else. She is not responsible for my loneliness or confusion. She isn’t even responsible for my hurt. My thinking about the second and third arrows is driving my pain. It is not C’s role to help me find peace with my betrayal. Her only obligation is to herself. Whether together or apart, she owes me nothing. I deserve nothing. As such, my role is to be C’s Good Samaritan.

All I can do is patiently wait. Not my strong suit. I broke the relationship. My pride wants to fix the relationship.

I broke her – at least I think I did because, in truth, I’m just guessing. As such, I want to fix her. She’s still painting which is her release. I’m writing which is mine. We each move towards the things that will bring us the most peace.

Sitting quietly is the only way not to repeat the behaviors that brought me here. I cannot fix her feelings, I cannot avoid mine. Trying to fix and avoid feelings is the root of my betrayal, secret-keeping, and escalating series of lies. Reacting to hard feelings is why I Pursue her instead of giving her time. Anxiety over loss pushes me to fix things.


We both need to sit quietly for a bit and work through the hurt. She paints. I write. It would have been nice to do this together…but apart works too.

Instead, owning the truth of what I’ve done, and then empathizing with the feelings behind C’s responses makes me an adult. I still have boundaries. I still have self-respect and power. I’m not giving it away and I’m not allowing it to be taken.

I’m working forward with intention. I can still have compassion. I can still have patience. I can still build my life brick by brick. Honoring the experience is not the same as holding onto the past.

What I’m really offering is clemency. I will meet her anger and resentment with clemency. I will meet it with my humanity. I’m asking C to see my humanity too while I focus on seeing hers. She cannot see me right now. She may never be able to see me again except through the confusing kaleidoscope of my betrayal, her hurt and the ghost stories she has adopted to protect herself from being vulnerable.

However, with clemency, I’m looking to meet each lance with compassion: I acknowledge the hurt I cause her; I recognize the truth of her anger; I accept the reality of her resentments. I accept her anger and resentment and offer vulnerability in return. I take a risk, I face the uncertainty while offering emotional openness in return.


Every letter, card, or word I’ve ever written to C has been attempts at vulnerability, to be heard. It was hard at first but with practice, I’ve gotten better at it. I’m not a saint. I’m still hurt. I’m occasionally angry. I struggle with resentments. The difference is, unlike in the beginning when I was on fire driving across the country, now I’m choosing to sit in it. Now I’m choosing to wait. Not for C’s benefit but for mine.

When it is time to move on I will know. These things cannot be forced. I’ve tried. I’m reminded, seven years together is a long time. Almost everything I did in those seven years was about building a Partnership forward with C.  Did I fail? Yes. Did I fail everywhere? No.

Today, I’m simply trying not to make any more life-changing choices or take and short-sighted, selfish choices. Today, that means I don’t fall into a convenient relationship, I don’t look for a rebound. Today I make myself vulnerable and open. Today, I sit in the kitchen and look at the reflection of the sky and shore in the calm mirror of the lake.

I know I have a number of really excellent qualities to build on. The secrets and lies buried my strengths under a mountain of rubble. I’m digging them out because to find the diamonds you have to do the work. I’m embracing the opportunity.

I’m doing what I can. Given time and intention, I will get there. There is nothing more to be done. Forgiveness is her healing by her choice but I can provide clemency as she walks the walk, with or without me. Perhaps in the process, I will find the path to self-forgive and learn to meet my own humanity with compassion and clemency.

I’m not a saint, I still hurt, but that isn’t a reason to hurt her – or anyone else – back.

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