Click play to listen to this article.
In her book, Reawakening, Barbara Mangi details her journey to forgiving Patrick Ford, the murderer of her teenage daughter. Inside she describes not only the emotional and spiritual toll of this journey and what it took to reach the end, but also how she eventually cultivated a friendship with the killer and started exchanging letters while he is serving a 35-year term for first-degree murder.
It’s a pretty wild and gripping story. It blows me away how some people manage to be so forgiving. I don’t know if I would ever be capable of responding the way Barbara did. But what I do know, and what Barbara illustrates faultlessly in her book, is that forgiveness heals.
The point of this is to say that it’s beneficial for your mental health to forgive your ex. Yet many people just can’t do it. Even after hearing, perhaps even internalizing, all the clichés, adages, and advice about forgiveness, they are still angry and can’t let their ex go. Forgiveness to them often seems like self-betrayal — like a surrender in their fight for justice after what their ex has done.
But here’s the thing: feelings aren’t always a reflection of reality. Oftentimes what feels good isn’t actually good, and vice versa. Truth is that while holding a grudge feels weirdly pleasing, you’d be better off forgiving your ex. For forgives entails many mental health benefits. It intensifies feelings of happiness, abates feelings of anger and heartbreak, and alleviates anxiety, insecurity, and depression. (1) (2) (3)
And besides, your ex didn’t necessarily mean to hurt you. They were just saving their own ass. So don’t take whatever they’ve done personally. That’s because, as a general rule, people who do hurtful things do so because they are hurt (or hurting) themselves.
Maybe you were a controlling and clingy partner, and your ex felt trapped in the relationship and like you were obstructing their freedom. Maybe you were a pushover, lacked proper boundaries, and let your ex strung you along for so long that they lost all respect for you. Or perhaps your personal values were simply incompatible — say, you were a hardcore atheist and your ex a religious zealot.
What Forgiveness Isn’t And What It Is
Before I get into how to forgive your ex, let me shed light on what forgiveness isn’t and what it actually is, so we’re all on the same page about what we’re discussing.
For one, forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what your ex has done. If they cheat on you, it doesn’t mean you suddenly pretend like that didn’t happen or try to erase the event from your mind.
Similarly, forgiveness doesn’t mean reconciliation. You can forgive your ex for being a chronic liar, but that doesn’t mean you must give your relationship another shot. In fact, whenever dealing with a toxic person, like a chronic liar or a cheater, I suggest you abstain from rekindling your relationship.
Forgiveness also doesn’t mean endorsing what your ex has done, sympathizing with them, or validating and justifying their actions. If they constantly talk shit behind your back, you can forgive them for it while you concurrently avoid bullshiting yourself that they had a good reason to be an asshole or that they’re a good person.
Finally, forgiveness is not a miracle cure — an eraser that can suddenly wipe away the pain of your breakup. Forgiving your ex is only part of the breakup recovery process. It’s a good start but it doesn’t mean crossing any finish line.
So what is forgiveness?
Forgiveness, at its core, is choosing to not let past events define how you feel about someone or something in the present.
In your case, this means choosing to not let your ex’s actions define how you feel about them, yourself, or your life. It means taking responsibility for your happiness and well-being. Because while the breakup may not be your fault, it’s your responsibility to clean up the wreckage it has caused and marshal yourself to feel like yourself again.
How To Forgive Your Ex
As you probably noticed until now, forgiveness is a purely psychological process. And it’s pretty simple to do too! Here are some guidelines that will help you forgive your ex:
1. Decide to forgive. All it takes is a simple decision to start, but it doesn’t end there. Because forgiveness is a process, an attitude, a habit. Think of it as a firm commitment to your initial decision to forgive your ex that you keep re-deciding, day in and day out. Never letting yourself slip.
2. Acknowledge painful memories. You can either choose to elaborate on the painful memories of your ex and the breakup, or you can choose to simply acknowledge them and re-focus your attention elsewhere. The former will lead to needless overthinking and suffering. The latter will lead to unchaining from the past and feeling better.
3. Accept that your ex left a mark on you. For better or for worse, that mark is now your burden to bear. So bear it. Even better, embrace the bitch. Start identifying yourself as someone resilient and proud of enduring their breakup — the type of person who eats shit and is happy about it.
4. Empathize with your ex. As I wrote earlier, there is likely a good reason your ex hurt you. Your job is to find that reason — to find your ex’s motivation. Once you do, try to put yourself in their shoes. Challenge yourself to imagine whatever adversity they were going through while being with you. The more viscerally you can feel their burden and empathize with them, the quicker you’ll be able to forgive them.
5. Eliminate emotional attachment. Meaning let your hatred, anger, and desire for vengeance wash away. You will still feel these emotions arise when interacting with your ex, but the important thing is to simply not act on them. Instead, let them go when they surface.
6. Write a letter to your ex that you don’t send. Get everything out in the open. Don’t hold anything back. After you wrote your letter, set it on fire, rip it up, shit on it and flush it down the toilet, whatever. Just let the climax be as cathartic as you can make it.
7. Give yourself time. The fresher the breakup, the harder it will be to forgive your ex. So if you can’t do it, focus on other things for a while first. Things like cultivating self-love, rebuilding self-esteem, putting an end to rumination, or participating in your neighbor’s Champagne orgy.
While I could make this article a lot more navel-gazing due to the vague and philosophical nature of the topic, I won’t. I don’t want to bore you to the point where you’d want to gouge an eye out with a rusty spoon. So I’ll wrap things up here. Although here’s a fun treat if you want to dive deeper into forgiveness: How to Forgive When You Can’t by Dr. Jim Dincalci.
If you need more help healing from your breakup, check out my Radical Recovery Course. With over 5h of video, 200 pages of writing, and personalized 1-on-1 coaching, I'll walk you through every step of the recovery process from start to finish.
How A Rebound Relationship Can Save Your Life
A rebound relationship is not always a bad thing. Usually, it is a great thing — in the short and long term, and no matter how it unravels.
How To Rebuild (Or Build) Self-Esteem After A Breakup
Learn what self-esteem is and isn't, what it helps with, and 6 therapy-approved tips on rebuilding (or building) it after a breakup.