"Forgive and forget." What weight does this everyday phrase hold?
What do forgiveness and forgetting really mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the number one definition for forgiveness is to “stop feeling angry or resentful towards (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake." And to forget is to: “fail to remember."
But these aren't static, objective words. They are words that require action, and they are subjective to the beholder. In my eyes, I was moved by the idea that forgiving includes the action of recognizing and accepting certain emotions; therefore, this suggests a direct correlation to being able to “forget." To play devil's advocate, when not connected to a memory or person, emotions, over time, will fade — possibly giving the illusion of forgiveness, without direct or conscious intention.
In my case, finding and understanding the correlation became extremely subjective to the end of a relationship I was analyzing. In my 24 years, I've never felt the need to hold a grudge. I always forgave, and forgetting came naturally. I was struggling to understand why in the present, I was unable to forgive or forget my most recent breakup.
To better comprehend it, I spoke with four relationship experts on their experiences with the forgiving and forgetting dilemma and discovered three common themes — acceptance, rumination, and boundaries. Along with grasping the correlation of forgiving and forgetting, I understood why I hadn't been able to accept either word this time around and in this, I found acceptance, which helped me let go of lingering resentment and enabled me to set new boundaries for future relationships.
“Forgetting the past can seem helpful in the process of healing, but can also be harmful to your future," warns LMSW, sex and relationships therapist Carli Blau. Ideally, if you want to grow after a failed relationship, you're going to need to address what caused the breakup, as well as the emotions surrounding it — no matter how painful it is. This is your first forward movement in the stage of acceptance, and a period that LMHC, relationship counselor and dating coach, Samantha Burns recognizes as self-forgiveness.
"Acceptance means you have forgiven yourself for losing your sense of self in the relationship, for not liking or loving yourself, for losing your values, for compromising too much, for being overly naïve or trusting, for ignoring your inner voice or suspicions, for your role in the relationship dissatisfaction, for tolerating excuses, for blaming yourself, and for feeling as though you're not enough."
Thus, there are two parts to acceptance: coming to terms with the situation, and coming to terms with your feelings around the situation. “In forgiving someone else, it actually has nothing to do with someone else and their actions, but we're essentially giving ourselves permission to stop feeling negative emotions within ourselves as a result of the situation," explains Blau.
Love and relationship coach Sarika Jain shares her personal experience of realizing this form of acceptance, saying, "On a spiritual level, I had to 'learn my lesson' and release the psychic cord I had with this man — and other past lovers (whom I thought I had 'forgotten') – to magnetize the partnership I truly deserved. Coming to this acceptance was a huge part of forgiveness and letting go."
Essentially, acceptance is your personal form of forgiveness. If you can't offer self-forgiveness, then you won't be able to offer forgiveness to others, which will result in resentment and hinder your ability to move forward.
Rumination & Resentment
“Resentments keep memories alive," explains licensed psychologist Dr. Lauren Hazzouri. This enlightening theory supports the emotional correlation between forgiving and forgetting as when one is trying to forgive — yet can't forget the feelings of love that were once there, and now anger or hurt has replaced that love — “The rumination that comes with resentment keeps reinforcing the memory from the past in present-day," says Dr. Hazzouri. “The rumination makes it hard to forget." Samantha Burns further expands on why forgetting love is so difficult, stating: “Being in love activates the same brain regions as those used in drug and alcohol addiction. So when you break up with someone, it's as though your brain and body are going through withdrawal."
For anyone who's experienced a breakup, they have probably experienced a “relapse," where behavior like texting, calling or sleeping with your ex only draws out the addiction. Burns connects this “relapse" period to the rumination that Dr. Hazzouri depicts as the culprit that makes actively forgetting a seemingly impossible task. "During this process, your ex is constantly on your mind, where it feels like every minute or hour, you're ruminating and obsessing about the relationship and why it didn't work out. This certainly makes it challenging to forget."
So, how can one simply avoid ruminating or stewing in anger? Through the aforementioned acceptance that forgiveness allows. Since resentment is a paralyzing emotion, it is through harboring this emotion that will hinder forgetting — thus we must forgive first. Sarika Jain quotes Ken Wilber's, The Theory Behind Forgiveness, stating, "The primal emotion of the ego, according to this teaching is fear followed by resentment. As the Upanishads put it, 'Wherever there is other, there is fear.' In other words, whenever we split seamless awareness into a subject versus an object, into a self versus an other, then that self feels fear, simply because there are now so many 'others' out there that can harm it. Out of this fear grows resentment."
Jain efficiently concludes, “The reality is, unless we don't learn what we need to from any breakup, we begin to grow a layer of resentment, fear, regret, anger in our hearts — energetically known as the 'heart wall'."
In order to break a cycle similar to inward acceptance, you need to set physical and emotional boundaries — in order for them not to be crossed in the future. Maybe the relationship got to a point where you disliked yourself, maybe you gave into compromising, maybe you knew in your heart it wasn't going to work but let it continue because the love was too good in the moment.
Dr. Hazzouri explains the situation, saying, "Healthy people attach to healthy others and when they mistake a sickie for a wellie, they set boundaries and move on. Others of us with unhealthy attachment, dismiss red flags, hang on, hold on, and mistake others' abusive behaviors as a sign of our own worth or value." Regardless of the trigger, you need to set boundaries so when these red flags or deal breakers appear in the relationship, you know how to address it before letting it get any further.
"Setting boundaries is a part of the forgiveness process. As a part of forgiving in a healthy way, you can't forget the boundaries that were crossed. If we forget the fact that a boundary was crossed, then we're removing our responsibility to uphold our boundaries for ourselves," says Blau. As a part of setting emotional boundaries for the future, physical boundaries can be set up for the present — while you're on the path of forgiveness. Samantha Burns explains, "You can begin the healing process and dwell less on your ex when you set up healthy boundaries by creating an ex-free environment and removing triggers (people, places or things) from your surroundings." It may seem extreme, but in order for some people to heal, this may be required.
Dr. Hazzouri reinforces that “Taking responsibility is responding, not reacting, to people and situations. Responding is setting appropriate boundaries, inviting in healthy others, and walking away when the other person is a distraction from all that we are."
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Help! I'm Dating a Jerk!
Dear Armchair Psychologist,
I've been dating my boyfriend for a year. After spending some vacation time with him and realizing he is not treating me the way I like I'm wondering — what do I do? I need him to be kinder and softer to me but he says simply, "chivalry is not his thing." I believe when two people decide to be together they need to adjust to each other. I don't think or feel my boyfriend is adjusting to what's important to me. Should I try to explain to him what's important to me, accept him for what he is, or leave him as I'm just not happy and the little gestures are important to me?
- Loveless Woman
Dear Loveless Woman,I am saddened you aren't getting your needs met in your relationship. Intimacy and affection are important to sustain a healthy relationship. It's troubling that even though you have expressed your needs to your boyfriend that it's fallen on deaf ears. You need to explore, with a therapist, why you have sought out this type of relationship and why you have stayed in it, even when it's making you chronically unhappy? Your belief that couples should adjust to each other is correct to some degree. These things often include compromising and bending on things like who gets the bigger closet or where to go for dinner. However, it's a tall order to ask someone to change their personality and if your boyfriend is indeed a jerk, like you say, who refuses to acknowledge your love language or express kindness and softness, then maybe you should find a partner who will embrace you while being chivalrous.
- The Armchair Psychologist
Hi Armchair Psychologist,
Just wanted to let you know that your article was really offensive to read. Do you refer to women's genitals as: "gross," "ghasty," "smelly," or otherwise? Humans are not perfect, each of us is different and you should emphasize this. I hope that man finds a partner that will love and accept him rather than tearing him down. Which gender has a whole aisle devoted to their "special" hygiene needs? I can tell you it's not men.
Dear Male Reader,Thank you for your thoughtful feedback to my Armchair Psychologist column. My email response bounced so am writing you here. I am so sorry I offended you. It wasn't my intention. I actually meant to be sardonic and make the writer see how ridiculous she sounded for the harsh language she used to describe her date. I obviously failed at this sneer since you think I meant to be offensive. Many apologies. I'll do better. Have a wonderful day and keep writing us with your thoughts.
- Ubah, The Armchair Psychologist