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When is it better not to forgive and forget?

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When is it better not to forgive and forget?
Is forgiveness always the best thing for a relationship? Our dating and relationships columnist Monica Karpinski explores why it can sometimes do more harm than good
The message is drummed into us from childhood: forgive people who’ve wronged you, because it’s the right thing to do. Forgiveness is a virtue, we’re told—the only way for us to truly move on and heal, freed from the baggage of bearing ill will.
"Forgiving someone can indeed be a beautiful thing, but it’s not always what’s best for us"
Call me unenlightened, but I’m not buying it. Forgiving someone can indeed be a beautiful thing, but it’s not always what’s best for us. In fact, if someone has hurt you deeply and the relationship isn’t healthy, trying to “fix” things can do more harm than good.
Most of us would probably agree that forgiving a wrongdoer means letting go of negative feelings—like anger and resentment—towards them. Often, there’s an expectation that we’ll put it all behind us and let them back into our lives, as if nothing happened.

Should you just "get over it"?

Except that something did happen. And if we get the memo that, in order to be a good person, we should simply get over it and stop feeling hurt, it can make us feel that our experiences don’t matter. Or, at least, that they matter less than the situation being smoothed over.
This isn’t helpful. It pressures us to minimise our feelings and revise our boundaries—to say “it’s okay” when for us, it isn’t. While it’s not a good idea to fixate on negative thoughts, recognising and processing all of that pain is an important part of the healing journey.
"When someone doesn’t make us feel seen or safe, forgiving them can actually chip away at our self-esteem"
And when someone doesn’t make us feel seen or safe, forgiving them can actually chip away at our self-esteem. A 2010 research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology called this the “the doormat effect”. It found that folks who forgave partners that didn’t make them feel valued had less respect for themselves, along with a diminished sense of self.
The same was true when people granted forgiveness to partners who didn’t try to make amends after causing hurt. This is probably because the forgiving party felt like they’d failed to stand up for themselves, note the authors: like they’d let themselves be walked over.

Can forgiveness make things worse?

Things can get worse if you keep on forgiving someone who’s done wrong. Letting minor offences that happen now and again slide can be great for any relationship, but repeatedly forgiving bad behaviour can encourage that person to keep hurting you.
Arguing couple
At least, that’s what 2011 research by psychology professor James K McNulty argues. McNulty looked at how 72 newlywed couples expressed forgiveness towards acts of aggression, and whether this caused any changes in the perpetrator’s behaviour. He found that when a partner was more likely to forgive those acts, the aggressor was more likely to keep committing them.
McNulty suggests that this is because facing the consequences of their actions is what motivates people to change their ways, and being offered a clean slate can be a kind of pass to avoid doing that. His takeaway? Forgiving frequent and major offences, like verbal or physical abuse, can do more harm than good.
"Repeatedly forgiving bad behaviour can encourage that person to keep hurting you "
For me, this speaks to the core tension in the idea that we should always forgive: it puts the onus on us to resolve things, rather than on the other person to deal with the fallout for what they’ve done.
What if, instead of looking to forgiveness like a magic salve, we put our energies towards accepting a situation for what it is? This way, we can focus on recognising what happened and coming to terms with it, however that looks for us and without any sense of obligation towards our offender. It’ll still be a process, sure, but it’s one centred around you and your needs.
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