Whether they told a little white lie or deeply betrayed you, forgiving your partner isn’t an easy task. However, it is a necessary one if we want to strengthen the foundation of our relationship now and in the future. As tough as it may sometimes be, it’s important to remember that no one is perfect; we all make mistakes, and unfortunately, we often hurt the people we love the most, says Andrea Dindinger, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
“Relationship forgiveness helps build intimacy by allowing us to know and be known more deeply, it breaks down barriers of resentment by letting go of and forgiving each other, and it allows us to work through the stories we’ve made up in our heads,” she explains.
However, it doesn’t always come naturally to us, mainly if we’ve been in toxic, unhealthy relationships in the past. When our trust is broken, Dindinger says it’s a lot like accidentally burning our hand on the stove: our instinct is to pull away — and stay away. “This protective instinct is what makes forgiveness difficult. To forgive someone, you need to re-engage with the thing or person that hurt you in the first place,” she shares. “This takes both bravery and the courage to be vulnerable.”
Here, we spoke with experts on the most effective and connective ways to build a forgiveness practice in your relationship.
Focus on what hurt you.
After a long, stressful day at work, you come home and immediately crawl into bed to scroll through social media. Your partner, who may not realize how overwhelmed you feel, teases you and says, "Well, someone is lazy!" You’re already in a state of sensitivity, so this simple sentence sends you over the edge. And maybe, reminds you of an experience where a friend or family member labeled you as lethargic and killed your self-confidence. These are two separate instances, but they could feel very similar to you.
As Dindinger says, it’s vital to recognize that we can get hurt by something someone says because it matches our past stories about ourselves. “We’re very attached to the stories we make up in our heads, and it takes vulnerability to check out those stories with the people we love when we’ve been hurt,” she adds.
How can you rewrite these chapters? By sharing the story that’s running through your mind with your partner, so he or she understands your triggers. As an example, Dindinger says it may look like this: ‘Hey, I have a story running through my head that you think I’m lazy. Is this what you meant last night?’
“This allows your partner to clarify what they meant by their comment, which is probably light years away from how you interpreted it,” she continues. “It also makes forgiving them much easier and opens up a conversation for your partner to know you more intimately.”
Take it slow.
There are different levels of hurt: some hit the surface, while others dig incredibly, painfully deep. If your partner is guilty of the latter, it’s essential to set realistic expectations around relationship forgiveness. After all, it’s unreasonable to expect the relationship to return to normal overnight, says Allison Chawla, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, spiritual counselor and certified life coach. When you’re discussing moving forward, explain that you will need to take it step-by-step, having several conversations, and gradually open back up to them. “Let them earn the trust back slowly and discuss that you forgive them for the mistake, but that it cannot happen again, and they will need to prove that you can trust them again over time,” she adds.
Get to the root of the broken promise.
When we’re working on relationship forgiveness, a critical component is to feel that your partner is wholeheartedly apologetic for the hurt that they caused, Dindinger says. Take, for example; you asked your partner to handle paying a few bills and running a few errands before you left for a family vacation. You had items on your list, they had some on theirs, and a day before your flight leaves, they admit they haven’t done anything. This is frustrating, and it also makes you doubt their competency. However, Dindinger says it’s not enough to be angry and quiet about — you’ll need to exercise the courage to be vulnerable about the feelings that got brought up when a commitment was broken.
Then, the next step is to ask questions, not from a place of blame or shame, but as a way to learn more so you can both make changes. “The mutual sharing and vulnerability will help you to understand what happened from both perspectives,” she continues. “Going through this multi-step process may seem long and painful, but it’s much easier, shorter and less painful than piling up resentments, not discussing them and not apologizing for mistakes.”
Agree to work through it by listening.
When you’re hurt, you need to be heard. And your partner needs to listen to why you feel as if your trust is broken within the relationship. Without the open space to be candid about how you feel, why you feel this way, and what you need from your one-and-only, it’s impossible to practice relationship forgiveness, says Shari Foos, MA, MFT, MS, NM, a therapist and Narrative Method specialist.
However, once you have gone through sharing, apologizing, and acceptance, you both need to work to let go of the anxiety. “Keeping score of each other’s past missteps is not healthy,” she continues. “When you can move on, you not only notice your partner's effort, but you will feel the lightness where the anger and hurt were taking up space in your psyche.”