We’ve previously touched on why saying sorry can be one of the hardest things to offer another person. However, there is another side to an apology that we haven’t explored; forgiveness. What does it take to truly forgive someone and can forgiving be more complicated than giving an apology?
When Hayleigh’s husband stood at their front door with his bags packed after admitting he had slept with someone else, it was like the depths of hell had erupted from the floor and engulfed her with anger and venom.
“ I couldn’t stand the sight of him. Looking back, I don’t think it was because I hated him, even though I told him I did. It was because he was a reminder of all the hurt inside of me. He had access to all my vulnerabilities, and now he wasn’t on my side. They were my weaknesses. I felt I had to show I wasn’t weak by, well, just being mean”.
Hayleigh’s story is no different from many other couples whose differences, mistakes, or wrongdoings end up breaking apart their relationship. In the UK, it’s widely assumed, stereotypically, that men are the cheaters in relationships. However, recent evidence suggests there isn’t a tremendous difference between the sexes and infidelity is the leading cause of divorce. With adultery being such a frequent cause to the ending of relationships, why does it top the charts of being one of the hardest things to forgive?
Forgiveness can manifest in an emotional and physical sense
At the core of forgiving someone is the letting go of negative emotions associated with the person or their actions. Negative emotions like anger, resentment or even fear. Physical forgiveness can manifest in a way that you resume a degree of physical contact you had with the person previously.
Physical contact may adapt after forgiveness. It is natural relationships change and that some sort of physical contact generally resumes. This can mean social contact with the person, or in terms of a coupled relationship, intimate physical contact.
“I never thought I would be able to forgive him” explains Hayleigh, months later. Over time, our brains have changed and evolved to help us to survive. Many people assume this is to match our physical environments. We now walk on two limbs to be faster and have opposable thumbs that make both holding on to things and texting at the same time a dream.
But, our psychology has also developed, albeit at a slower rate. Our minds selfishly hold themselves (you) to a higher level than anyone else – going to great lengths to protect itself. Take, for instance, people who have experienced unimaginable trauma. If the mind does not feel you are able to process this trauma, it can virtually blank it out or relay it to conscious thought in a way that you can accept and, it may not be true to the experience.
This is why over time we’ve responded to someone hurting us with feelings of intense negativity, retaliation and hate. Not necessarily because that person is the worst in the world, but because your mind doesn’t want you to feel hurt or exploited again.
To start forgiving someone, you need to begin with overcoming the internal bodyguard (the mind) by unpacking those negative emotions you hold toward the person who wronged you. This is a lot easier than it sounds. Hate is more potent than love because it can ignite such intense physical sensations along with it. Have you ever been in an argument and felt your heart thumping and your hand shaking because you felt so emotional?
“I remember I was with one of my closest friends a few months after we had broken up. I can’t remember what we were talking about, but he came up in conversation. I started on a verbal rampage… essentially a character assassination… she stood there and just listened and then said, ‘Hales, he messed up and made a mistake, he’s not a monster’.
I was livid! I took that as her being on his side, how silly that sounds now, but at the time that’s exactly how it felt. I remember snapping back with something along the lines of her not knowing how it feels and then stormed out. It felt like my heart was coming out of my chest and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Who knows what people must’ve thought seeing this angry lady storming up the road muttering to herself”.
Steps towards forgiveness and letting go
Unpack your thoughts and feelings
Starting to unpack your thoughts and feelings around something so emotive can take time. It’s not going to happen overnight. For forgiveness to be authentic, you need to let yourself feel the raw emotion caused by the act, allow yourself the time to process what has happened and how that person has made you feel.
Ask yourself this important question
Following this, ask yourself what benefit does holding on to all this negativity bring for you? Holding a grudge or harbouring negative emotions towards someone neither changes what has happened or makes them more or less sorry for their actions. In fact, the only person it has an impact on is you, because holding onto negative emotions is more likely to affect your own health and wellbeing rather than theirs.
“A few days after I stormed out of my friend’s house, I started to think back to what she said. I began to realise that it was now my behaviour that was impacting my relationship with my friends and family, and I was just using my ex’s actions as a reason to behave this way. I would always be in some bad mood and had started being that person who never had anything nice to say. This anger I had towards him was starting to seep into my personality.”
Telling someone you forgive them
Telling someone you forgive them can be a challenging conversation. It goes against ancient psychology, trying to keep us safe from further exploitation and pain. But, once you have decided that holding on to the negativity is not worth the impact it has on you; forgiveness can be positive and emotionally freeing.
Have clear expectations after forgiving someone
It’s essential to have clear expectations after forgiving someone. Just because you’ve forgiven them doesn’t mean you have to leave yourself open to being hurt again. Boundaries and frank conversations can be powerful in letting those emotional wounds begin to heal.
“I sent him a text one day after deciding I no longer wanted all this pain and anger. I asked him to meet me to talk. I was so nervous part of me thought I’d just cry the whole time and the other part of me was telling me to throw my wine in his face like something from the movies. I surprised myself when he walked in I smiled.
Suddenly, I remembered what my friend had said months before ‘he’s not a monster’, I had just built him up to be one in my mind. I won’t lie, the conversation we had was the hardest thing I’ve had to do, but I laid it all out. I told him about the pain he’d caused me, that his actions were irreparable to our relationship and that hurt even more. Everything that I had held in since the day he walked out our front door came out. And for him too.
He was able to be brutally honest about how he was feeling in our relationship leading up to him cheating. There were tears, some raised voices, but it ended with a truce. We left all our hurtful emotions on the table that night. I would be lying if I said there aren’t times it still hurts… maybe stings is a better word for it now. But I forgive him and can move on with my life. At least I can look back on our relationship and see the happier times we had rather than one mistake.”