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2 Reasons Why It's Hard to Get Past a Partner's Mistakes

Are they repeating their offenses, or are you holding a grudge?

Key points

  • In the absence of sincere remorse, accountability, and empathy, it is difficult to believe a partner won't repeat a hurtful mistake.
  • A partner who brings up a person's past mistakes when confronted about their own actions may be manipulating.
  • A partner who owns a mistake without excuses and extends empathy to the person he or she hurt may be worth a second chance.

Two dynamics illuminate why it may be difficult to let go of a partner’s past mistakes. The scenarios differ but both relate to emotional intelligence. First, a partner with low emotional intelligence may lack self-awareness and empathy, detracting from his or her ability to manage a mistake and making it difficult for a person to trust him or her again. Second, a partner who purposefully points out a person’s minor missteps may be attempting to evade accountability himself. The partner holds on to a person’s mistakes and uses them to shield himself when he is at fault.

The first circumstance is often exasperated by several factors, such as the nature of a partner’s transgression and the manner in which he handles it. A selfish and insensitive mistake which hurts a person is very different from an accidental mistake. A partner who intentionally violates a person’s trust inflicts a myriad of painful emotions, such as shock, hurt, humiliation, anger, and disappointment. Rebuilding trust requires patience.

The partner’s handling of their mistake also impacts a person’s ability to “get over it.” For example, a partner who fails to admit the mistake, but instead “gets caught,” dismantles trust more than a partner who “comes clean.” Also, a partner who minimizes a hurtful action as if it is “no big deal, may only be thinking of themselves. The distress they've caused is lost on them. This lack of remorse and empathy may reveal the partner’s egocentric nature.

Authentic remorse often prevents a guilty partner from repeating a mistake and is evidenced by three actions: First, the partner’s awareness of the pain he or she caused. Second, the partner’s ability to fully own the mistake. Third, their clear communication of how their actions impacted the person. For example, “I had a selfish moment and I hurt you. I am so very sorry. You were counting on me for something very important and I let you down. How can I make it right?” The remorse, empathy, and accountability frequently meld into insight which allows the partner to evolve.

In the absence of authentic remorse, sincere accountability, and a clear communication of how their actions impacted a person, it is difficult to re-establish trust. A glib acknowledgement of the mistake and a partner’s demand for the other person to “move on” from it without these elements dismisses the problem without repairing the rupture it caused. The wound remains open and raw.

The second reason a person may be unable to move on from a partner’s wrongdoing stems from an entirely different issue but also involves emotional intelligence. A person who is robustly defensive may protect a fragile ego by seizing any opportunity to reprimand and devalue a partner. In addition, he may use a partner’s past offense to escape personal accountability in the present.

For example, Rachel communicates to Lisa that she is upset that Lisa allows Rachel’s children to break the rules when Rachel is not home. Specifically, the previous day Lisa allowed Rachel’s middle-schooler to go to the bus stop without a jacket in freezing temperatures. Lisa, indignant that Rachel has confronted her on an issue she deems trivial, says, “I’m not the one who left the cat out all night, am I?”

Rachel is stunned. Six months prior, she accidentally left her son’s cat outside in freezing temperatures. The cat survived, but Rachel feels intense and prolonged guilt thinking about how the cat suffered due to her oversight. Remorse floods Rachel as she remembers the incident. She decides to forget about Lisa’s actions. The next day Lisa allows both of Rachel’s kids to leave the house in frigid temperatures without coats. The school contacts the Department of Human Services when Rachel’s daughter enters school with frost-bit fingers.

This scenario exemplifies Lisa’s minimization of her error and her deflection of responsibility. Lisa fails to feel remorse or own her actions. She justifies her decision and refuses to see the situation from Rachel’s perspective. In place of experiencing empathy for Rachel, she throws an old issue in Rachel’s face to escape responsibility for the issue at hand and continues to repeat the mistake.

Alternatively, Rachel, who readily feels remorse for a past blunder, even after months have passed, experiences empathy for the animal she hurt. Although it was an accident, the empathy she feels for the pet provides her with insight about remembering the cat in the future and she avoids repeating the error.

A partner who makes a mistake that is intentionally hurtful, gets caught, and minimizes and justifies the behavior may lack remorse, empathy, and authentic accountability. Without these components, the partner may fail to integrate the insight necessary to avoid repeating the selfish act. A person involved with a partner like this is often justified in his or her reluctance to trust the partner again.

In addition, a person who uses his or her partner’s past mistakes as a constant opportunity to berate him or her after the person has expressed remorse, empathy, and accountability, may be emotionally mistreating the person. Moreover, a partner who brings up a person’s former errors to escape “hot water” in the moment may be manipulating. Managing a mistake in a relationship with care and ownership is critical in reinstating trust. A partner who is fully accountable may be worth a second chance.