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Can I Really Forgive and Forget?

How do I forgive when it still hurts so much? How do I get back to how it was before he/she lost my trust? I want to move on, but how do I know if I am ready? How do I control all my thoughts that make me question if I can trust her/him again?

These are examples of questions submitted to me by LDS Living readers. I have received significantly more requests to address trust and forgiveness than any other topic in recent months. Hopefully you will all find this article insightful for your specific situations.

This topic is extremely complicated and addressing it in one article may not be sufficient. However, I hope the tools I outline will be of some assistance to those trying to forgive and trust loved ones again.

We often hear the old adage "forgive and forget." But I have to be honest with you—I hate it. The cruel reality of forgiving others is understanding that we will never really forget what happened. Instead of burdening yourself with the unrealistic responsibility of forgetting, the focus should instead be on finding a way to let it go. Letting go is still extremely difficult, but it is possible.

The key to letting go is to recognize how your emotions are guiding your ability to let go. Research by Olson et al. (2002) brought together many years of research on the emotional experience felt when trust is violated. They identified three phases people go through while processing what happened and rebuilding trust. As you read the first two phases I encourage you to recognize that the difficult emotional experiences you may have felt or may be feeling at present are entirely normal given the difficult circumstances. The third phase is focused on rebuilding the trust.

Phase 1: Roller Coaster. As is evident by the name of this first phase, it is filled with intense emotions that cycle rapidly. It is normal after learning of the violation to feel a roller coaster of emotions. The intensity of emotions is typically directly related to how much you care about the person who violated your trust. If you love the person deeply, the roller coaster may feel more volatile.

During this phase the negative outcomes of trust violation are most apparent. Be patient; this will lessen with time. You may feel extreme feelings of anger, inadequacy, self-blame, and fear of the future. You may also experience increased confrontation with the person who violated your trust. Any pre-existing problems in the relationship may be magnified during this first phase. As you weather the roller coaster, expect that it will be difficult to manage conflicting feelings.

Phase 2: Moratorium. The roller coaster will be followed by an emotional shut down. You may try to close off all the difficult emotions associated with what happened. This is a natural and normal coping mechanism that is trying to remove the pain. You may also want to obsess about the details of the trust violation. This will makes things worse. It is tempting to know every detail, but it can make letting go more difficult.

You may also retreat physically and emotionally from the person who violated trust while surrounding yourself with people who care for you. Seeking the help of loved ones in trying to make meaning of trust violation is also common. It is important to recognize that you will never be satisfied with whatever meaning you may make of the situation. The hard reality is that a horrible thing happened; you didn't ask for it, you didn't want it, and you didn't deserve it. Recognizing that will help you move toward letting go.

An important note before we move on to the third phase, which focuses on trust building: Don't feel like you need to rush the process of letting go. The person who violated your trust will likely expect forgiveness much sooner than you feel ready to give it. This is normal.

However, it is also important not to drag the process of letting go for too long. There is no clear time period that works for every situation, but most that focus on letting go are able to return to a level of normal functioning with the person who violated trust within 3 to 6 months. If it takes more than a year, letting go may need to be a bigger focus. Stewing for longer than that, in most situations, can make the pain last longer than is necessary.

Phase 3: Trust Building. Trust building typically does not occur until the first two phases have been experienced. This can be a long and difficult process. It is important to be willing to re-engage with the person who violated your trust. Don't feel pressure to go over the top all at once. Just share how the experience made you feel on an emotional level. Give them the opportunity to apologize, take responsibility, and show their feelings of remorse. You will appreciate the apology more when you hear it in the trust-building phase.

Try to continue opening channels of communication and positive interactions with the person. Replacing the pain with positive, trusting communication and interactions can help you let go of the past pain. It will take time. Research has shown that negative interactions can hold significantly more weight on our minds than positive interactions. It will take a lot of positive interactions to outweigh the pain from the violation, but fostering the positive and focusing on a new fresh start will be extremely powerful if you allow it. Little by little, the positive interactions will rebuild the safety net of trust.

Weathering these phases is not easy. If you feel that you can’t do it alone, seek out professional assistance from a competent marriage and family therapist who has experience working with trust issues. If you live in Utah, I would be happy to help. Contact me to schedule an appointment (www.swintoncounseling.com).

You deserve to live free of the pain and burden you may feel. The beloved actress Harriet Nelson said, "Forgive all who have offended you. Not for them, but for yourself." You will feel much needed peace and freedom as you focus on forgiving and letting go. Holding on to the pain allows the negative event to maintain an unnecessary hold on your life. You need and deserve better. As with any major trial, also seek the help of the only one who really knows how you feel: the Savior. After all, it has been promised that "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phillipians 4:13).

* Is there a marriage or family relationship issue that you would like our relationship expert Jonathan Swinton to address in future columns? If so, send him an e-mail at jonathan@swintoncounseling.com.

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Jonathan Swinton is an LDS Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He is an approved LDS Family Services Referred Provider, accepts Bishop referrals, and is available to provide marriage and family therapy services and weekend couple retreats to anyone interested. He is also available to speak on relationship issues at Relief Society and Ward activities. Contact him at Swinton Counseling: 801-647-9951, www.swintoncounseling.com.
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