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The Meaning of Forgiveness in a Relationship

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 that 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 authentically and constructively with anger in a way that leaves room for a couple to keep on trusting, moving and hoping. coupleforgiveness

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. 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 care and concern you have for your partner.
  • 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!

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 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.

The Importance of Day-to-Day Forgiving and Forgetting

The forgiving and forgetting that a couple does on a day-to-day basis for the lapses, differences, mistakes and oversights that go with being human reflect and build couple resilience. The ability to forgive and forget creates safety and permission to be less than perfect. To foster this resilience:

  • 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.

The Power of Apology and Forgiveness

Apology and Forgiveness are not static concepts. They involve mutuality and movement, a way of staying connected and moving on.

To Forgive is to remember that we have room in our hearts to begin again.

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The Meaning of Forgiveness in a Relationship

Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP

Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist. She is Adjunct Professor of Clinical Psychology in the Doctoral Program of Long Island University and on the faculty of the Post-Doctoral Programs of the Derner Institute of Adelphi University. Suzanne Phillips, PsyD and Dianne Kane are the authors of Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress. Learn more about their work at . Visit Suzanne's Facebook Page HERE.

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APA Reference
Phillips, S. (2015). The Meaning of Forgiveness in a Relationship. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Oct 2015
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