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10 Q&As for Learning to Forgive

What does it mean, “Forgiveness is something that happens to you.”?

Most often, when it comes to learning to forgive, you will hear it said that forgiveness is a choice or a decision. It is suggested in most cases; you find a way to forgive those who have wronged you if at all possible.

The problem is it leads to feelings of guilt on the part of the person who is supposed to forgive. This is because they find they are just not ready to forgive, and yet they have been told they should be forgiving. While it may be true that learning to forgive can free yourself of bad feelings, there is a healthier way of looking at forgiveness. 

Rather than viewing it as a choice or a decision that you do, and therefore, something you can fail to do. Forgiveness is viewed as something that happens to you. When someone has wronged you, you naturally feel hurt. To be ready to forgive, you must first move beyond that hurt. Many times that hurt may come in a couple of different stages. There may first be anger, then sadness, etc. Forgiveness can only be complete once healing has taken place. 

Once you have moved through the painful emotions associated with the healing process, you will feel relief. It is at that point that forgiveness will come upon you or wash over you, if you will. At that point, it will feel easy and free to forgive. It will make sense as you will have clarity over what has happened. You will no longer feel that you are being held hostage over the emotional situation. In this way, forgiveness happens to you, not something you have to do.

Is there a danger in holding a grudge?

When we have been hurt, it is only natural to feel hurt for a certain amount of time. Feelings are natural, and to deny someone this natural form of expression is unhealthy. We teach children to express their feelings. We should have this same courtesy as well. The importance of expressing emotions is so we don’t bottle them up and thus allow them to fester. This will inevitably lead to an emotional explosion, like an impulsive and uncontrollable anger outburst. 

This is why it is important to allow for a certain amount of time to pass after a person has been hurt. Then the forgiveness can occur. Some may see this as holding a grudge. Where healing is concerned, holding a grudge until the healing can take place may be understandable. 

The issues with grudges

A grudge, however, can become detrimental to a relationship if it is held for a long time. A reasonable time frame to consider letting go of a grudge is normally approximately three weeks. Though it would be ideal for learning to forgive within that time frame, that may not always be possible. If forgiveness isn’t possible after three weeks, then forgetting, or letting go, should be the standard of practice. 

Everyone has been in a relationship where they are fighting for something, and their partner throws out a comment about something that happened before. One of the reasons it is harmful to bring up things that happened a long time ago is that it is difficult to remember the details of the situation. 

The other, and perhaps more important reason, is that it is hard enough to try and work through current arguments, let alone try and resolve issues that took place a long time ago. If letting go of a grudge is not something you feel you can do, it may be time to consider couples counseling to work through the underlying problem.

Why do people have a difficult time forgiving?

You may have heard that learning how to forgive someone is important. Certainly, learning how to forgive in a relationship is a very healthy thing to do under most circumstances. However, there are times when you may find that you have a hard time forgiving. Perhaps you feel that you don’t want to forgive. Why is it that people may have trouble forgiving even though they know how to forgive?

In most cases, it is because they are afraid of feeling vulnerable. When people are hurt by someone they trust, such as a spouse or significant other, they feel betrayed. It is difficult for people to bounce back from that because it was unexpected. If you trust someone, the last thing you expect them to do is to betray you or hurt your feelings. It is hard to open yourself up to love in a relationship. When you do so, you are saying that you trust that person loves you enough not to hurt you. Every time you experience this hurt from your partner, you feel more vulnerable.

Forgiveness brings people closer, and since being close will make you vulnerable, you will tend to avoid forgiving. You may not want to forgive because you are afraid it will be taken by your spouse as permission to do you wrong again. Unfortunately, this will happen in some cases. If a person is forgiven too quickly and/or too easily by their partner, they may see it as a sign that what they did was not really that bad and that if they were to do the same thing, they would be forgiven right away once again.

Is understanding important in forgiving?

Studies on the brain prove that the neural pathways that control empathic feelings show an increase in energy output when people think about forgiving others. If you truly want to learn to forgive someone wholly and completely, you need to “put yourself in their shoes .”When someone has wronged you, it is at first most natural to think they are just a “bad” person. This is not normally the case, however. It can be said, “Hurt people hurt people.”. 

Most people don’t usually strike out at others just to be mean or spiteful for no reason. People strike out either directly or indirectly because they are hurting somehow, and they are trying to lessen that hurt by placing it somewhere else. In learning to forgive others, you need to learn how to reach within yourself and draw on that sense of empathy.

Everyone can put themselves in someone else’s shoes, but they are usually too caught up in thinking about their own needs. They rarely take the time to think about how others may be feeling. The sooner you can look at how a person may be feeling, the sooner you may understand why they did what they did or how they acted the way they did. Once you understand this, you will have a shift in perspective. This shift in perspective from selfishness to selflessness is the focus you need to have in learning to forgive.

What happens when the person who hurt you isn’t sorry?

One of the toughest times in learning to forgive someone is when the person who hurt you shows no remorse whatsoever. There are many times in a marriage when the spouse has been hurt and demands an apology. Sometimes this demand justified as it may be, is met with cynicism. Instead of receiving a heartfelt apology, the one who has been wronged may get a half sincere, half insincere admission of wrongdoing.

You know what you’re getting from your spouse sounds like an apology, but at the same time, it doesn’t really “feel” like they are sorry. At this point, you have a decision to make.

  • Take the half sincere apology and assume the best
  • Choose to believe that your spouse has difficulty admitting they are wrong and accepting responsibility.
  • Believe that just because they have trouble admitting they have done wrong doesn’t mean they are not sorry

It may mean that in admitting to wrongdoing, they are afraid they will feel vulnerable and weak in some way. If you are okay with this, with your spouse not having to take responsibility for the pain they have caused you, you can move on from here and learn to forgive and forget from this point forward.

On the other hand, if you cannot get beyond the fact that your spouse will not accept responsibility for the wrong they have done, you have a different issue. What happens when you feel that your spouse’s inability to admit wrongdoing is not coming from a fear of vulnerability? What happens when your gut tells you that their half insincere apology means that their apology is just that, insincere? At this point, you can opt for some outside help, such as counseling, to work through the issue. Suppose this kind of behavior has become a pattern in your relationship. In that case, it may be time for you to realize you may be with someone who has a difficult time believing that they ever do anything wrong, and that is simply an unwinnable situation.

Is it possible to forgive a narcissist? 

There may be learning to forgive others, learning to forgive your partner, and even learning to forgive yourself. However, there will never be learning to forgive a narcissist! Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a psychological disorder that requires a medical diagnosis and whose symptoms include an excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, no sense of remorse, an inability to handle criticism, and a sense of entitlement. It is estimated that 5% of the population suffers from NPD. However, many more people in our society possess some of the traits of narcissism. There are a couple of extremely troubling traits that narcissistic people possess regarding relationships.

One such trait is that narcissists can be truly charismatic and magnetic personalities. They appear outgoing, caring, and fun-loving. This is an unfortunate hook for future mates as the narcissist is very good at hiding their true colors. Narcissists are incapable of believing they are ever at fault. Anyone who has been in a relationship knows that a relationship is always a two-way street. Except in cases of extreme domestic violence, both partners are always doing their share to contribute to the relationship. Whether they contribute positively or negatively, both spouses play a role in moving the relationship along

Unfortunately, however, a narcissist never sees their negative role in the relationship. Not only do narcissists never feel they are to blame for anything, but they feel that everyone is always “out to get them.” It becomes impossible to work through disagreements. While there may be learning to forgive in many relationships, there is never any learning to forgive in a relationship with a narcissist. 

Why should you learn to forgive yourself first?

You may have heard the quote, “You can’t love someone else until you love yourself.” The idea behind this sentiment is that you will not be able to love yourself until you learn to accept yourself for who you are, flaws and all. Once you can make peace with yourself and realize that to err is human, you can finally let go of the belief that you have to be perfect. You can also begin to understand that you are not different from anybody else. 

Everyone has their positive qualities and their human flaws. When you go for a job interview, an employer will often ask you to state your most redeeming qualities and your most obvious faults. Many people feel uncomfortable with this and try to avoid answering the question. When you are truly comfortable with yourself, this question does not make you uncomfortable. 

Embrace your flaws

Instead, you can learn to embrace your flaws as a part of your human spirit. When you can learn to understand and accept your flaws, you can also learn to understand and accept flaws in other people. Thus, when you can learn to love yourself, you can learn to love other people. The same is true in learning to forgive yourself. Many people have a hard time accepting the mistakes they have made. They will go over it in their head and will beat themselves up for not being perfect. 

When people are young, if they feel unloved, they will rationalize that if they “were just perfect enough,” they would get the love they crave. That, of course, is not true. The only thing you will get by trying to be perfect is an ulcer! However, when people grow up striving for this perfection, they tell themselves they are no good if they are not perfect. When they make mistakes, they cannot forgive themselves because, in their minds, they are keeping themselves from getting the love they need. 

If we cannot learn to forgive ourselves when we make mistakes, we will not be able to forgive others for their mistakes. In our minds, we attribute making mistakes to being imperfect. We attribute imperfection to being unlovable. So, it goes without saying that if someone is imperfect in our eyes, then they are also unlovable and, therefore, do not deserve to be forgiven.

Is there forgiveness without trust?

Many married couples have been in a very tragic situation before where one of the spouses has been unfaithful. When a person first learns of their partner’s unfaithfulness, the initial reaction is that there is no way the relationship can survive such infidelity. When we enter into a marriage, we vow that we will be true to each other. Even in long-term relationships, the promise is to be exclusive. We live in a society in which relationships are monogamous, and couples commit to being faithful to each other. 

This solid commitment of faithfulness between spouses is why the foundation of relationships is built on trust. When this faithfulness has been betrayed, the bond of trust between the spouses is broken, sometimes irretrievably. Many times after an affair has occurred, the spouses will attempt to repair this broken trust. Perhaps they will go to marriage counseling. The key to mending this betrayal is threefold.

Where to begin

First, the couple must identify the reasons for the infidelity. Second, the couple must address the underlying issues in the relationship. What is missing? And Third, the spouse who committed infidelity must gradually work overtime to earn back the trust of the spouse they betrayed. It is always possible for a couple to work their way back through these stages. It depends on how badly the partners want to make their relationship work and how much effort they are willing to put in. Either way, as far as the spouse has been betrayed is concerned, learning to trust again will most definitely take some time. 

Learning to forgive again will take a long time as well. Can there be forgiveness without trust? Sometimes, when forgiveness is a decision one makes for the “good of the marriage .”Many people will do this when children are involved. Is that true forgiveness? It’s hard to say. It may be more of choice not to think about what happened and a decision to simply move on with life. True forgiveness probably requires a reparation of that broken trust. Once the trust has been restored to the relationship, genuine, heartfelt forgiveness can be offered.

What do you do if your partner won’t forgive you?

There are those times when we all make mistakes. We have done something that we know was wrong, and we wish we could take it back. We never meant to hurt our spouse, but unfortunately, that is exactly what we have done.

You know the times. When you got into an argument and, in the heat of the moment, and said something very hurtful. When you were out with a bunch of friends, and you had one too many drinks and told something about your spouse that was a little too personal. Then afterward, when your spouse calls you out on it, and you can see the hurt in their eyes, you suddenly feel terrible, and you wish you could take it all back. Except you can’t.

You say you’re sorry, of course and try to explain that you weren’t in your right mind at the time. You may even make their favorite dinner or write cute little love notes in the hopes of getting them to accept your apology. Unfortunately, nothing seems to work. 

What to do next

So what do you do? What do you do when your spouse doesn’t forgive you? First of all, you have to gauge how serious the situation is. For instance, if you were unfaithful, getting your spouse to forgive you may take more than you can give. You may need to solicit professional help. If you are certain it is something they should be able to get over in time, then that is simply what they may need. Time has been said to be “the healer of all wounds .” When we wrong someone we tend to want to alleviate the guilt by seeking forgiveness.

Unfortunately, that is not always the way it works. Sometimes the things that your spouse may need most to process what has transpired are time and space. This may seem like the hardest thing to do at a time like this. However, if you can back off for a while and allow your spouse to heal in time, you will get that forgiveness you so desperately seek. Your relationship will be stronger for it!

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Elizabeth McVey

Elizabeth McVey spent the early years of her career as the founder and business owner of a personal Matchmaking service, Introductions inc., located in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut. Throughout her years with Introductions, Ms. McVey worked with literally thousands of clients looking for long-term relationships. She interviewed them, matched them with other clients she felt would be appropriate, and counseled them on dating decorum and relationship concerns. Following her work with Introductions, Ms. McVey obtained her Master’s degree in community counseling from The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York. Ms. McVey did additional Master’s work at the University of Mobile in Alabama. Over the past 23 years, she has dedicated most of her research and writing to adults who have survived childhood trauma, particularly sexual abuse and assault. Ms. McVey was also the organizer of a support group in Mobile, Alabama, for adult survivors of incest. Throughout her time in Alabama. Ms. McVey has given educational talks to different groups, including school administrators and mental health professionals, regarding the warning signs of child sexual abuse and the long-term after-effects. Over the past 12 years, Ms. McVey has worked as a Psychotherapist in Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse and in an Acute Care mental health facility. She is also currently an online Trauma Informed Coach and works privately with individuals recovering from childhood and other types of trauma. Ms. McVey is the mother of four grown children. In her free time, she enjoys taking walks with her husband, playing with her dogs, traveling, doing crafts, and spending time with her family.

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