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The Difference Between Forgiving and Forgetting

“Some people think it’s holding that makes one strong. Sometimes it’s letting go.” ~Unknown

I will never forget the moment my marriage ended.

My husband and I had fought the night before, about many of the same things we’d been fighting about for the entirety of our four-month marriage.

He was dissatisfied with our sex life and my lack of respect for him. I was struggling with bipolar disorder, changing medications, going back to school, and trying to please a man who seemed to find fault with everything I did.

During that fight, he choked me twice to prevent me from screaming and running away. I learned quickly that if I didn’t want to die, I would have to go limp, submit to his power, and hope he would release me from my position, pinned face down in our bed.

When I woke up the next morning, my spirit was broken. I felt as if I had a terminal disease. I knew with great certainty that I would die at the hands of my husband, I just didn’t know how long it would take.

When my husband woke later, he wasn’t satisfied with my newly submissive attitude. Another fight ensued, but this time, he used a different tactic. He insulted me, cutting me to the core with a comparison to a person who had caused me a great deal of pain and anguish.

As it turns out, my spirit had not been fully broken. The tiny scraps that remained rallied together to propel me out the door of our apartment. I ran screaming down the street like a mad woman, banging on a stranger’s door and calling a friend to activate an escape plan.

I collected my dog, moved back in with my mother, and got a lawyer. Our divorce took seven months, almost twice as long as our marriage lasted. 

And for the next year and a half after leaving him, I carried around the story of the violence and pain of our short time together like a security blanket.

Sometimes I would be angry with him.

I would wonder what was going through his head when he decided to cover my mouth and nose with one hand and immobilize my arms with his other free arm. I would cry when I compared the gentle, artistic soul I had fallen in love with to the invincible foe I faced at the end.

Sometimes I would blame myself.

If only I had been more polite, more respectful, been more generous in bed. If only I had bought him another truck, since the first two hadn’t been adequate proof of how much I loved him. If only I had cut contact with my oldest and dearest friends sooner.

If only I hadn’t sought solace and companionship at a local church. If only I had been able to listen unquestioningly to his demands, instead of arguing for silly things like access to psychological care and food and sleep.

If only I had been perfect, he wouldn’t have choked me.

After a year and a half of this mental and emotional racket running through my head and heart on a daily basis, I finally started to see rays of light shining in through the cracks.

Reading Tiny Buddha had a lot to do with it, but the real breakthrough came when I took a road trip to a city I had never been to before, a city my ex-husband had visited before we were married.

Walking around in this city, I looked for the things he told me about. There was the bookstore, where he bought me a card. There was the burrito restaurant. There were the murals he admired.

Suddenly I was able to see my ex-husband in a much more sympathetic light. 

He did not wake up one morning and decide that he was going to terrorize me. He did not set a goal of choking the woman he married. He was not a sociopath who enjoyed inflicting pain upon me.

He simply acted on his experiences and emotions, and chose to do what seemed logical at the time. Which is exactly what I had done, what we all do.

Looking back on it, I could see what a mess we were. Our insecurities and flaws became more exaggerated when we were together. We truly brought out the worst in each other.

In that moment, I decided to forgive my ex-husband. I bought a tiny carved elephant, one of his favorite animals, from the bookstore he had described to me, and took it down to a riverfront park. There, by the water, I said aloud everything I had just realized.

I apologized for not knowing myself better, and thereby not realizing how wrong we were for each other.

I apologized for not seeing my ex-husband for who he was, instead super-imposing my own fantasy onto him.

I thanked him for all of the good times—the road trips, the conversations, the paintings he gave to me, the way he encouraged my singing and guitar playing.

I wished for him to find health and wholeness.

I forgave him.

I placed the little elephant on a ledge overlooking the water, and walked away.  The lightness of heart that I felt—the relief, the gratitude—all settled over me like the first snow on a pine branch.

And I realized as I drove away that forgiving and forgetting are very different things.

I can never forget the way his hands felt covering my face. I can never forget the panic of not being able to breathe. Nor should I strive to.

I must not forget the lessons I learned from my marriage.

I must not forget what is most important to me—freedom of movement, freedom to pursue friendships, freedom from fear and control. And I must not forget the warning signs I saw in my ex-husband, which I ignored, that almost cost me my life.

Although I forgave my ex-husband, I will not forget the harm we did to each other. And this is a good thing.  If I forgot, I might walk into another similar situation. In remembering, I am able to evaluate new relationships and make sure I’m not going to re-make the same movie with different actors.

For too long, I resisted forgiving because I had confused “forgiveness” with “approval.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.

I don’t condone my ex-husband’s actions. But he is far from the only person in the world who has done something hurtful without intending to.  

We have all hurt people in our lives, and we have all benefited from someone’s forgiveness.

How bleak the world would be if everyone held onto their pain the way I did.

How bright the world can be when we release the burden of anger and resentment, and instead forgive.

And how beautiful the world can be when we learn from our pain instead of wallowing in it.

Photo by AlicePopkorn

Avatar of Sarah Fertig

About Sarah Fertig

Sarah Fertig writes, bakes key lime pies, and frolics with her Border Collie mix dog in Michigan.

Announcement: Wish you could change your past? Learn to let go and create a life you love with the Tiny Buddha course!
  • http://twitter.com/kataclysmichaos Roel Raymond

    Sarah, thank you for this. :)

    I spent five years in an abusive marriage and 3 subsequent years ostensibly recovering from it only to learn very recently that the anger I held on to was sabotaging my personal and spiritual growth. Although I have not yet taken that first step towards forgiving my (hopefully, soon-to-be) ex-husband, your post has made me aware of the need for it. I too had confused forgiveness with approval and could not imagine forgiving a man who had caused so much damage to me and my son. I know better now. Again, thank you for it. The Universe does really speak to you when your listening to it. :)

  • Katycreek

    Thank you for sharing this story. It is a perfect description of the definitions and separation of those two mental capacities.

  • elizabeth

    Thank You…I needed this NOW!

  • dIANE

    “Some people think it’s holding that makes one strong. Sometimes it’s letting go.” ~Unknown

  • anmasa

    Thank you for reminding me

  • Llyons56

    What a beautifully written story of your pain and discovery. I have been fortunate to never have been involved in toxic relationships but can relate to the concept of holding onto negative emotions. And your distinction between forgiveness and approval is an “aha” moment for me. Thank you for sharing, you have helped thousands of people today!

  • dhyana

    Well done! The writing, the processing, the forgiving, the sharing…

  • http://zeroto60andbeyond.com Barbara Hammond

    This may be the best advice I’ve ever read about forgiveness vs. forgetting.  You are so right about the importance of remembering so we don’t make the same mistakes again, yet knowing we can’t move on without forgiving.
    Beautifully written. Thank you.
    Barbara

  • Gillybean

    My marriage only lasted 3 months and although I know I should forgive in order to let go it’s one of the hardest things to do.  I thought I had met my soul mate, we lived together for 2 years and got married this past September.  We got into an argument a few nights before Christmas and he left and never came back.  He had me believing that he was staying with a friend and that he was unhappy with our relationship and didn’t know what to do.  After some investigation I found out he was actually staying with one of my best friends and bridesmaids who I’ve known for 25 years.  I didn’t know why or what their relationship was I just knew it didn’t sound right and he finally confessed that their affair had been going on for well over a year.  I was sick to my stomach and I still am.  I have my good days and my bad days.  Today unfortunately is a not so great day.  I look to this site a lot for inspiration and support.  Hopefully one day I will be able to forgive because I can’t let the anger and hurt eat away at me any longer. 

  • ChristyLynn

    That was beautiful. Thank you.

  • http://amyrxbaker.com/ Amy Baker

    Wow. This is a very powerful, and beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. It sounds very much like you were married to a narcissist. Congratulations on differentiating between forgiving and forgetting.
    Have you pursued trauma response therapy?
    Blessings to you in your journey.

  • Jen

    Thank you.  I’ve been holding onto similar pain for such a long time now.  Thanks for your courage to write this.  I am going to print it and save it as I try to forgive and move on.

  • Fellow Traveller

    Thank you so much for this! Like others have said… I needed this NOW for many of the same reasons you describe. I love that in this day and age strangers can help each other so much by sharing their personal struggles and triumphs.

  • Mclou2633

    Well done Sarah!  What is evident from the description of how you forgave your husband (by buying the elephant and leaving it next to the water) is that you see forgiveness as a gift you give to yourself.  Understanding that forgiveness isn’t something you are giving the “other” person (unless of course you are forgiving yourself), was a distinction that helped me to let go of toxic resentment so that I was no longer stuck and could grow. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/WX5C3NZWMRPEGWMWZGEPOEF4ZY Internet

    Truly inspiring.

  • frances

    Wow! Beautiful, profound, exquisite….Thank you for sharing this. You are an amazing person!

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    Wow, Gillybean, that’s tough.  Lots of love to you. XO

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    You are so brave to have forgiven, and also to share your story here.  You write so beautifully and you are truly inspiring!  I loved reading this.  I’m so sorry you went through that painful experience but you’ve come through it with strength and insight.  You have a wonderful spirit.  Best to you!

  • Gillybean

    Thank you!

  • http://sundaysinthestorageunit.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    Thank you everyone for your kind and encouraging words.  I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to give back to the community of wisdom that has helped me so much!

    PS Today is my 27th birthday and being featured here was a wonderful surprise!

  • David

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Some people just have the knack of darkening the sunshine in people’s lives – your experience helps those of us who have gone through that experience to put the sunshine back in our lives!

  • Abhi

    A gr8 article Sarah! What you managed to do is something wonderful and strong…i am nt facing a situation as xtreme as yours but yes some person has hurt me lyk never before..i hope i could someday do what u hav managed… Good louck to you in your future endevours..

  • Abhi

    A gr8 article Sarah! What you managed to do is something wonderful and strong…i am nt facing a situation as xtreme as yours but yes some person has hurt me lyk never before..i hope i could someday do what u hav managed… Good louck to you in your future endevours..

  • Roo

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.  It can leave you feeling very vulnerable to admit to our stories.  You forgave for YOU not him and that is wonderful. You are right, we all do make mistakes but one of the biggest is thinking that forgiving is weak or going to lessen us in some way.  Forgiving sets US free and ultimately has nothing to do with the other person.  You survived a very difficult situation and are helping others with your story. Thank you.

  • Kate Smigle

     I understand completely what you are going through.  I myself have just had a rude awakening this February.  The man I was engaged to was living with another woman.  He still professed his love for me and wanted us to get a place together this year.  I am devastated beyond belief.  I truly loved this man.  I am unemployed and supported him and his child for 2 years and thousands of dollars.  I think because he hated where he was living and she had a job that is why he is with her.  The hurt is overwhelming.  I too hope that one day I can forgive.  The anger and hurt is making my disability progress as well.

  • http://www.carlsbadvillageortho.com/ CarlsbadVillageOrthodontist

    Thank you so much for giving us a chance to read such a moving and raw piece from your life. Forgiving and forgetting are worlds apart, and I always think that they are but essential, but not exclusive to a point. I hope that things are getting better, and I wish you well with your next endeavors.

  • Marthaeileen

    Im still trying to figure out how you contributed anything negative to the relationship with your ex-husband.  It sounds like you have taken partial responsibility for his actions.
     

  • https://sundari0804.wordpress.com/ Sundari Rudra

    thanks for posting

  • Seri

    A well balanced story of a broad subject written in nutshell covering so many aspects of overcoming and moving on.
    I would like to add a bit of my reflection which I hope will not give rise to hurt or misunderstanding, is not an intent to criticize this beautiful lessons shared.
    And with so many deeper subjects only small pointers are giving that can lead to deeper truths that can only be found within.
     

    Forgiveness is a very tricky word and if
    not understood correctly it can be detrimental to your own growth of getting
    over “bad” experiences.

    First when one says I forgive you for
    whatever you have done to me. This is in fact saying you owe me something. You
    are indebted to me. I am your master. You are my slave. But I forgive you, you
    are off the hook I am more superior,

    The blame rests on the other who wronged
    you. The blame is not yours.

    Blaming either yourself or others is not
    helpful for your overcoming the past suffering.

    It is far better to look deeper in
    yourself. Be more concern about why these experiences you have gone through can
    be a steppingstone leading to the door of the experience you wish to gain.

    One must understand the principles of the world
    of duality we live in.

    If we are aware of it we will never resist
    that what is.

    Then we learn from these dark experiences
    and are grateful. For how can you experience light if there is no background of
    darkness?

    In order to experience what you are seeking
    after that what you do not wish to appear has to appear. When one experience
    first the opposite of what one desires, be excited and understand that what is
    desired is about to be manifested.

    The saying after rain comes sunshine, after
    the night the dawn of a new day.

    By resisting what is and now you will
    remain in the rain, in the night.

    Forgive and forget the past, learn from it.
    Forgive your self for being unaware in your creation and recreate .

  • Joyce

    This is a very good read… Thank you so much…

  • Sakura

    Thank you for sharing your story, it’s exactly what I needed to hear today. I am currently ending a relationship that had similar pain and struggles. It is healing to hear that others have also taken steps to break free and forgive. I wish you all the best!

  • http://twitter.com/pushbuttonkitty pushbuttonkitty

    Agreed.  I’m sure being bipolar didn’t help the relationship, especially with an abuser, but you certainly don’t choose to have a debilitating medical condition.

  • seedy3

    Martha, coming from someone who has had to deal with forgiving an abuser in a relationship, I don’t think she is taking responsibility for his actions, per se, but turning things around to not be a victim and to see him as a person who has problems that have been amassing slowly for years and years. 

    Walking around with a weight of anger and hate is unhealthy and prevented me from moving on in my life. When I got to the point of being able to see that he was a victim of his own past and experiences, then I was able to move on (actually, not so simple, but that’s it in a nutshell). 

  • Ares01256

    A very good read, I’m going through something similar but not as intense, its very helpful to me

  • GG

    Beautiful. This gives me a lot of peace, thank you. X

  • Malasahan

    forgiving is a many-travelled road, one which I have strolled down, run down, only to find myself back at the starting gate.  Despair will often make it even harder to take that same walk again, but do it I will, for each time brings me a little closer to the inner peace which already resides within me, but is elusive due to my thinking I have left it behind, when in truth I only allowed clouds of self-doubt to darken my view of the sky, the heaven within me.  I can’t get there from here, because I have always been here, I have never left except in my thinking that I did.

  • Gillybean

    Luckily for us we are not the type of people who can understand this type of behavior or have to live with the guilt of hurting a loved one.  We will always come out the bigger person.  I try and remind myself that every day…that I have no shame b/c all I did was love and do good things for the both of them…they on the otherhand, will never truly be happy b/c they are not capable of truly loving someone else unless it is beneficial to them.  He used me for 2 1/2 years for my NYC apartment, vacations, dinners out, etc… and stuck with me through the wedding planning and wedding itself because he “wanted a party”.  The only way I’m going to heal is to forgive (but not forget) and move forward. 

  • carol

    Thank you for sharing your story and your journey.

    I believe that forgiveness is the act of letting go of the expectation or wish about another… and allowing the other person the freedom to be whoever they are (in spite of our experience.)  It is the act of severing the tie with the experience and the pain in order to free our emotions from the past.

    Forgiveness and forgetting are two completely different constructs.  When we forget, we can succumb to the allure of repeating the past and lose the valuable lessons we need to protect us.  I love the saying “fool me once, shame on you” (if I’m fooled the first time it may be because I trusted you too much) “but fool me twice, shame on me” (I was willing to forgive AND forget). 

    The hard part is to recognize and NOT forget red flags when they arise in the future – we deserve good treatment from our present and future relationships — it simply is not that easy to find people who agree. 

    Great post!

  • http://www.rebuildyourlifecoach.com/ Harriet Cabelly

    What a beautifully well-written, well teased out portrayal of some difficult concepts.  Bravo to you for this piece but more importantly for recognizing and living an improved life course.

  • Sky_26

    Sarah

    my own throat tightened and I got a knot in my stomach just by reading what you have been through. You are so right that to forgive is not the same as to forget. I learned much by listening to dr. Jennings (christian psychologist) and strongly reccomend his lectures. They are free here:
    http://www.comeandreason.com/index.php/media-center/seminarslectures-menu/51-healing-the-mind 
    One of the lectures is called Forgiveness: Common Myths

    It helped me to sort out my thoughts and attitudes and emotional healing. I wish you all the best.

  • Palmtree_817

    Reading your article brought me to tears as I have been going through my own personal struggles with forgiving those who have hurt me in the past, as well as most recently a long time friend who happened to stir up my feelings of insecurity and unimportance this past weekend. I know it is not an easy road to forgive someone whom you feel has crossed you in some way, or made you feel victimized. That is a horrible place to be in. Thank God you were able to find a way to release some heavy burden on your shoulders by finding the elephant and releasing him into the water by allowing his memory to bring good feelings  and not negative ones. I love how you were able to see him in the light that neither you nor him were BAD people, just maybe ineffective towards each other. What a wonderful gift to receive that clarity and insight and to release yourself from those burdens of anguish and pain.
    Blessings to you for your story and its message.

  • Felicia

    It is easier to forgive someone you have love before or others; example your ex superior or ex-boss. They are capable of hurting you as much and tormented your life.

  • P

    Loved, this hit home for me. I too, was in a abusive relationship for a year. Never saw it coming but I lost myself, list my self worth and self love. My reason to smile every morning. Sorry after sorry I forgave him, never taking time to see how broken we both were. I selt with the slaps the pushes the elbows and the hurtful demoralizing words from him. One night he list it and tried to kill me, put his hands over my face do I couldn’t scream but also so I couldn’t breathe and that was the moment I realized I needed help. I needed to leave and I did and that was the hardest thing for me to do. People will never understand the strength it took to leave. I pray for all women and men who go through this to find themselves again and know they aren’t alone. I now have a greater appreciation for life and I took it as hard lessons learned. Thanks for sharing your beautiful story and I wish you the best!! <3 P

  • jake walls

    Breakup is one point in a relationship that you do not want to happen. However, this is often part of reality and cannot oftentimes be avoided. When this happened to me, an easy and smooth life does not come easily after this. With the feelings of sadness, guilt, anger, bitterness, and the like, my life automatically become miserable. Hence, you will do anything just to get yourself out of this kind of situation, until a friend told me about this temple called shamuspiritiualtemple@gmail.com. At this point, this temple helped me a lot and get my girlfriend back to me. It is important for you to know how to get over a breakup easily, just contact shamuspiritiualtemple@gmail.com I am Jake Walls

  • renpic

    I love what you wrote here, and I’m sorry for what you have gone through. You are so brave for having gone through this and come to a place of forgiveness.

    I can relate to the part about insecurities and flaws becoming more exaggerated when together. Although it never escalated to an abusive situation, with my last partner I felt like that too. It caused hurt and confusion since we absolutely cared so deeply for each other at the same time, or at least at some time.

    Right now (shortly after a breakup and me freaking out on him a few times) I am struggling to let go of some of my anger and forgive. I want nothing more than to think of him (and him of me) as the beautiful, loving person that I saw as we fell in love. What we had was great..how could it go so wrong?

    I blame myself alot. I can’t help it …so part of forgiveness is just truly believing that I (we) did our best under the circumstances.

  • Linda

    I can’t forgive. I’ve been trying for almost five years now. I am still too mad. I need to hear that it wasn’t my fault. I need to hear an apology. But that will never come. In the mean time I keep reading these kind of stories and take babysteps towards foregiveness. Because I understand that holding on makes me a prisoner of the past. It changes who I am, how I see the world. I need to let go to become who I’m supposed to be.

  • Linda

    I guess I need to forgive myself first. Because I blame myself for LETTING this happen.

    You only accept what you believe you deserve (positive and negative). It all comes back to selfesteem

  • Alexandria

    With me it was 6 months of marriage after 4 years of romantic love … I left him cuz of his daughter … She was _ … She didn’t like me and she was joules … I still remember him … Cannot forgive everything . He let me down when he gave hi daughter the chance to destroy our life … He changed with me cuz of her. he is sad and lonley now … I wish to forget and forgive :-(

  • G

    It’s not right to disclose the information about incident with him, some people would know who the ex husband is.

  • Columba Lisa Smith

    What a beautiful, reflective post. Forgiveness really does set us free. It is worth the struggle to release our right to hold onto bitterness. I wrote about forgiveness a while back. It’s ongoing, especially when you have kids with your ex. Here’s the link to my post: http://www.susannasapron.com/2011/04/forgiveness_17.html

    Blessings!

    Lisa

  • dont be a doormat

    / apologist for abusive an a**h***/..protecting the abuser–laaaame. An abusice jerk who ms. Fertig WAS a sociopath or he wouldnt have throttled ur neck. Forgiveness is for ppl who express regret- i didnt read about that happening…

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