“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” ~Paul Boese
In a previous post about forgiveness, I mentioned that I spent years holding onto anger toward someone who hurt me repeatedly years ago.
I eventually realized that forgiving this person was the only way to set myself free. The resentment, bitterness, and sometimes pure rage were slowly killing me. They manifested in emotional and physical illness, constricting my life so that I was little more than the sum of my grievances and pains.
At many points I strongly believed my emotions would consume me, bit by bit, until I was nothing but the memory of my overwhelming, righteous fury.
It’s taken me years to forgive and do my part to transform this relationship because I decided that it was worth saving, but it hasn’t always been easy.
There have been times when I’ve gotten caught up in painful memories instead of being present in the relationship as it is today. Other times I’ve thought I've recognized behaviors reminiscent of the past, and struggled to set clear boundaries for myself.
Sometimes the answer is, plainly and simply, that it’s time to walk away, even if it's a relationship with a family member. But if you choose not to for whatever reason, if you feel that this is worth fighting for, these ideas may help you stay—and stay happy—in this relationship as it is:
1. Realize that you can't make people change.
Years ago a therapist told me that you can’t make people change—if they aren't open to that, you can only change how you respond and relate to them. Knowing this, you may decide that you’re not able to maintain this relationship. You need to be honest with yourself here: is it really healthy to stay in this situation?
In my case, I created space to heal and then rebuilt a new, healthier relationship after the dynamics had transformed. Though I knew this relationship could enhance both of our lives, I also knew I needed to be mindful of my expectations, as there are certain things it may never be or provide.
2. Determine what you need.
You may feel that you can only forgive if this person fully acknowledges everything that hurt you and then takes responsibility for all of it. You may need to go to therapy, either alone or with this person. Or it may be sufficient for you to recognize remorse in actions and then work, on your own, to release your feelings.
This will be different for everyone, and that’s okay. You are allowed to need whatever you need—but it’s crucial that you identify it. If you know you can’t move on until you receive a thorough confession and apology, but that just isn’t happening, you will set yourself up for pain and unhappiness.
3. After your needs are met, do the work to forgive.
There’s an insightful quote that reads: “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past.” That’s what it means to really forgive: accept that what happened happened, choose to find at least some iota of understanding for the other person’s actions, and then decide it’s in your best interest to let it go and move on.
As with most emotions and choices, forgiving is something we may need to do repeatedly. It’s not a one-time decision. What’s important is that you want to forgive—that you’re willing to have compassion for that person and see them with fresh eyes, even if it isn’t always easy.
If you don’t feel like you can do that, for whatever reason, you may need to take time and then reassess at a later date. It’s far better to take space and then reconnect when you’re ready to forgive than it is to preserve a relationship that just gets more strained and hostile with each passing day.
4. Assess your boundaries.
It’s a lot easier to forgive someone for a mistake or series of mistakes if you set clear boundaries for the relationship going forward.
You need to ask yourself if something needs to change in order for you to feel safe and happy in the relationship as it is. Do you need to spend less time together? Do you need to be clear that certain topics are not open for discussion? Do you need to assert yourself when the other person starts talking to you in a certain way?
If you suspect that someone may physically harm you, I strongly suggest you consult a professional who is trained to assist with domestic violence cases. This is a far different situation, as one slip-up could cost your life.
5. Practice mindfulness.
This is the most difficult part for me: every so often when I’m interacting with this person, memories from years ago resurface—memories I’ve released many times before. Generally, the present moment looks nothing like the past, but a word or a look can sometimes remind me how angry I felt back then.
I suspect this may be inevitable in situations like this. Over time the memories become far less frequent, but they always have the potential to pop back up because we are only human. Still, we are far more than the sum of our emotions and reactions.
We don’t need to let ourselves get swept away in anger, disappointment, or anything else that hurts. This doesn’t mean we won’t feel these things. In fact, it’s a good thing that we do. If we didn’t feel our pains, we likely wouldn’t feel our joys.
It means we can identify our emotions, sit with them, and then choose to challenge the thoughts that might exacerbate them.
The alternative is to rehash the past in your head—going through everything you wish didn’t happen, how you feel about the fact that it did, what you wish you did or said then, and how much you hope nothing similar ever happens again. It’s a lot easier to be present when you breathe through your feelings than it is when you obsess about them.
6. Open up to joy!
If you’ve chosen to maintain this relationship, you must feel that there’s something in it for (both of) you, or else you wouldn’t do it. Take the time to enjoy each other, living mindfully in the present, within the new boundaries you’ve set.
If you spend the majority of your time rehashing old stories or making this person repeatedly earn your forgiveness, this relationship won’t have a life in the present—it will just be a shadow of the past. And what’s the point of holding onto that? It would be far kinder to just set this person free than to stay connected by a pain you refuse to release.
Relationships aren’t easy. People make mistakes, but even the deepest wounds can heal and the most strained relationships can transform. We just need to learn to recognize when it’s healthy to hold on and when it’s wiser to let go.
Only you know what's right for you in this moment, and only you can find the courage to honor it.
Photo by h.koppdelaney