when is it OK to forgive someone for their mistakes?
April 4, 2012 3:36 AM   Subscribe

when is it OK to forgive someone for their mistakes?

My boyfriend and I have been together together for six months, although we first became close ten months ago. Most of our relationship has been long distance punctuated by visits, but we now live in the same city and see each other every day. I feel blessed to have him in my life, and the more I get to know him, the more I trust him. He is supportive, thoughtful, caring. He treats me better than any boyfriend I've had, and our connection seems to grow organically without much effort. He's 25, and this is his first serious relationship.

We had a disastrous episode at the beginning of our relationship six months ago. We met online last spring and had to wait some time before actually meeting in person since we lived so far apart. After we met in October and had sex, he freaked out and told me his feelings had turned off. A few days later he came to his senses and begged me to give him another chance. Almost everyone I spoke to urged me to pull the plug. It seemed like sensible advice but something told me he was a good person and it was lack of experience/severe trust issues.

I've seen his understanding of relationships grow so much in just a few short months. I think he's a better partner than I am at this point, even though I'm more seasoned in relationships. We never had anything close to repeat of that episode. He is profoundly remorseful for the way he treated me that time, he understands the unhealthy behavior behind his freak out and has nipped it in the bud. He realized that he had built enormous expectations about what our relationship would be before we actually met due to his lack of experience, and since then we've slowed things down and actually gotten to know each other in a natural way. Our connection feels a lot more solid than it did back then. Usually I'm anxious as hell in relationships but I feel calm with him.

I've since introduced him to my family and friends (and met his), and everyone loves him and thinks we're great together. In fact he's the only SO whom my family have totally approved.

I guess I'm wondering at what point I can decide that I'm going to move past what happened. Our relationship is still very young, and I want to be cautious with my heart.
posted by timsneezed to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you put your statements in columns, it would look something like this:

Don't Forgive
Some people 6 months ago suggested you dump him. You didn't, but you didn't forgive either.

Do Forgive
He's remorseful.
He's changed.
He treats you well.
Your relationship is going great.
Everyone loves him, and the two of you together.
He's begged for your forgiveness.
You want to forgive him.

Why not trust your heart?

Or, if you won't forgive him, let him go quickly. Stringing him along and refusing to forgive while he does everything he can to make this a good relationship is at least as bad as his getting cold feet at the beginning of a relationship (and arguably is worse).
posted by Houstonian at 3:48 AM on April 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I feel blessed to have him in my life

Reading this question, it sounds like you have already forgiven him. He probably thinks so, too.

However, if there's still a part of you which is upset and conflicted about this after six months of what seems like a pretty good relationship, maybe you need to ask yourself if you really want to move past such an early breach of trust. It's ok if you don't, but you need to let him know how you're feeling.
posted by fight or flight at 3:51 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you have already moved past what happened and are searching for a reason to step back for whatever reason. You have moved on. Be happy with that. Many people aren't able to ever get to that point and re-hash negative events for years if not their entire lives.

And if something less than desirable happens in the future with this guy, well that is life and you can deal with that when it comes. Hopefully, it won't.
posted by lampshade at 3:59 AM on April 4, 2012

I guess I'm wondering at what point I can decide that I'm going to move past what happened.

That's up to you. You could have done in the day after ya'll made up. You can do it two weeks from now. It all depends on how long you want to live waiting for the other shoe to drop and how long you want to simply enjoy what you have.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:02 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you might be conflating forgiveness and trust.
posted by tel3path at 4:12 AM on April 4, 2012 [33 favorites]

Forgive him today, and let it go. You have a good relationship. You don't need to purchase trouble to supplement what comes for free.
posted by ellF at 4:17 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

If people didn't forgive their partners for getting cold feet at the beginning of their relationships, there would be a lot fewer couples in the world.
posted by xingcat at 4:22 AM on April 4, 2012 [8 favorites]

It is always ok to Forgive.

Trust, however, must be earned. You can forgive him and move,
and still require him to earn your trust.
posted by Flood at 4:24 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

I guess I'm wondering at what point I can decide that I'm going to move past what happened.

I don't think that's the kind of thing you can actively decide to do.

I mean, I agree that there's some level of conscious decision-making at play here - you can actively decide to stay with him, and you can actively decide to keep on building closeness and move the relationship forward, and you can actively decide not to hold it over him in arguments, and you can actively decide to focus on the present and future rather than the past - but you're already doing all those things, it sounds like. What you can't do is dictate your emotions to a degree where, as of 4pm tomorrow or whenever, you have no feelings about the past any more and don't even think about it. Our minds just don't work that way.

I do think you have the right to forgive him if you want to, and I understand the appeal of seeing forgiveness as a binary thing where one declaration of forgiveness moves you from 'not forgiven' to 'forgiven'. But in my experience, forgiveness is much more of an organic thing, one that develops slowly over time. You're already cultivating it, and it's growing, and that's fine. Eventually there'll be enough good things in your present and your future, and enough space between you and this past hurt, that what happened will just shrink smaller and smaller in significance until you look back and realise that you've moved past it long ago.
posted by Catseye at 4:27 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Even once you've forgiven someone, it can take time to work through the process of what is essentially grieving over the wrong that they did you. Those feelings can be okay and valid without being something you continue to rationally hold against the other person. You're only six months in; it's okay to not have complete and absolute trust in the permanency of the relationship at this point!

Don't think of it as "I need to let go or dump him", think of it as, "I am in the process of letting go, it's just taking a little longer than I wanted it to".
posted by gracedissolved at 4:39 AM on April 4, 2012 [7 favorites]

Despite his actions which upset you, you gave him another chance because "something told [you] he was a good person and it was lack of experience/severe trust issues."

Now, you refer to him as "a better partner" than yourself, say that you are "blessed" to have him in your life, and discuss his personal growth while in this relationship.

From an outsider's perspective, it seems like you have already forgiven him based on how you talk about him. But, if there is still a part of you that's struggling with this then allow things to take their time. Don't worry so much about why you haven't been able to forgive him for this mistake. You have two options: 1) communicate with him so that you can develop a better understanding of why he did this. Or, 2) silently deal with this, move on, and eventually reach a point where you have let things go.

Choosing between these two options really depends on how strongly you feel about the situation that happened earlier in your relationship. Being in a relationship requires you to choose your 'battles' because sometimes it's just not worth it bringing up the past when things are better now. But, that's your call. You don't want the feelings to fester, so try to figure out how strongly you feel about this and whether you think you can move past things.

If you choose to address it now, try to come from the perspective of someone that wants to develop a better understanding of what happened and the meaning behind the actions. Don't make assumptions or accusations. Give him the chance to explain his feelings even if you don't agree with them or feel hurt by them. Once this is dealt with, move on because grudges are exhausting and make people miserable.
posted by livinglearning at 4:43 AM on April 4, 2012

How is not forgiving him affecting your relationship/life/interactions? I've read the question three times and I'm not seeing it.

It's always okay to forgive someone. It doesn't mean you should forget, or offer your trust again right away. I suspect you're conflating forgiveness with either "forgive and forget" or with offering unearned trust.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:42 AM on April 4, 2012

There's nothing that you need to forgive him for: he had a freakout, things got patched up, nothing more came of it; end of story. It's not like he cheated on you right, just a bit of relationship angst he got over.

But what does seems to be bothering you is anxiety about whether or not you can trust him not to it again, baseless so far judging on your description, but that is something that can gnaw at you and your relationship nonetheless.

So you might want to talk about it with somebody you do trust, either him or somebody else.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:50 AM on April 4, 2012

I know two long-married couples who broke up for a brief period early in their relationship because of one partner's being overwhelmed or freaked out or something. (24 years together in one case; 9 years in the other.)

This kind of an event isn't necessarily a relationship-ender for every relationship. It sounds like both of you have worked through the issue. Add me to the list of folks wondering what other "forgiveness" actions you were wanting to take?

And since you seem to be asking for other people's baselines, here are the things I think it is immoral and unwise in most cases* for a partner to forgive in a relationship: physical assault, sexual assault, and abuse of any kind of a child.

There are other things that are deal breakers for me, like disrespect of relationship agreements, dishonesty about money, affiliation with groups and causes I find abhorrent, verbal abuse, and probably lots of others, but I know couples who have worked through each of these and rebuilt good relationships.

Someone acting like an ass and initiating a brief breakup isn't ideal, sure, but it's something that can be worked through.

*Maybe if the person's neurological functioning was compromised by a brain tumor or some other event that impaired their impulse control, I could understand rebuilding a relationship after an assault.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:00 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

It is ok to forgive someone when you decide to stay in a relationship with them, especially when you have chosen to remain in the relationship and it is now six months later.

The real issue here is that you "want to be cautious with [your] heart." And that's understandable. But if you're six months into a relationship and it's going extremely well, you have to decide whether you're in or out. You can't withhold your heart -- or if you are able to, it will lead to an unsatisfying relationship. Sure, you risk getting hurt if things don't work out, but that's relationships, and why would you ever want to be in the kind of relationship in which it doesn't even hurt if it ends?
posted by J. Wilson at 6:08 AM on April 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

Forgiveness isn't something you give to someone else, meted out based on whether they deserve it. It is something you give to yourself so you can move on.
posted by gjc at 6:38 AM on April 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

Unless you are really leaving out some major details, there is no reason that I can see that you haven't moved past this in the six months you've continued the relationship -- and I actually feel a bit sorry for this guy who thinks you've forgiven him when you haven't.

There is a difference between moving on from an event, and putting your trust 100% into a relationship. One of those should lead into the other but as processes they usually don't run together. And it is a process. It sounds like you've already begun it, whether you realise it or not.
posted by sm1tten at 7:09 AM on April 4, 2012

Our relationship is still very young, and I want to be cautious with my heart.

I understand this impulse, but it's pretty much impossible to be in a relationship and also try to protect yourself this way. There's no way to love someone without giving that person the ability to hurt you very badly.
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:12 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you want to be happy in life it is always OK to forgive, more so than that it is pretty much mandatory. That is a whole different subject though than what you really asked. It seems what you really want to know is can you now trust this person moving forward. Was he honest with you during this whole time about his true feelings? Does he love you now? It seems that the answer to both of those is yeas and usually that is the basis upon which trust can be founded.

As for forgiveness, I sense from the tone of you question that you have mostly forgiven him but not entirely. You discuss this purely in terms of his wrongdoing saying nothing of your behavior. Nothing happens in a relationship in a vacuum. Moreover, what about his feelings? The tone here is all about you. I imagine that this must have been very traumatic for him as well. Growth in the relationship will come from finding empathy with his trauma. When both partners are free with empathy and forgiveness they tend to create a relationship well suited to withstand each partner's personal human weaknesses and mistakes. In such a relationship each partner is also well positioned to grow and lessen such weaknesses and mistakes. Look into your heart and find the forgiveness and empathy for him you know is there. He sounds like a keeper. Those gifts of forgiveness and empathy over this incident that clearly hurt you very much will come back to you over time many times over.
posted by caddis at 7:32 AM on April 4, 2012

I actually feel sorry for the guy, he was straightforward with you at the very beginning and yet you are looking for reasons to mistrust him after six months. According to you there was no cheating, no abuse and he is a good partner. You should be honest with him and if he has any clue he should move on.

"Mr Perfect in every regard and at all times" is out there somewhere, perhaps look in a bookshop in the romantic fiction shelves.
posted by epo at 7:43 AM on April 4, 2012

He hurt you. Pretty badly, it seems. THis is reasonable. To truly forgive, I think you need to examine the hurt. State it, out loud even (NOT to him. to yourself and or psych) Prod at it a little. Accept the loss it caused you, especially on the trust front. Look at all the good stuff in the relationship. Acknowledge that forgiving does NOT mean the hurt never happened. Forgiving does NOT mean he will never hurt you again. But, you say 'I'm tired of holding onto this. This is hurting me. This is hurting what sounds like the begining of a really good relationship. It is time to let go of this.... for me!' And then you decide to forgive him. Say you do (NOT to him. to yourself and or your psych) Do it again. Do it as many times as you need to, every time it pops up.
posted by Jacen at 7:52 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

As I read your post I kept waiting for the problem. And it never arrived.

If you are looking for perfection all of the time you will not find it. You are not perfect either.

If you want somebody who can acknowledge when they did something hurtful and has demonstrated the self-reflective capacity to correct it, then you have found him.

If you want to leave him then do him a favor and do it NOW. Do no delay.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:51 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

How is not forgiving him completely going to help you? When you first took him back, six months ago, being cautious probably helped you by preventing you from feeling like a double-ass if it turned out he got double cold feet. But it seems like over the course of 6 months, he's proven himself to be a really great boyfriend. Not forgiving him is like putting yourself on a leash that ties you to the past, when it seems like both of you are really ready to move past that. Not forgiving him is going to hold you back at some point. I'm not saying you should've already moved past it, but that it's okay to move past it whenever you're ready.

Have you ever had a talk about this with him? Maybe the last thing you need him to do is apologize one last time before you can start working on putting this to rest completely.
posted by 23skidoo at 9:01 AM on April 4, 2012

I believe forgiveness is something we do for ourselves, and not for the offending party. For me, it's a lot less energy to forgive than to hold resentment. I'm able to forgive pretty easily by nature, I don't think that's a sign of good character or anything, it's just the pace my emotions work. It takes longer for some. I don't think we have a "duty" to forgive, as much as it's a kindness for others and for ourselves.

It doesn't sound to me like you're holding any resentment or anger at what happened, which is sort of what I think forgiving feels like.

But forgiving doesn't mean you've started condoning the sort of actions that need forgiveness. For me, it's all about figuring out if the hurtful action was a one off, a pattern of behavior they are actively working on changing, or a pattern of behavior that's going to continue with no end in sight. It's easier to figure this out if you understand what kind of boundaries you need in order to be safe and respected, and on how well you understand and trust someone.

If someone has crossed important boundaries or hurt me, I can forgive them and let go of resentment, and continue to care for that person. But if I know them well enough to know that it's a boundary they're going to continue to cross, I have to impose distance. Depending on how serious the problem was, this might just mean that the friendship isn't as close or it might mean I can't have that person in my life anymore. If I know that they are actively working on changing hurtful behaviors, I will probably continue whatever relationship it is, but with care and more alertness. If I trust the person and know that it was just one of those mistakes we all make then it's usually water under the bridge. We all hurt each other, despite our best intentions.

Your friends are protective of you, and don't want you to hurt, so it makes sense that they take a hard line of break up when he freaked out and hurt you. That advices squares pretty well with the askme consensus that if there's such a dramatic event so early in a relationship, then it's wise to pull the plug. It's a good rule of thumb, I think. But there are exceptions, I know couples that had a rocky beginning and went on to great happiness.

It wasn't good that he freaked out and hurt you, but I think it's understandable and forgivable, considering that he's been trustworthy for six months. And he was honest about his feelings, he might well have been afraid of leading you on. You say it's his first serious relationship, and that he panicked after meeting and sharing sexual intimacy with you for the first time. Even if he had previous sexual experience, it might have been his first really intimate experience with a lot of emotional vulnerability, and that scared the shit out of him. He might not have understood that when he told you his feelings switched off, that it wasn't a change in you or your relationship, but a reaction to a scary new level of vulnerability. He realized his mistake and it sounds like he's been reliable since. It sounds like you trust him.
posted by f_panda at 9:09 AM on April 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

When to forgive? Whenever the hell you want.

You could withhold your forgiveness from him, but I'm sure, sure sure, that your relationship could be even better if you forgive him for having cold feet in the beginning. It does happen. I love my husband with all my heart, and I would do 100 years in prison standing on my head for him, but in the beginning, I freaked.

I would be crushed if he held it against me, after I'd tried to make amends in so many ways, and in light of how strongly I feel for him now. If this guy is so great, he deserves to be forgiven. If he lets you down again, then you can decide if he's worth a damn or not.

Being cautious with your heart is good, but don't be withholding of your trust and goodwill if this guy really is a "blessing". It's his first real relationship, you said. That's a minefield. He will make more mistakes, I assure, you, and so will you. Would you like him to be able to find it in his heart to forgive you? I bet you would. It's okay, this will work itself out.
posted by Grlnxtdr at 9:26 AM on April 4, 2012

I wouldn't put a lot of weight on outside views, positive or negative, internet strangers or family. What matters is your gut instinct, and it seems you are feeling some hesitation/caution from the incident (and I remember your askme, and it did suck mightily). You'd be wise to hold that instinct lightly, and learn to recognize it but also set it aside without reacting to it. Don't try to bury it. Don't try to convince yourself/him that you're totally over it because he's done X many good deeds since and all is rainbows and peaches. Don't hold it over him (you don't seem the type to do this, though).

I would give this more time to sort out naturally. Relax in the trust you do have for him, and see how life goes. Six months is not a lot for an initial beginning that was very traumatic. Maybe at a year you can look back and you won't feel that gut anxiety, because you will have a much more solid foundation. Forgiveness comes easy when the timing is right.
posted by griselda at 10:05 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

What I notice is that you are once again feeling that you're in a lower position - this time because he's now "better" at relationships than you. You place yourself below him spiritually because you're "unforgiving", and there's no shortage of posts affirming that view.

There's a good book called "How Can I Forgive You" by Janis Abrams Spring. I recommend it.
posted by tel3path at 11:16 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

He made a mistake, realized it, apologized sincerely, and has been a great boyfriend ever since.

For your side: He hurt you terribly, and the memory of that pain is still strong for you. This isn't to say you're carrying a grudge. It might feel like the bad feelings have to dwindle a lot more before you can really let them go.

It might help if you asked him to listen while you tell him what the experience was like for you, and how you felt when he came back. You can say that some/a lot of the pain comes back when you think about it now, though you don't dwell on it. You now know he loves you, and you're happy to be with him, and you need to talk about the hurtful things so you can put them aside.

Be patient if he doesn't understand why the matter needs to be aired again. Tell him that you understand what was going on with him then, and you don't blame him. Just restate your intention: In order to move forward emotionally, you want to talk coherently about what you experienced and how it felt, and you need him to hear it now, without the turmoil and drama of that time.

It'll be hard, but I think your bond with him will be stronger after you have this talk.
posted by wryly at 11:45 AM on April 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

You've answered your own question - you've already forgiven him.

No one is perfect - hold onto the ones who understand that they've caused pain and who rectify the situation by growing as a person and who demonstrate this through their subsequent actions.
posted by mleigh at 3:23 AM on April 5, 2012

Is this the guy from your deleted question?

It is indeed possible to forgive someone--it's only when you find yourself forgiving again and again and again, over a long period of time--that you might start wondering why.
posted by Melismata at 9:57 AM on May 2, 2012

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