Why can’t I forgive and forget?

A woman in her mid-30s I’ll call Ashley stopped by to talk after Mass one Sunday as I was greeting parishioners outside the front doors of the church. After placing her two children on a nearby bench with their favorite story books, she came back up to me and began to tell me how, after her divorce a couple of years ago, she had been left alone with the challenge of raising two young children almost by herself. Her ex-husband did contribute the time and financial support set out in their divorce settlement, but even so she often felt simply overwhelmed by the task of raising two young children without a partner at her side. She felt deep resentment toward her ex-husband for ‘trunning off with another woman” and leaving her so burdened. She said that she was fortunate to have a couple of single-parent Mom friends for support. One thing they kept urging Ashley to do was to “let her ‘ex’ go”, in her mind and heart, so she could move on with her life! They claimed that this was the only way she would ever be able to have some real peace of mind again. But Ashley said she still felt so much grief and anger over the unraveling of her marriage, and how burdened it had left her, that she could not see how she could ever “let go”.

Many people who are struggling to come to terms with the end of their marriage in divorce wonder why they cannot just forgive and forget so that they can finally be free to get on with their lives. They feel mired in a swamp of bitter anger and resentment. And just when such feelings seem to be lessening, they can suddenly return as strong as ever in the wake of some reminder of the past marital relationship. The reminder may be seeing an old photo, hearing a favorite song, finding oneself in a place of shared memories, or any random occurrence.

First of all, the sign of forgiveness is not a feeling of inner peace or tranquility. Rather, forgiveness is a decision to forgive someone in spite of, perhaps, intense feelings of grief, anger, or resentment. This kind of forgiving is usually something one needs to do in regard to the offending one as well in regard to oneself. On the one hand, for example, how could one’s former spouse have kept doing something, whether “on purpose” or not, which one found so painful? On the other hand, why couldn’t one have done more to somehow ‘fix” the problem? Questions like these can continue to bombard one for years after the death of a marriage, and one’s “ex” is often beyond reaching to deal with any of this! That is why in such a situation one needs, in the end, to forgive both the “ex” and oneself because no one can move on with her or his life in a healthy way open to inner healing unless one decides to forgive.

As for intense feelings of grief or anger or resentment which remain after one makes a conscious decision to forgive, such feelings tend to lessen over time, but in any case they can only heal from the inside. Any healing process takes time, and it does one no good to attempt to place a mental stopwatch on the healing process. Comments about how “one should be beyond all this by noW’ are not helpful at a”, whether they come from well-meaning people or oneself. But the good news is that every time we consciously decide to forgive (and even to re-forgive) another or oneself, whatever our feelings, we open our heart to further inner healing. Forgetting, as such, is not something we can choose to do, but inner healing arising from one’s repeated decision to forgive can ease the burden of painful memories associated with the tragic end of a marriage.

Ashley responded that she had never thought of forgiveness as a decision in spite of intense feelings of grief or anger. Moreover, it seemed that she had always heard forgiving and forgetting linked together as if forgetting were the true sign that one had truly forgiven. She said that she felt relieved that one did not imply the other at all. At the end of our conversation, Ashley smiled and said she believed that she now saw a doorway through which she could move to begin her path to inner healing. I assured of my prayerful support of her on that inner journey. Then, as if on cue, her young children ran up to us to remind their mother of that they were getting hungry for lunch.