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Forgive and forget: Is there room for forgiveness in the breakdown of a relationship?

Forgiveness is an emotive subject. For some, just hearing the word or seeing it written down can elicit strong emotions, often negative, and for many the idea of ‘forgiving and forgetting’ seems a step too far.

A relationship breakdown can happen for many reasons; there may have been infidelity on either side, a significant life event may have put the relationship under strain, such as a job loss, retirement, serious illness or bereavement; there may have been abuse in the relationship or the couple may feel they have simply ‘run out of steam’. What may be important to consider, whatever the reason for the breakdown, is whether there may be room for forgiveness.

'forgiveness is a journey and although the merits of forgiveness are well-founded, it can still be a complex process..'

It is perhaps hoped that if forgiveness is broached at a point during relational difficulties where an honest and open conversation can take place, the couple may be able to work towards reconciliation. However, forgiveness can still play an important role even when the couple have reached a mutual decision to separate and may be of considerable value in the process of ‘moving on’.

Research clearly shows the benefits of forgiveness, from a positive shift in emotional well-being, physical and mental health (Bergin, 1988) to ‘promoting hope for the future and in reducing depression and anxiety’ (Wade et al, 2013). It is suggested that the act of forgiving may release us from the burden of anger, bitterness and perhaps even revenge that we might carry with us from the relationship and provide the potential for ‘freedom and wholeness’.

What is important to remember, however, is that forgiveness is a journey and although the merits of forgiveness are well-founded, it can still be a complex process; to forgive another for the pain caused through an infidelity, for example; to consider forgiving a partner for a perceived injustice or perhaps for simply ‘not being there’ at a really difficult time may seem a tall order.

This is where counselling may help.

An empathic counsellor will be able to come alongside you as you begin to unravel your struggles and will be keen to understand the situation from your perspective. A key question that clients often find helpful is ‘what do I need in order to be able to forgive?’. For some this may be a simple ‘sorry’, an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and an assurance that the transgression will not be repeated; for others it may be ‘justice’ in some form. Each person will need something different.

'A key question that clients often find helpful is ‘what do I need in order to be able to forgive?’'

The counsellor will explore with you your willingness and capacity to forgive and the meaning and value of forgiveness for you personally and walk that journey with you if you feel ready. As a first step, speaking out an intention to forgive can be a powerful antecedent – ‘I hope to be able to forgive, but I cannot do that at the moment’ - whilst at the same time giving you space to consider what that means.

What seems important to stress is that ‘forgiving and forgetting’ is a myth. Researchers have struggled to come up with a consensus on what forgiveness is, but many have agreed on what forgiveness is not; forgetting, condoning, excusing or denying. What may become possible, with the help of a counsellor, is finding a way to integrate the experience into the ‘big picture’, to learn from it and to explore ways of moving on. The idea that forgiveness ‘lets the other person off the hook’ might be regarded differently; perhaps in forgiving we take the hook out of our own backs.

If we believe that forgiveness is ‘nothing more and nothing less than an act of self-healing’ (Kor, 2006), then perhaps there is a place to begin to consider forgiveness in the process of recovery from a relationship breakdown.

Authors Bio


Nicky Walker BA (Hons) MBACP is a qualified counsellor working in both private practice and a counselling agency, with individual clients aged 15 and above. She is trained in an Integrative approach and puts the client/counsellor relationship at the forefront of her work. She has a particular interest in the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents, and has experience of working with survivors of domestic abuse.

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