Let’s face it: No matter how deep the connection between you and your partner may be, there are bound to be missteps in your relationship. Some may be small, while others—financial dishonesty, infidelity—are often much harder to bounce back from. If there’s any one tool that can help you come out stronger on the other side, it’s forgiveness.
“Forgiveness can predict the health of a relationship,” says relationship expert Dr. Daryl Johnson. “It provides an opportunity to connect, and for growth.”
Meet the Expert
Dr. Daryl Johnson is a DC-licensed professional counselor and couples therapist. She also holds a PhD in psychology.
Still, it doesn’t happen overnight. Forgiveness is a multi-step practice, involving patience and trust-building on both sides of the relationship. If you respect its importance and stay authentically engaged in the process, it is fully possible to move on from hurtful words and actions. Read on for why forgiveness is crucial in the evolution of a relationship, as well as how to give and receive it.
Why Forgiveness Is Important
Forgiveness is important because it wards off contempt, one of the biggest relationship killers out there. “Without it, we allow transgressions to fester, and that acts almost like a slow poison,” says Johnson. “Years go by, you’ll look up and you can’t figure out why you are so irritated by this person.”
By addressing an issue head-on instead of shoving it under the proverbial rug, you ensure your partner is aware of how and why they upset you. This minimizes the chance of something similar happening in the future, which minimizes the chance of the issue being a recurring problem in your relationship. Remaining angry or upset with someone can also be a major energy suck.
By granting yourself permission to let go of these feelings, you free yourself up emotionally and mentally. This provides room for the relationship to continue to grow, as opposed to staying stuck in a hard moment. “Forgiveness helps us shed our ego and become more vulnerable,” says Johnson. “With it, we’re able to look at the other person through a lens of compassion and empathy, as opposed to frustration, pain, and hurt.”
Forgiveness is also a tool for personal growth. “Relationships are a two-way street,” adds Johnson. “If there are issues, you can’t always point a finger at the other person. You need to redirect it to yourself and see what’s happening.” Maybe your partner hid a major purchase, such as a motorcycle, from you, but it’s because they feel you belittle them when they talk about how much they enjoy riding. If you understand how your own actions played a role in the situation, you can better do your part in preventing an issue from escalating.
How to Forgive Your Partner
Have an open discussion about what happened.
A breach of trust can feel like falling under a tidal wave: All of a sudden, you’re entirely surrounded by new circumstances, with no way of knowing where they begin and end. Honest communication is key at this juncture. Understanding the full scope of what happened and why it happened is the crucial first step in resurfacing for air. If your partner cheated, encourage them to share what they feel they weren’t getting in the confines of your relationship. If they complained about you behind your back, ask them why they didn’t feel comfortable sharing their frustrations directly with you in the first place.
While learning these details will undoubtedly be painful, the knowledge can help you minimize feelings of loss of control in the situation.
Compassion is also necessary. You’ve been hurt, and it can feel entirely justified to lash out and hurt your partner back. Revenge and name-calling only keeps you both moored in a place of pain. When you avoid completely villainizing the other person, and instead treat them as a rational individual with not entirely evil reasons for doing what they did, it can be easier to move past their actions further down the line.
Frame the situation.
It’s not “you vs. your partner,” it’s “you and your partner vs. the problem.” While that mindset can understandably feel difficult to achieve if your partner has lied to you or cheated on you, placing yourselves on the same side of the equation encourages the teamwork necessary to move through a problem together. When you’re both working towards the same end goal, you’ll both feel more supported—and be more likely to believe that the relationship is worth saving.
Think critically about taking space.
When something cataclysmic happens in a relationship, your immediate compulsion might be to step out of it entirely. “There’s always this rush to separate or go on a break, but nothing productive can come out of the typical ‘we’re just not going to talk,’” says Johnson. “That does more harm than good because there’s no work being done.” Instead, Johnson encourages pauses in disagreements when you’re in an uncomfortable spot communicating, and/or seeking the help of a professional relationship counselor to help you navigate a conversation that can feel impossible to have.
Set new parameters.
In the wake of a major transgression, the boundaries of your relationship might look different for a period of time. If your partner physically cheated or had an emotional affair, having access to their phone, email and social media accounts might be a necessary way to help you rebuild trust. If they made a major financial decision without you, it’s okay to request that you take the reins on your joint bank account, or that every purchase above a certain amount going forward is discussed in advance. Rebuilding trust largely happens through actions, not words. By redefining boundaries in a way that will let your relationship move past a setback and start a new chapter, you’ll create the conditions necessary to achieve true forgiveness.
Know what true forgiveness feels like.
“True forgiveness means being able to move forward in a relationship, without feeling stuck in resentment or punishing your partner in small ways,” says Johnson. More often than not, this means approaching your relationship from a new starting point, and shedding generalizations about their behavior—they’re always screwing up, they’re not trustworthy, etc.—that have upset you in the past. “If [you] can look at things with a beginner’s mindset, then you’re not allowing your old perceptions of a person to color your future interactions,” Johnson adds. “You’re able to stay more in the present.”
How to Ask for Forgiveness
Offer an authentic apology.
“The person on the other side wants to hear that you’re legit remorseful about what has happened, not that you got caught or that you might have hurt [their] feelings,” says Johnson. Meaning: Now is not the time for empty words and platitudes. Demonstrate, out loud and in specifics, that you understand how and why your actions upset them. Then, reassert how valuable the very thing you put in jeopardy—your relationship—is to you.
Identify your apology languages.
Just as there are love languages, there are also apology languages—and a free quiz both you and your partner can take to understand how to best communicate with one another in difficult situations, and show your remorse in ways that will most effectively resonate with your partner. “Take the quiz so you can better understand how to heal hurt in your relationship,” advises Johnson.
Be patient and present.
“Sometimes, when we’re wrong, we want to hurry through that difficult spot and not have to confront the fact that we did hurt someone we love,” says Johnson. But, she notes, trying to speed up the process might cause our partner to not feel properly seen or heard, or that their hurt is being downplayed. “We need to sit there in that moment with that person, understand what they’ve experienced, and be genuine in that,” Johnson adds.
Assess what you really want out of the relationship.
“I always encourage the person that committed the betrayal to be honest,” says Johnson. If you are attempting to make amends solely because of shared obligations—children, a house, a long history together—you may end up offering amends that you don’t intend to fulfill. That will only lead to further hurt and frustration. “It really has to be something you really want to do,” Johnson adds, otherwise the relationship likely isn’t going to last long-term.
What to Do When Forgiveness Isn’t Enough
Forgiveness is a critical step in repairing a broken relationship. Sometimes, though, a relationship may be past the point of repair, or not healthy or worthwhile enough to repair in the first place. In these circumstances, forgiveness might not be sufficient:
- The relationship is abusive. If your partner is physically or verbally abusive, or if they are consistently gaslighting you, your partner does not have your best interests at heart, even if they’ve apologized for their actions in the past. Take the steps necessary to safely remove yourself from the relationship.
- You’ve put in the work, but feelings haven’t changed. If you’ve gone through the steps outlined above, but find yourself unable to appreciate your partner’s perspective in the matter or move past what happened, your relationship may become stuck in that moment of pain. If your relationship cannot evolve, and you’re at the point where you’re adding more misery than joy to each other’s lives, it likely is not worth continuing.
If you’re in marriage counseling and find yourself reaching this crossroad, your therapist may recommend discernment counseling with a separate therapist. In four to five intensive sessions, a discernment specialist can help you evaluate if divorce or separation is truly the right next step. “Couples therapy is more of a preventative measure. It gives you tools to strengthen a bond,” explains Johnson. “Discernment counseling helps couples figure out what direction they next want to go.”