Do I Have to Forgive You?

Loosening the Grip of Obsessive Anger and Pain

Magazine Issue
March/April 2022
Do I Have to Forgive You?

I saw Katrina in consultation three times when I was conducting a workshop for therapists in Los Angeles. This is her story as she told it to me.

Katrina was married for 15 years to a man who left her after becoming hugely successful in the tech world. She told me she’d provided unflagging love and consistent support, sacrificing career opportunities of her own to raise their daughter while he put all of his time and energy into his startup company. When he insisted two years earlier that they move from Chicago to Los Angeles for an even more lucrative position, she reluctantly agreed.

Eight months after the move, he filed for divorce and moved in with a marketing director of a large advertising firm, a young, beautiful, and self-made millionaire in her own right. Katrina subsequently learned that the move to LA was motivated by a five-year long-distance affair—that is, he’d planned it all out. When he filed for divorce, he hired one of the city’s most powerful and aggressive attorneys, and she ended up signing a settlement agreement that left her with far less money than she was due.

Their 10-year-old daughter, Ana, now adored the new girlfriend and preferred staying in their home in the Hollywood Hills that had a swimming pool and big entertainment center. The girlfriend bought Ana a puppy that she loved. Ana told Katrina that she didn’t like being away from her dog. Katrina described layer upon layer of pain.

Katrina hated everything about LA, but because of their daughter, she felt moving back to Chicago, where she had friends and a sister, wasn’t an option. She requested the consultation with me because she wanted some direction in how to let go of her intense anger and hatred toward her ex. She now had a good job and several new friends, but every time she thought about her ex—his beautiful and successful partner, the tremendous prestige of the couple, their fancy home where her daughter preferred to hang out, the many levels of deception that included his plotting out the move—her rage erupted full force.

Katrina told me that she wanted to find some way to “forgive him and move on” but could not. She said, “I feel violated and beaten to a pulp. The hardest thing is that I have no forum to show the world what he did to me.” She paused and added, “This may sound crazy, but I wish he’d actually beaten me. I wish I had the physical bruises that would allow me to bring him to justice.”

If it had happened that way, she explained, with physical evidence that could be substantiated, she could take it to court, and there, in front of lawyers, judges, and men and women of the jury, she could tell her story. Everyone would see what he’d done. His shark of a lawyer would lose the case.

This fantasy, this courtroom, was now where she lived. Here she would be heard and believed. Her husband would be forced to face his cruelty, her pain, and the extent that he had violated, deceived, and tricked her. He would go to jail, his reputation ruined, and he’d no longer be able to fool his friends, their daughter, or himself. The courtroom scene was so vivid to her, so repeatedly rehearsed, that she could see the smallest details of the majestic room, the faces of the sympathetic and shocked members of the jury, her ex-husband covering his head in shame as he faced the photographers from the LA Times where the story would appear. It was the stuff movies are made of, the unexpected and satisfying ending where truth and justice prevail. She replayed the scene endlessly in her mind.

But the courtroom scene, while offering momentary comfort each time she replayed it, also provided the glue that fastened her to the false beliefs that did not serve her—that her ex needed to see what he’d done to her and that subsequently she needed to forgive him. These were the keys that she thought would unlock the door of the small, unhappy place that imprisoned her. Instead, they helped keep her trapped.

“I can’t forgive him until I can make him see what he’s done to me.” I’ve heard these exact words from countless men and women post-divorce who, with good reason, feel stuck in the role of the done-in partner, especially if there weren’t other significant people to witness and validate what occurred.

My Feedback

Katrina wanted any ideas I had about how she could get her ex to see the truth of what he’d done. Maybe with the right words in a letter, or by making him sit down and listen to her feelings one more time, or confronting the new partner, or even by publishing a short memoir, or an op-ed piece in the paper, she might make him see what he’d put her through, and then she might be able to finally forgive him. To her enormous credit, she hadn’t gone the usual route of trying to enlist Ana into her camp at the expense of Ana’s relationship with her dad. This was a remarkable achievement.

Katrina deserved a medal of honor for staying ambulatory and breathing, for putting her clothes on every day and going to work, and for taking good care of her daughter. I told her that her longing for witnesses, and for the unequivocal validation of her feelings, was totally normal. And for all of us, current hurts and obfuscations of our reality gain additional power from the inevitable unrepaired and unacknowledged injuries of childhood.

I referred Katrina to a therapist in her area who I knew was a skilled and empathic listener, and also an expert in EMDR, which I hoped would lighten the emotional impact of trauma and offer relief. I also told Katrina what she didn’t want to hear—that her ex would never see what he’d done to her and make amends. There was no expert, myself included, who could ever make him see the truth, or feel guilty, or feel anything at all. She could run the courtroom scene through her mind as long as she needed to, for the rest of her life if she chose to, but the unequivocal and heartfelt validation she deserved would not come from him.

I told Katrina that she didn’t need to forgive the unconscionable actions of her ex in order to free herself from the suffering he’d caused her. The need to dissipate the painful emotions caused by an unapologetic offender who’s unreachable and unrepentant, or perhaps long dead, is a basic human challenge; and forgiveness need not be part of the process, especially when the wrongdoer has done nothing to earn it. Had I joined the voices inside Katrina’s head telling her that she needed to forgive her ex in order to heal, I likely would have left her feeling more emotionally unsteady, alone, and betrayed all over again.

Feedback from Katrina

I heard from Katrina by email several years later. She was doing a lot better. The steady, clear, and direct validation the therapist provided was a part of the healing. The EMDR helped her to feel lighter and keep the painful feelings more at a distance. The therapist had also recommended medication to help soothe her overheated nervous system and give her some relief from the kind of obsessive thinking that she knew didn’t serve her well. She was now running, eating healthfully, getting sunshine and sleep, and taking care of herself. All these things, plus time, helped.

Katrina also shared her experience attending a two-day forgiveness workshop. The workshop leader honored the ongoing presence of the participants’ anger and resentment, and had developed seven forgiveness exercises that included, among other things, enveloping the offender in white light while sending him compassion, benevolence, and love. Katrina told me that she “flunked the forgiveness part,” adding that perhaps forgiveness wasn’t her talent. But during the workshop, she had several insights, well worth the price of admission, that stayed with her.

First, she realized that relationships are not some kind of competition where the one who gets out first, or with most of the goods, is the winner. She also realized that at some level her husband could not be as happy as he appeared or even believed himself to be, because people who deceive and diminish others are not deeply happy and fully at peace with themselves. Finally, she realized that despite some ongoing envy and resentment for the “good life” he had, she did not want to be him. She did not want to be a person who would do what he’d done. Her dignity and integrity were intact, qualities far more important than what money could buy.

Katrina said that these were not new insights for her, but often what we need most to learn is not new. Rather, we most need to learn what we already know and to know and live it at a much deeper level.

It’s Hard to Detach

Sometimes we’re just not yet ready to detach from our anger. It’s not that we take some twisted pleasure in holding on to feeling like the done-in partner, although we may have grown accustomed over time to wrapping pain and suffering around ourselves like an old, familiar blanket. More importantly, staying angry and “done in” can serve us, without our conscious awareness or intent, in the following four ways.

First, our suffering can be our way of taking revenge, by showing the other person as well as the world how deeply their behavior has harmed us. To move forward in our lives, to really get back on our feet, may feel akin to forgiving the one who hurt us, as if we’re saying: “Okay, I’m doing pretty well now, so I guess your behavior didn’t really hurt me that much.”

Second, the anger we allow ourselves to feel toward one offending individual can serve to protect a different and more important relationship. You can’t forgive your daughter-in-law’s rudeness, which allows you to avoid experiencing any anger at your own son’s passivity, as he takes no responsibility for how you’re treated by his wife. You blame your alcoholic ex-wife for the irresponsible ways she behaved when your children were in her care post-divorce, because it protects you from experiencing your own shame for failing to protect your kids, knowing as you did that your ex was not competent to take care of them. We’re unlikely to let go of a negative focus on one person if it allows us to protect our favored image of a different relationship, including our relationship with our own self.

The third reason we may resist letting go of our anger is because, in a strange way, it keeps us connected to the very person who has hurt us. Anger is a form of intense (albeit negative) attachment, just like love. Both keep us attached to the other person, which is why so many couples are legally but not emotionally divorced. If, many years post-separation, you still can’t talk on the phone or be in the same room with your ex-spouse without feeling your stomach clutch, then you’re still attached.

Finally, clinging to an angry internal dialogue keeps the fantasy of obtaining justice alive. Our angry ruminations feed the unconscious belief that one magical day the offender will have a eureka experience, see what he’s done, and collapse into shame. No one plans to cling to a connection that gives the offender so much power over our current emotional life. Yet, as Katrina’s story illustrates, it’s so hard to let go of this hope.

No Six Easy Steps

I don’t mean to imply that we hold onto our anger simply because we unconsciously want to show the other person how totally they’ve screwed up our lives, or because it maintains our connection to them, or because it lets us keep alive the fantasy that one day that person will get how much they’ve hurt us, and feel as miserable or even more miserable than they’ve made us feel. Nor are these feelings completely in our control. We don’t just decide one day, “Gee, I think this would be a good time to let go of my anger and suffering.”

Countless books, blogs, and seminars promise relief from suffering, when pain and suffering are as much a part of life as happiness and joy. The only way to avoid being mistreated in this world is to fold up in a dark corner and stay mute. If you go outside, or let others in, you’ll get hurt many times. Ditto if you’ve grown up in a family, rather than being raised by wolves. Some people will behave badly and not apologize, repair the harm, or care about your feelings.

There are countless resources out there to aid us with the process of letting go—when we have the will and intention to move in this direction. Therapy, meditation, medication, yoga, religious and spiritual practices, writing and making art, breathing and relaxation exercises, and being useful to others are just a few of the available paths and concrete strategies to help us stop nursing past grievances and live more peacefully in the present.

It’s worthwhile finding a concrete strategy, healing practice, or larger perspective that suits you, or a new way of thinking that speaks to you. While you’re ruminating about the terrible things your ex (or mother or Uncle Charlie) did to you, and making yourself miserable in the process, the person who’s hurt you may be having a fabulous day at the beach. This is as good a reason as any to make use of the resources that are out there to help you grab a bit more peace of mind.

The hardest part is that it requires us to accept that the offending party is never going to apologize, never going to see himself or herself objectively, never going to listen to our feelings with the slightest openness of mind or heart. Letting go of anger and hate requires us to give up the hope for a different past, along with the hope of a fantasized future. What we gain is a life more in the present, where we aren’t mired in prolonged suffering that doesn’t serve us.

Harriet Lerner

Harriet Lerner is one of the most respected voices on the psychology of women and marriage and family relationships. For three decades, she was a staff psychologist and psychotherapist at The Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, and a faculty member and supervisor in the Karl Menninger School of Psychiatry. Currently in private practice in Lawrence, Kansas, she is the author of numerous scholarly articles and 11 books, including the New York Times best-seller, The Dance of Anger, Women in Therapy, The Dance of Connection, and The Dance of Fear. Lerner has been a guest on Oprah, CNN, NPR and numerous other media. She is also, with her sister, an award-winning children’s book author, and she hosts a blog for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post. Lerner’s new book is Marriage Rules: A Manual for the Married and The Coupled Up.