Forgiving, Forgetting, and Letting Go: The Power of Forgiveness

You may have heard someone say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget.” But have you ever stopped to consider what they’re actually saying? And if you’ve ever said the same thing, are you able to get in touch with your full meaning?

Sometimes people think that forgiving means having your memory wiped clean of the offense that you suffered. And perhaps the person who committed the offense would like nothing more than to backspace over what they’ve done, in your mind if not in reality. Who wouldn’t like to get their hands on the little Men in Black device that—with a click and a flash—could handily erase the event from memory?

Barring that nifty gadget, we all have to deal with instances where we’ve been the wounded one and where we’ve been the one who has done the wounding, with our memories intact. The seesaw of life dictates that at times we’ll be the person considering whether or not to forgive, and at other times, we’ll be the one asking for forgiveness.

Learning how to forgive your spouse or partner is one the most important ingredients in a successful relationship. And since to err is human, you will have plenty of opportunities to apply forgiveness in a marriage or long-term relationship, and the same holds true for your partner. Relationships—like the people that comprise them—are dynamic, evolving things. This means change, movement, growth—none of which can happen without mistakes.

Enter forgiveness…

Today we’re going to be talking about one aspect of forgiveness in particular, though it’s referred to in different ways: the idea of forgetting or letting go of hurt (or perhaps letting go of anger is more apropos in your situation) or releasing anger (or hurt).

Note: Before we go any further, it’s imperative to remember that forgiving never means denying your true feelings about an event. Denial will only lead to difficulty down the road, since what is denied will return at another time…often with more momentum.

The power of forgiveness in Marriage & Intimate Relationships

What most people don’t realize is that the person who benefits most from forgiveness is the one doing the forgiving, not the “offender” upon whom the forgiveness is bestowed. Holding onto grudges, no matter how natural or justified it may seem, is actual a highly destructive habit, one that takes a cumulative toll on the grudge-holder. And since the strongest relationships are those where the individuals value we over me, being your best, happiest, most peaceful self benefits both of you.

A wife says she will forgive but not forget…is she really forgiving?

“I’ll forgive you,” Crystal said to her husband Luke, “but I’ll never forget what you did.” She set her jaw and refused take Luke’s hand when he offered it.

Luke sighed and gave me an imploring look, upturning his palms in a defeated gesture. “See what I mean, Doc? Whenever I ask for forgiveness, she says she already forgave me, but then she says she won’t forget. It’s been awhile now and it doesn’t change. I’m worried that we’ll never be the same.”

Married for four years, Crystal and Luke are in their early thirties. Luke is an ER nurse and Crystal is a first-grade teacher. It’s a second marriage for Crystal, a first marriage for Luke. They don’t have children but plan to start a family in the near future (though Luke expressed concern about what their future would look like with this new obstacle in the way).

They had been seriously struggling for six months, ever since Luke came to Crystal and admitted he’d done something he was ashamed of, and that he’d almost done something even worse. His high school sweetheart recently found him on Facebook and they began a month-long private Facebook “conversation.” At first it was friendly and benign, the two of them sharing news about friends in common. However, Luke made it a point not to tell Crystal…“and that was my first mistake,” he said. “Crystal and I don’t keep secrets from each other, and yet, there I was, keeping one, even though at that point, I hadn’t done anything wrong. All the messages were innocent and platonic.”

However, the tone of the messages changed from friendly to flirtatious. The two of them even set up a time to speak on the phone when the woman’s husband was away on business. (“And I was going to tell Crystal I had to stay late at work,” Luke admitted.)

“What stopped me from going through with it,” Luke recalled, “what stopped me from making that call, was a split-second moment where I imagined what I’d feel like if Crystal had been planning something like this with an old boyfriend or her ex-husband. It struck me then how much of a betrayal it was to Crystal, and also I suspected that talking on the phone would probably lead to more. To worse. My marriage is the most important thing to me. I didn’t want to damage it, even in the moments when it felt good to know someone saw me as worthy of flirting with.”

So Luke messaged his old flame that he was sorry, but he couldn’t talk to her. “And then he un-friended her,” Crystal said proudly and with a little smile. Luke came to Crystal and told her everything, fully expecting her to be angry. “But I thought we’d get beyond it at some point,” he said. “I thought she’d forgive me.”

“I told you,” Crystal said, “I do forgive you. But I will never—”

“Forget,” Luke filled in with a sigh. “That sure doesn’t feel like forgiveness. I don’t want to be marked by this forever, Crys.”

Sometimes, the past is over in reality, but isn’t over in our minds

After several sessions, and after an individual session with Crystal at her request, it felt like we were getting closer to the core of the issue.

Yes, Luke had betrayed and wounded her. And yes, she needed to feel the whole gamut of emotions that came with that betrayal.

“My first husband cheated on me,” she told me. “With a neighbor. A woman whose kids I’d babysat on occasion, a woman I’d had over for barbeques!” Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled it. Even though it happened eight years ago, it still had the power to hurt her. “And that happened because I let my guard down. I trusted Micah. I forgot he was a man first, a man with animal impulses, a husband second.”

“Have you shared this with Luke?” I asked.

Her eyes widened. “Oh, God, no—I would never.”

“Why do you think that is?”

She pondered the question for awhile. “Maybe I’m embarrassed, maybe I think it reflects on me somehow.”

We discussed the impact those thoughts were having (and how common they are in people who have suffered that type of betrayal) and how Micah’s decision to cheat was his own and therefore not something Crystal should take responsibility for.

Later, I asked Crystal, “Do you think Luke is lying about the degree of his involvement with his old girlfriend? Do you think he not only contemplated an affair, but that he has had an affair?”

She shook her head. “No, I believe him. He’s nothing like Micah. He showed me the Facebook messages. He wanted to come clean. But if I let my guard down again, if I let myself forget…he might cross over to becoming a cheater.”

Is there a genuine willingness and readiness to forgive?

“Do you want to forgive Luke?” I asked Crystal. “Truly forgive?”

She looked sheepish. “I suppose I’m only saying I’m forgiving, not really forgiving. But to answer your question, yes, I do want to forgive him.”

“Then maybe we have to start with you considering whether or not you can forgive Micah.”

Crystal’s mouth dropped open at that point, and at the same time it looked like a light had gone on in her head. “Wow,” she said finally. “Wow.”

Obviously, despite the fact that Crystal believed her approach was emotionally protecting her, it was opening her up to more hurt, even in the context of a completely different relationship with an admittedly different individual. “Never forgetting” in her case actually equated to her defending against—and thereby, ironically, holding on to—the hurt she had suffered in her first marriage. To experience the power of forgiveness, she first needed to decide that letting go of hurt (old and new) was preferable to holding on to it.

Withholding forgiveness hurts you most of all

Let’s face it: we only have so much energy—emotional or physical—and allocating a big chunk of it to holding a grudge (even when it is a perfectly justified grudge, and even when a hundred people would urge us to hold it), drains us far more than the person to whom the grudge is dedicated (they might be blissfully unaware of our resentment, after all!). When you can see it that way, you can come to realize that your finite store of energy is much better spent on you…your present and your future.

And just to reiterate: Releasing anger or hurt does not mean forgiving before you feel ready, nor does it mean denying the event or obliterating your memory so that you don’t have the means to protect yourself in similar situations that arise in the future.

You can peacefully acknowledge what happened and then make the decision to let go of your identification with it. You can choose to stop defining yourself by the wounding event and instead choose to define yourself by how you move past it.

Although forgiveness represents harmony between two (or more) people, it will always be, first and foremost, a gift you give yourself.

Are you ready to make forgiveness a regular part of your relationship?

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured images  “Forgiveness note” and “Punish forgive computer” by Stuart Miles/

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