Why You Should Forgive, but not Necessarily Forget

If you’re like me, you’ve heard many times the poetic and alliterative phrase, “forgive and forget” or perhaps something similar like just let go, or move on. 

This, however, is not at all what we want to do in our intimate relationships. Forgive, YES!  Forget… not necessarily.  

Research shows us the innumerable benefits of forgiveness, especially in our marriages. When you forgive your spouse, you not only have longer, more satisfying marriages, but you also have higher self-esteem, better immune system function, fewer episodes of depression, and lower blood pressure and rates of heart disease. AND you are more likely to be happy, serene, empathetic, hopeful, and agreeable! 

Forgiveness, like love, is a conscious choice to love bravely and vulnerably, knowing that withholding it can make you feel safe— as if you’re behind a shield— but in the long run leads to simmering resentment in your relationships. Forgiveness is an active decision you make to cancel someone’s debt, and when you choose to forgive, you choose grace instead of bondage, moving from victim to survivor.  Or as Lewis Smedes poignantly stated: 

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and to

 discover that the prisoner was you. 

Forgiveness, then, is crucial to intimacy, but forgetting is sometimes foolish (and often not possible).   

Let me start with a more significant violation – infidelity –  to make my point.  I have worked with numerous couples where infidelity unexpectedly became part of their love story, and amidst the grief, anger, and lament, we talk about how to safeguard their relationship.  In other words, the couple discusses specific rules of engagement for moving forward (talking about things like staying with trusted friends instead of a hotel on a business trip, sharing passwords on all devices, reducing alcohol intake, etc.). It’s important to note that choosing to forgive your partner does not mean the offense was inconsequential nor does it instantaneously excuse your partner’s behavior.

Whether it’s infidelity or a more mundane, daily annoyance (e.g., time spent together as opposed to working, spending habits, or division of labor), boundaries are crucial (e.g., we agreed we’d eat at least three meals together as a family each week).

Boundaries are put in place to both set and manage expectations; they must be mutually understood and agreed upon wholeheartedly. If I forgive you and we manage the boundary well, what results is acceptance. I can accept you and the situation (as it was) because I am managing my boundaries in a way that allows me to connect with you and protect myself.  If I forgive you but do not effectively manage the boundary between us (or you don’t effectively manage it as we move forward), I am likely going to feel violated again, which will breed feelings of resentment in me. 

My point is this: Forgiveness and boundaries dance together.  If you’ve been hurt by your partner’s behavior, you need to think about what type of boundary you need moving forward and then you both need to mutually agree upon that boundary. Then comes the fun part: learning and growing together in your dance of intimacy! 

So instead of forgive and forget, try forgive, place a boundary, and then learn together – or, as I like to think of it, FBL!

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Diving Deeper: Think through a time when you needed to forgive a loved one. Answer the questions below and then discuss with your partner. 

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