DISCLAIMER: The following column is a composite of several different experiences I have had with clients. It does not depict a specific encounter. This story is not about you!

Much has been discussed and written about the subject of forgiveness. It’s something that we all find ourselves grappling with at some point in our lives and sometimes, more frequently than that. It’s not a simple matter. After all, what exactly does forgiveness look like? How does one achieve that elevated state of being? Is it attained for the benefit of the aggrieved party or for the sake of the person who committed the grievance? There are many questions attached to this concept and almost as many opinions.

And if that were not complicated enough, there is the equally powerful notion of “forgetting.” After all, one can say and truly believe that they forgive the individual who caused them pain, but could they and should they actually forget the offense? Some say that forgetting is a fool’s dream and one never really forgets a major hurt. Some individuals might say that it’s not even a great idea to forget, because by doing so, one is opening themselves up for a repeat performance.

Despite those attitudes, I have always found that the ability to truly forget, move forward, and say goodbye to former hurts and judgments is extremely liberating and healthy. Somehow, some people seem capable of pulling this off, while others may not or cannot. We can turn to the usual list of reasons to explain why, such as nature, upbringing, resiliency, desire, etc.

In the case of Ben and Alice, both models exist. Ben can flick off from even his major hurts without a second thought. With an easy smile and a desire to be happy, nothing is important enough to allow himself to marinate in bad vibes. Alice, on the other hand, is just the opposite. Not only did Alice start off incapable of forgiving and forgetting any real or perceived hurts, she also felt it necessary to hold onto a laundry list of past grievances, easily accessible for every occasion.

He Said

Ben is a 42-year-old, easy-going accountant who loves his wife and family dearly, is close to his family of origin, has many friends, and basically sees the world as a wonderful place…possibly through rose-colored glasses. He feels extremely fortunate to have met and married Alice a bit later in life—at the age of 29—and is proud and grateful for his four children.

“Alice is great,” Ben explained. “What a lucky guy I am to be married to someone so interesting, smart, beautiful, and truly efficient as Alice is. Whatever Alice puts her mind to accomplishing, she does. I am in awe of her. Honestly, I wish I could be as focused, determined, and successful at all things the way she is.

Not to say that I’m a mess. I actually have pretty healthy self-esteem and I believe I’m successful at most things. But I’m human, and occasionally I mess up. Usually nothing huge. In fact, it could be as minor as forgetting to throw out the garbage one day. The problem is that when Alice is disappointed for whatever reason, not only can’t she just overlook it, which would be great, but she starts listing off a bunch of other things I’ve done wrong. Would you believe that last week, she even brought up the time when I bought tickets for a Broadway show and somehow got the date wrong and we showed up at the theatre on the wrong night? Yes, that was really stupid of me. And at the time I apologized profusely. Yet, over the years, Alice has brought it up over and over. She cannot let it go. Why does she constantly have to make me feel like an idiot over something I did years ago? I’m tired of hearing the same old stories being repeated. We’ve been married over 13 years. Shouldn’t there be some kind of expiration date on grievances?

“As terrific as Alice is, on occasion she makes a mistake. I don’t make a big deal out of it. Usually, I don’t even say anything in the moment. I know she feels badly enough on her own and I don’t need to rub her nose in it. And I would certainly, never, ever bring it up again sometime in the future. I don’t understand why she can’t take a page out of my playbook and just lighten up. Go easy on me. Lose the list of gripes. Sorry I’m sounding kind of harsh, but I’ve held this in a very long time.”

I asked Ben whether he ever brought up this specific situation with Alice in the past. In response, Ben replied, “Would you believe I haven’t? I’ve just kind of taken the beatings time and time again. But clearly, over the years, it has built up to the point where I feel it’s wearing me down and I’m starting to feel extremely frustrated and resentful. That’s really the reason why I asked Alice to come here today. Maybe she thinks we’re here for some other reason. Maybe she has her own complaints. My goal here today is to spotlight this situation that I’ve accepted for a long time and see whether there is a way for Alice to lighten up and find forgiveness in her heart for the little and big things so I don’t have to hear the same old reprimands over and over again.”

She Said

Alice is a 39-year-old crisp, attractive woman who certainly looks the part that Ben described. She is an only child and described her childhood as being one in which she tried extremely hard to always be the “perfect child,” since there was no one else to take any of the pressure off her parents’ shoulders. From our first meeting, it wasn’t clear whether this pressure was self-imposed or whether her parents expected the world from her. Either way, she was a serious child and remains a serious adult.

When I asked her whether she suspected what the true reason was for Ben calling for this meeting, she responded as follows: “Actually, I’m really surprised to hear all of the accusations that Ben is making against me. I’ve noticed in recent months that Ben is not his usual happy-go-lucky self and thought maybe something is going on at work that was affecting his mood. But, in answer to your question, no. I really didn’t think it had anything to do with me.”

“Well,” I continued. “Hearing that it actually has everything to do with you, how does that make you feel?” Alice took a few minutes to think about my question and with a confident but surprised look on her face, said, “I’m actually kind of shocked. Frankly, I had no idea I wasn’t allowed to let him know when I was upset about something, and in terms of repeating old incidents, maybe I sometimes feel I need to do that to drive a point home.”

Ben’s eyes locked with mine. It was clear there was a lot of work to be done. Alice obviously had no idea that her behavior could be perceived as troubling. She seemed to be doubling down on her confidence that her conduct was absolutely acceptable and even appropriate.

I asked Alice whether she ever thought about the possibility of letting go, moving on, forgiving and forgetting former upsets so that both she and Ben could live with less tension? “Why would I do that?” she asked with sincerity. “So that you both could be happier,” I responded. “Why would that make me any happier?” Yes, my work was cut out for me.

My Thoughts

As our sessions progressed, we spent a great deal of time hearing from Ben and allowing him to express in a heartfelt, deeper way, what it has felt like for him to be the recipient of Alice’s harsh rebukes that not only targeted the moment, but also went back to moments that occurred over a decade ago. Though by nature he was quick to apologize and try to lighten the moment, these old and new rebukes ultimately began to cut him to his core and seemed to magnify over time.

Equally important conversations revolved around the topic of forgiveness and what it represented for Alice. Her attitude was harsh and seemed to be etched in stone, but we worked together to allow her to understand where these beliefs came from in the first place, why she felt so threatened at the prospect of possibly reshaping her assumptions, and opening up a door in her formerly held dogma, to allow in a softer, kinder, more accepting attitude.

Once that critical door was opened, we made rapid progress. Forgetting, on the other hand, was another story. Alice didn’t seem so keen on letting go of her stories. She believed there was almost something dishonest about bypassing them as she recalled her history. However, she did ultimately agree to keep her stories to herself in this regard. Ben certainly didn’t need or appreciate reminders. So long as they both stayed in their lane in this regard, a satisfying compromise was reached.


Esther Mann, L.C.S.W., is a psychotherapist in Hewlett.  Esther can be reached at 516-314-2295 or by email, mindiz44@aol.com. Esther works with individuals, couples and families.


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