The Healing Power of Forgiveness in Relationships
It is often said that forgiveness is more for the forgiver than the person who was forgiven. This is because holding onto anger and resentment can be toxic for our mental and physical health. Forgiveness is linked with lower levels of anxiety and depression, as well as less stress and hostility. It also has been found to lead to better sleep, improved heart health, increased self-esteem, and greater life satisfaction. Forgiveness has even been linked with increased longevity.
Interestingly, there is also some science to back up the idea that practicing forgiveness can help us improve our relationships. One study found that couples who forgave each other were more likely to stay together than those who didn't forgive. Other research has found that more forgiving people tend to have closer, more supportive relationships.
So if it’s such a great and positive thing, then why is forgiveness so difficult? One reason may be that we tend to view forgiving as something we do for the other person involved – an act of generosity or compassion. But in reality, forgiveness is just as much (if not more) for ourselves. When we forgive, we are choosing to let go of anger and resentment, freeing ourselves from negative emotions that can take a toll on our physical and mental health. If you’re struggling to forgive someone who has hurt you, remember that the decision to forgive is yours and yours alone. There is no timeline for forgiveness, and there is no “right way” to do it. Just as with any skill, the more you practice forgiveness, the easier it will become.
The act of forgiveness is one of the most powerful things we can do for our relationships, but that doesn’t mean you have to forget about something painful that happened, or condone unkindness. It isn’t excusing poor behavior or minimizing your pain—or even reconciling it. Rather, it’s about understanding it, so you can be in the driver’s seat, rather than letting your emotions drive you. You don’t have to give up your feelings—but you do need to get control of them. That is where the real work is.
When you ruminate about what has hurt you, you relive the pain, and it happens all over again. Being able to forgive, however, prevents you from being a victim. Not only does it help to heal the pain caused by past hurt, but it also opens up the possibility for new and deeper levels of connection—if you want it. Forgiveness is not easy, but it is worth the effort.
To begin, it is important to understand what forgiveness is and how it works. Forgiveness is letting go of resentment and bitterness towards someone who has harmed us. It is important to note, as mentioned above, that it is not about excusing or forgetting the hurt that was inflicted – but rather, about releasing your anger and grudges so you can move on with your own life. Anger is an attempt to make the other person feel guilty, but, as a quote from Buddha says: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
If you are struggling to forgive someone, remember that forgiveness is a process that takes time. Start by taking small steps and be patient with yourself. Forgiveness doesn't happen overnight, and it doesn't mean that everything will go back to normal immediately—if ever. But once we can let go of the hurt and anger that keeps us stuck in the past, we can finally move forward with our own lives.
There are several steps involved in the process of forgiveness. The first step is recognizing that someone else's actions have hurt you. This can be difficult if you tend to blame yourself for things that are going wrong in your relationships. But if you can recognize when someone has done something hurtful to you, then you're already taking the first step toward healing.
The next step is acknowledging your feelings. This means allowing yourself to feel the pain and grief you feel, that comes from being hurt by another person. Sometimes we try to push our feelings down or pretend they don't exist, but doing this only worsens things in the long run. When we allow ourselves to feel our emotions fully, we open ourselves up to the possibility of healing. This takes us to the third step in the process of forgiveness: making a decision to let go of your hurt and anger.
This may sound easy, but often it's not so simple. Forgiveness requires courage and determination. This is because it means letting go of the negative emotions that keep you stuck in the past. It also requires trust, because you have to trust that letting go of your pain will indeed lead you toward a better future.
The fourth and final step in the process of forgiveness is making amends with the person who has hurt you. This may or may not be possible depending on the circumstances, but if it is possible, then it's an important part of healing from your hurts. Making amends means taking responsibility for your part in the relationship and trying to make things right again with the other person. If you've been hurt, then making amends — or at least attempting to — can allow you to move forward with your life.
So if you're struggling with forgiveness in a relationship, first, know that you're not alone. Remember that there are real benefits to letting go of anger and resentment. If you're not sure where to start, talking to a therapist or counselor can help you work through the process. Forgiving others isn’t just the morally right thing to do—it’s also incredibly beneficial for our own well-being. Studies have shown that forgiveness can lead to reduced anxiety and stress, lower blood pressure, and improved cardiovascular health — things that could all serve us better than holding onto the opposite. No matter which route you take towards it, or however you approach the steps it takes to get you there, the most important thing to remember about forgiveness is that it's a process.
Written by Dr. Dan Tomasulo, an American psychologist, writer, and professor, and the Academic Director and core faculty at the Spirituality Mind Body Institute, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York. He is the author of Learned Hopefulness: The Power of Positivity to Overcome Depression. Dan’s passion is positive psychology and the science of happiness, helping people focus on their strengths and cultivating their best selves so they can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals that influenced this article: Forgiveness, well-being, and mental health; Forgiveness and physical health; General Self-Efficacy and Forgiveness of Self, Others, and Situations as Predictors of Depression, Anxiety, and Stress in University Students; Hostility, Forgiveness, and Cognitive Impairment Over Ten Years in a National Sample of American Adults; A Study on the Psychosocial Predictors of Cardiovascular Diseases: The Major Role of Forgiveness; Revisiting the Power to Forgive: A Dyadic Approach for Determining the Relations Between Power, Self-Esteem, and Forgiveness in Romantic Relationships; Forgiveness and life satisfaction across different age groups in adults; Forgive to live: forgiveness, health, and longevity; Better to Forgive or to Forget? Marital Transgressions and Forgiveness in Older Couples; Trait Mindfulness and Relationship Satisfaction: The Role of Forgiveness Among Couples; Traditional Bullying, Cyberbullying and Mental Health in Early Adolescents: Forgiveness as a Protective Factor of Peer Victimisation.
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