If you’ve been hurt by your partner’s infidelity, lying, or other type of relationship distress, forgiveness may feel like an insurmountable mountain. While Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine,” it’s important to note that forgiveness is a complex, deliberate process. Forgiving someone who deeply hurt you can feel difficult — especially when you love that someone so much. 

Forgiveness can feel wildly different from situation to situation, depending on the relationship, the meaning we attach to the injury, and the level of hurt involved. Sometimes, letting go of an injury and trusting another person can feel very easy. In other instances, however, we may struggle and get stuck in the tortuous cycle of unforgiveness. Let’s explore four common barriers to forgiveness and how you can work around them. Forgiveness is an important factor to understand and how it might fit within your personal journey when it comes to your own inner healing.

One thing to note, if you are experiencing physical, emotional, or financial abuse, reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. Help is available and your safety is a priority – being in a safe place is essential before you consider the role of forgiveness in your healing journey.

Forgiveness feels required. 

Let’s be honest: many of us are taught from a young age that we are supposed to forgive, “let things go,” and “move on” when someone has wronged us. If you grew up in a religious setting, chances are you were taught about the spiritual or moral perspectives on forgiveness and may feel guilty when you struggle to extend grace to others. You may also feel frustrated with the obligation to forgive when it doesn’t come easily or seem fair. Whatever your upbringing, the decision to forgive genuinely does boil down to personal choice. 

Try this: Consider forgiveness an invitation.

Remember, no one can force you to forgive because it is your internal experience. Forgiveness is an invitation. And just like an invitation to a party, you can accept or decline. The freedom to forgive can relieve some of the built-up resistance. 

You may reach a moment where your desire for harmony with your partner becomes bigger than your desire to stay defensive. Generally speaking, the people we struggle most to forgive will also be those we value most. Forgiveness helps us to focus on opportunities for harmony.

Forgiveness feels hard, especially at first. 

After an injury, there will likely be an immediate period of acute emotional pain, during which the idea of forgiveness may never once cross your mind. It may feel impossible to release the negative narrative or to trust and engage with the other person again. We generally have good reasons for holding onto our pain, including the need for validation, comfort, and knowing that we are not at fault for the injury. We also hold onto our pain to remember, to self-protect, and thus avoid being injured again.

Try this: Forgive to find relief from your rumination and distress. 

Focusing on the negative aspects of another person’s behavior towards you, may cause you to lose sight of their good qualities and restrict your perspective, making forgiveness more challenging. Are you able to expand your view of the other person, even a little bit? For instance, if your partner forgot a big milestone, such as your wedding anniversary, you could feel immense pain and feel unimportant. When you are in an emotional space to try to understand, could you find historical ways your partner remembered important things? This could balance your view and allow you to consider talking with your partner as a start to the forgiveness process.  

The person who hurt me doesn’t apologize.

Not every person has self-awareness regarding how their behavior has an impact. There could be barriers that prevent the person from taking responsibility for their behavior and offering an apology, such as they don’t know how (maybe this wasn’t modeled for them growing up), they feel too embarrassed or prideful to admit wrongdoing, or they tend to be avoidant (e.g., brush things under the rug). Having shared a few obstacles, it doesn’t mean it’s fair or that you have to give the person a “free pass,” but there are ways you can move forward without an apology.  

Try this: Use forgiveness to stay faithful to your sense of dignity and values. 

There may be a point in unforgiveness when you realize you do not like the growing negative narrative or your own behavior towards your partner. Thus, you may discover motivation within yourself to accept that your partner may not offer you an apology. You could tell yourself, “My partner is incapable of taking ownership and offering an apology. I accept that I won’t get what I need from my partner, I am not bound by their inability to apologize, and I will create healthy boundaries for myself to not allow my partner to mistreat me again.” In this scenario, this is a form of forgiveness, by honoring your own sense of dignity and upholding your values – not relying on them for you to move forward.

I’m worried that I’ll forgive my partner and they will hurt me again. 

It’s a valid worry – there is no guarantee that you won’t be hurt again. One way to deal with this worry is to self-protect and guard your heart. However, the downside is creating such a barrier makes it difficult to create positive connections. Finding a balance between self-protecting and opening your heart depends on your ability to set limits and maintain healthy boundaries.  

Try this: Set boundaries to move forward together. 

You decide to forgive because you are still in the relationship, you care about your partner, and need or want to move forward together. If you forgive your partner, it is important that you communicate why you forgive them and how you expect to be treated moving forward. For instance, “I accept your apology. I felt hurt by what you did and for a time, I was certain I wasn’t going to let you back into my life. Hearing you take responsibility and express remorse allows me to tap into the love and care I have for you…yet still being cautious. Forgiving you does not mean I will forget. It also does not mean I will never feel hurt or pain again from this memory – that may come back every now and then. Forgiving you means I care about you and I want to move forward together. To help us not get back into this situation, I expect us to talk things through.” When you offer forgiveness and set boundaries, you should identify specific boundaries that enable you to remain in the relationship with a sense of openness.

How to practice forgiveness (and help yourself!) 

You may struggle to practice forgiveness for many valid reasons, including deep hurt, lack of remorse from the person who hurt you, and fear that an injury may recur. These blocks are like boulders in a river. Although they interrupt the flow, the water finds a way to move around them. When you take deliberate action to do something different, you become like the stream carrying on, even though the blocks might still come up. 

Here are three ways you can help yourself practice forgiveness — we know these may feel difficult, especially at first: 

  1. Stop negative thoughts about your partner and practice loving thoughts instead. 
  2. Help yourself relax before interacting with your partner, so you can engage with sincerity and openness. 
  3. Take deliberate action to not talk negatively about your partner behind their back. 

Whatever your action, you can support yourself to rework the negative narrative by remembering your motivations to forgive. Another resource that does a deeper dive into forgiveness is a book, How Can I Forgive You? The Courage to Forgive, the Freedom Not To by Janis A. Spring, Ph.D.

A therapist can help you work through forgiveness.

Working to let go of your pain is an exquisite act of courage. It takes humility, patience, and great self-love to heal through forgiveness. Sometimes, your labor will go entirely unseen by anyone other than yourself. It is up to you to decide what you want and do the work to support yourself and your relationships. 

Our therapists are ready to help you. We offer in-person appointments in Charlotte, NC, and Carefree, AZ. We also have virtual sessions available for those who live in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Texas. Contact us to get started.