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How to Forgive Someone, According to 3 Leading Forgiveness Experts

This is what forgiveness truly looks like in a relationship.

To err is human, to forgive divine. But forgiveness is hard, especially within the context of a marriage or relationship. So, how do you truly forgive someone? When someone messes up and breaks your trust or shifts your sense of things, it’s normal to feel the entire gamut of emotions. The problem is, if you don’t address those emotions and learn how to forgive someone — to truly say, yes, I understand that you made a mistake, I accept your apology, and recognize that we can continue moving forward —  your relationship will soon bear the consequences of your partner’s behavior and your own resentment. 

Forgiving others is, without a doubt, humbling. You have to consciously decide to be the bigger person to work through an offense. (Add an extra dose of humility when the offender is someone you’re supposed to trust.) That step is necessary and hard, but what happens after you make a decision to show mercy? How do you truly forgive someone? More so, how do you let that person know you’ve truly forgiven them and move forward in a healthier and, hopefully, happier way? 

Just as there’s no one way to offend, there’s no one way to forgive. The important thing is that you work through your issues to improve your relationship. Here’s advice on how to forgive someone, and what forgiveness in a relationship truly looks according to Fred Luskin, Ph.D. the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, Robert Enright, PhD, a forgiveness expert and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Loren Toussaint, PhD, associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project.

How to Forgive Someone: The Buddhist Way

Fred Luskin, Ph.D. is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project and a senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University. He sees forgiveness as making peace with the parts of life that didn’t go the way you hoped –– and that’s precisely why it’s so hard. “That core conundrum of not being able to get what you want and feeling powerless is at the heart of why forgiveness is a challenge,” he says. 

In order to learn how to forgive, Luskin believes people need to change their way of thinking. His theory is rooted in transcendence, a Buddhist philosophy that encourages people to rise above offenses. Here, per Luskin, is what the path towards forgiveness in a relationship looks like.

  1. Take ownership. Before you can forgive someone, you have to understand you chose to be committed to them. “When you sign up with someone, you sign up for the good and the bad,” he says. Even though your spouse may have wronged you, you aren’t powerless: You made an active decision to be with them.
    If you did, perhaps, make a bad decision getting together with your partner, it’s important to remember that was your choice. “If you did bad math or you were drunk or your partner was really cute and you wanted to have sex, all of those are really legitimate reasons to make a decision,” he says. “But your wrong decision isn’t your partner’s fault.”
  2. Be realistic. Sure, you could go out and find a new partner –– one that would remember your birthday or initiate sex more often. But we tend to idealize possibilities when we’re offended. The best way to overcome that, he says, is to remember every potential partner is fully flawed–– and not only that, but so is your capacity to evaluate their behavior and character.
    “You can’t see your partner’s flaws clearly because you’re flawed,” he says. “And if you can’t live with them, you can go find someone else. But you’re always going to be dealing with something.”
  3. Find the good. Sure, your partner messes up from time to time, and so do you. But you both have your fair share of positive qualities, too. Noticing these traits, Luskin says, is crucial to forgiveness. If you don’t actively try to find the good, you’ll fixate on negativity –– and your relationship won’t stand a chance.
  4. Expect disappointment. Luskin’s suggestions aren’t to suggest your partner can get away with anything. Toxic behavior, whether cheating or abuse, can be grounds for separation. The point is, you have a choice. You can stay and make it work, or you can leave. In either choice, expect disappointment and hurt are just part of life. 

How to Forgive Someone: The Classical Way

Robert Enright, PhD, is a forgiveness expert and professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He sees forgiveness as a moral virtue. Rather than simply reframing your thinking, Enright encourages people to look at the question of how to forgive as a way to do good to others and themselves. Rather than giving someone what they deserve, you recognize they are a fellow human that deserves love and goodness.

That, of course, doesn’t mean letting the other person off the hook. “One thing Aristotle taught me is never to practice moral virtues in isolation,” Enright says. “Forgiveness alone can cause the other person to take advantage of you. If you’re concerned about the goodness of your spouse, for example, you can help them grow.”

The question of how to forgive still remains difficult. But there is a path. Here, per Enright, are the steps to forgiveness in a relationship.

  1. Reflect on the offenses. Whether you talk to a therapist or friend or carve out time to journal, consider the effects of your partner’s behavior. Own your pain and recognize how it’s impacting your life, whether anxiety, anger, or distance from your spouse. 
  2. Make a decision. If the effects of your partner’s actions are negatively impacting your life, consider how forgiveness could help you. Could offering goodness to your spouse result in better outcomes for you both? 
  3. Think about the “why.” Find compassion for your partner by thinking about the “why” behind their harmful actions. Did they experience a childhood wound that caused them to act out? Were they especially stressed when they messed up? Recognizing your common humanity could soften you toward forgiveness.
  4. Act on your compassion. Now that you see your partner for who they are, consider how you can be a conduit of good in this difficult situation. Think about a practical way you can show mercy to your offender, whether a simple smile or an understanding conversation. Once you’re on the same page, you can share how their actions affected you and offer suggestions for moving forward in a healthier way. 
  5. Commit to mutual forgiveness. Now that you worked through forgiving your partner by reflecting on your shared humanity, keep the ball rolling. Make an effort to share your past hurts and struggles with your partner, and vice versa, so you can more easily show them mercy and goodness in times of frustration. “When you both see things happening today were actually put in motion when you were younger, it can totally change the dynamic of the relationship,” Enright says.

How to Forgive Someone: The Pragmatic Way 

Loren Toussaint, PhD, is a professor of psychology at Luther College and associate director of the Sierra Leone Forgiveness Project. He sees forgiveness as an important way to maintain a relationship. If another driver cuts you off on the road, you might just take a deep breath and brush off the offense. But deciding not to hate someone isn’t good enough in a romantic relationship. “It’s not just about getting rid of the nastiness you feel, but replacing it to build back the good stuff that was originally there, the reason you were in the relationship to begin with,” he says.

Here are Toussaint’s steps for forgiveness in a relationship.

  1. Decide to forgive. Before you forgive, you have to decide if it’s something you want. If you’ve been repeatedly hurt or subject to a major offense, the answer may be no. But if the relationship is valuable to you, and you want your partner to stay in your life, then forgiveness could be a productive option. “You always have the option to retaliate to level the playing field, but in a close relationship, that doesn’t build anything,” says Toussaint.
  2. Be empathetic. This is the hard part. If you make a conscious choice to forgive your spouse for something hurtful, then you have to understand where they are coming from. Try to think about why your partner might have acted the way they did.
    Take the COVID-19 vaccine as an example. If you get jabbed and your spouse won’t get one, you might feel personally offended by their choice. “But if you can’t even consider the person’s perspective, there’s no way you’ll be able to forgive,” says Toussaint. “You don’t have to agree with the perspective, but be open to seeing how someone could think that way. That could open the door to forgiveness.”
  3. Be humble. If you feel you’ve been harmed in some way, you could nurse a grudge. But Toussaint says it’s important to remember the day will come when the tables turn when you mess up and need forgiveness. “You can’t just hold those expectations for your spouse and expect them to do that for you,” he says. “Forgiveness is a gift you give out of love, and you will also need it in the future.”
  4. Make it a routine. Once you work through this issue, make forgiveness a habit. Start by accepting that any relationship will involve hurt, and as a result, you and your partner will both need to forgive. And keep in mind, it’s never too late to work through old hurts. 

“Forgiveness might have to be ongoing in a marriage or take place ten years later after a marriage has been broken,” Toussaint says. “No matter where or when you find yourself in need of it, it’s a productive response to being hurt.”