Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Making Forgiveness Possible In Your Relationship

We have discussed in earlier blogs the impact of trauma on relationships, reconsidering the anger in your relationship, communication for anger management, the impact of trauma on sexual intimacy and attempts to reclaim it.

Where Does Forgiveness Fit In?

With Couples, forgiveness implies the recognition that one has been hurt by the other, and the willingness to release the negative thoughts and feelings toward the other partner. Forgiveness is not about denial, condoning abusive behavior or remaining in a dangerous situation – it is about finding a way to go on. It is about dealing constructively with anger in a way that leaves room for a couple to keep trusting, moving and hoping.


Forgiving yourself is crucial to your own emotional well being and that of your partner. Forgiving yourself is central to forgiving others. One of the most difficult reactions that people have in the aftermath of natural and manmade disasters, war and even serious illness is shame and self-blame. Blame is associated with guilt for action or failure to act. “Why did I take the car out in the snow?” “Who lives in a place that has hurricanes?” “Who turns their back on a baby for even a moment?”

Shame is a perception of self as unworthy, damaged, unacceptable in the eyes of self or others. “How can I be an acceptable spouse if I have been raped?” “How can I be a tender lover if I spent a year as a warrior?” “What smart cop gets himself shot?” Often it is a partner’s inability to forgive self, that leaves no empathy for themself or for anyone else.

Self Forgiveness on the other hand involves an acceptance of humanness and lack of control in the face of the uncontrollable. It accepts that most people do the best they can in the unexpected moments in life. It recognizes that forgiveness of self facilitates recovery because it takes back energy from the “Could have” and “Should Have” to moving on.

Are There Some Things You Just Can’t Forgive?

Behavior that does not change and remains purposely hurtful or dangerous is behavior that no one should tolerate. Seeking help, going on and finding a way to be safe apart from an abusive partner may be necessary. It may not preclude forgiveness, but it may make living with the partner impossible permanently or until the situation becomes safe and the person’s behavior allows for renewed trust between you. No one holds the criteria for forgiveness but you and your partner. .

Does Love Mean Never Having To Say You’re Sorry?

Love means having the courage to say you are sorry. Forgiveness, in most cases, is made possible by an apology or recognition on the part of the offending partner that they have done something to hurt the other, an expression of sorrow and a wish to make it better. The power of apologies is that they restore trust in the other’s care and concern. Apologies are gifts. For couples the exchange of apology and forgiveness can be a positive turning point, a growth step, a renewed sense in the ability to overcome anything!

Variations of Forgiving and Forgetting:

When A Partner Forgives But Can’t Forget. The inability to forgive and forget can belong to one partner or get played out by both.

No matter how many times Jack asked Karen to stop putting him down in front of friends and family, it seemed to happen – particularly when they all had a few drinks. When he would confront her on the way home, she’d blow it off “It’s all in fun – they love you.” Feeling silence and resentment from him the next morning, Karen would ask him why he just couldn’t “let things go.” This would usually end in more silence. What Karen did not understand was that for as long as she did not apologize or own the behavior that hurt or embarrassed Jack, he could not forget it because he was afraid it would happen again.

When A Partner Forgives But Won’t Forget. Sometimes a partner forgives but is acting in a way that makes forgetting impossible and forgiving questionable.

Mike’s admitting to infidelity in a 20 year marriage to Ruth was underscored with an apology, a recognition of the pain caused by his betrayal of her, a declaration of his love and a willingness to seek help as a couple to recover their relationship. Hurt, betrayed, and embarrassed Ruth accepted the apology. She loved Mike and wanted to recover as a couple together. When I met this couple it was clear that although Ruth forgave – she would not forget. For all intents and purposes, Mike was under “house arrest.” Ruth wanted to know his every move, something he accepted at first but began to resent. In addition at times after they had a good night or a great weekend, Ruth would go from the good feeling to tears ,making Mike feel that he had damaged their relationship forever.

What was difficult for Ruth to realize was that her fear of being betrayed and control of Mike was keeping her from finding out if she really could trust him to recover their bond.
What was difficult for Mike to realize was that as the betrayed one, Ruth wanted to forgive and forget but needed some time to feel safe enough to really do this. Forgiveness like recovery from trauma takes time. It involves dealing with the impact, searching for meaning, getting past self-blame, shame and judgment, finding a place for anger, risking trust and forgiving self and other.

Day to Day Forgiving and Forgetting

The Forgiving and forgetting that couples do on a day by day basis for the lapses, differences, mistakes, oversights that everyone is capable of is part of the resilience of a couple. Often in the aftermath of cumulative stress, sudden trauma or unexpected loss the give and take, and flexibility that comes with feeling safe and strong is compromised. It becomes difficult to forgive much less forget the actions of the other. Rebuilding a sense of forgiveness helps a couple rebuild trust and reconnection. Here are some ways to rebuild:

  • Don’t be afraid to say you are sorry – it lets the other know your care and understand.
  • Don’t overlook the non-verbal apology- sometimes actions are louder than words.
  • Remember all that there is about your partner. She is much more than the woman who lost your car keys. He is more than the man who ignores you and all he promised when the game is on.
  • Prioritize the relationship – it is worth more than keeping a record of everything she/he does wrong.

Forgiveness as a Couples’ Resiliency Trait

Apology and Forgiveness are not static concepts. They involve mutuality and movement – one’s owning the cause of the pain and the other’s feeling the authenticity and forgiving is a way of staying connected and moving on. It may mean changing something, getting professional help, finding new ways to spend time together, communicating- somehow recovering trust together.

To Forgive is really to remember that no one is perfect.
To Forgive is really to remember that we are so much more than our mistakes.
To Forgive is to remember that we have room in our hearts to begin again.
(Author Unknown)