Why It May Be Hard to Forgive Your Partner
Reconciling your past to preserve your present and ensure your future.
Posted September 30, 2020 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Numerous couples have presented to me for treatment because one (or both) cannot let go of past sins (anything perceived as hurtful or painful) committed in the relationship. Oddly enough, these sins can range from a small lie to adultery. And while it is sometimes tempting to downplay minor transgressions, I have learned that it this is simply a bad idea because the perceived victim assigns the impact to a transgression and does so based on similar past experiences. Making light of an individual’s injury, real or imagined, therefore tends to be viewed as adding insult to injury.
Nevertheless, there are too many individuals that manufacture sins against themselves or exaggerate the impact and intention of actual injustices. Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973) contended that people keep a ledger of what they owe to others or what is owed to them and react accordingly.
For example, if a person is parentified—that is, robbed of childhood by needy or overly demanding parents, as an adult this individual may look to others, especially his or her partner or children, to make up for this injustice. Of course, this is an impossibility because the debt is owed by one’s parents and at its core, can only be settled by those who directly inflict the injury. A debt such as this cannot be settled by those removed from the original transaction who are, at best, conflicted about taking on the debt.
Even original transgressors who wait too long to make amends may not be able to prevent debt from becoming internalized; and once this happens, forgiving and forgetting anything related to the original sin is almost impossible. And worse yet, smaller, seemingly minor injustices may provoke logic-defying overreactions.
For example, a woman whose father abandoned her when she was approximately 5 years old and whose mother died when she was a teenager was understandably hypervigilant to abandonment in adulthood. If someone defriended her, or even innocently moved out of the area, feelings of loss and betrayal would manifest in anger, disappointment, and depression. While this reaction might be expected, she would also overreact—sometimes with rage—when she felt her gas and electric company had overcharged her; two unrelated incidences with a similar theme: injustice.
Parents are not the only potential culprits leading to the lifelong internalized feelings of victimization that may show up in a relationship. Past traumas, such as those experienced in rape, other forms of sexual abuse, war, and natural catastrophe, often evoke similar feelings.
We do not yet know what the full consequences of the COVID-19 virus will be for our society and the world. We do know that drug usage (Ornell, et. al, 2020) and suicide rates have been predicted to rise (Panayi, 2020; Sher, 2020). And we also know that relationships are impacted with many partners anxiously cooped up together struggling with financial loss—unemployment claims number 3.28 million—and a general loss of freedom (Carlsson-Szlezak, Reeves, & Swartz, 2020).
But no matter what the origin of your trauma, the associated triggers must be recognized and controlled to curb your reaction to them and help preserve your relationship. If you are astute enough to notice that you are carrying around a significant amount of anger or often feel like a victim, it is time for a personal examination.
It is normal to feel sorry for yourself, especially if you were traumatized. But understand that nobody can “fully” make up for what has happened to you. Others close to you, such as intimate partners, should not contribute to your pain—and need to take responsibility if they do. But face it, life is tough. Inflicting a rigid ledger on those closest to you will not make life any easier; it may in fact make your life worse. For example, you might unconsciously replicate traumas by insisting that others make up for your injustice. But this will not help in the long run—it might only cause them to eventually shy away from you.
It might be a better idea to accept that life is a struggle and that your past was part of that struggle. Then, take action to tackle it. If you do solicit help, at least acknowledge that whoever offers aid can do only so much—appreciate their attempts. No doubt your partner will trigger you from time to time, but you must ask yourself the following questions before you react:
- Do your feelings befit the situation? If so, fine. For example, most people would be enraged if they found that their partner was having an affair. But I have seen couples lose it over whether the window shades were pulled too high or low in the house.
- What is triggering you and how might this be related to your past trauma? For example, if your partner is chronically distancing, this could easily trigger fears of abandonment in real-time.
- Is your need to hold onto anger or feelings of victimization helpful to you? If your victimization is not making you feel any better, you should search for a new solution to address your pain. You might even want to consider getting professional help.
- Is your inability to let go of past hurts worth the deterioration of your relationship? People often fail to realize the long-term damage their resentful feelings are doing to their relationship—they are too tied up in their own victim to worry about it. You must weigh the potential consequences of your behavior.
- Do you think replacing those nearest to you—especially your partner—will make you happier? In some cases, you may be right, but in most situations, you will be wrong. Do not fool yourself. Without deep change, you will only replicate your all-too-familiar feelings and dynamics with a new partner.
- Does your partner exhibit angry victim-like symptoms as well? This is an important concept to consider because people with similar, deep issues tend to find one another and unconsciously collude to maintain their dysfunction. For example, if you “and” your partner were victimized in some way, you both might tend to overreact to one another in sensitive times—a dynamic that will only add to a mutual sense of injustice. Because neither party will be strong enough to rescue the other in such a scenario, I liken this to: “having two drowning victims and no lifeguard.”
In sum, there are many couples who simply cannot forgive or forget that their partner has hurt them. They often stay together out of dependency or a need to maintain a sadomasochistic-like dynamic. Other couples claim to have forgiven but not forgotten. If your partner has betrayed you, you have the right to be wary. But rather than wallow in your victim, find out why this has happened in your relationship, how might it be correlated to any past personal traumas, and work towards some interpersonal and relational reconciliation. Getting control of your past can help you stay better connected to your present, and build a better future.
Boszormenyi-Nagy, I., and Spark, G. (1973). Invisible loyalties. NY: Harper & Row.
Carlsson-Szlezak, P., Reeves, M., & Swartz, P. (2020). Understanding the economic shock of Coronavirus. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2020/03/understanding-the-economic-shock-of-coroniavirus
Ornell, F., Moura, H.F., Scherer, J.N., Pechansky, F., Kessler, F.H.P., & von Diemen, L. (2020). The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on substance use: Implications for prevention and treatment, Psychiatry Research, 289, 113096. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113096.
Panayi. A. (2020, April 3). COVID-19 is likely to lead to an increase in suicides. Retrieved from https://www.blogs.scientificamerican.com
Sher. L. (2020). The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on suicide rates. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 0, 1-6. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcaa202.