How to Forgive When It’s Hard to Forget

Boundaries“I know I’m supposed to forgive,” a woman said to me (Dr. Cloud) at a recent seminar. “But, I just can’t open myself up to that kind of hurt anymore. I know I should forgive him and trust him, but if I let him back in, the same thing will happen, and I can’t go through that again.”

“Who said anything about ‘trusting’ him?” I asked. “I don’t think you should trust him either.”

“But you said I was supposed to forgive him, and if I do that, doesn’t that mean giving him another chance? Don’t I have to open up to him again?”

“No, you don’t,” I replied. “Forgiveness and trust are two totally different things. In fact, that’s part of your problem. Every time he’s done this, he’s come back and apologized, and you have just accepted him right back into your life, and nothing has changed. You trusted him, nothing was different, and he did it again. I don’t think that’s wise.”

“Well,” she asked, “How can I forgive him without opening myself up to being hurt again?”


Click to Tweet: Forgiveness and trust are two totally different things.


Good question. We hear this problem over and over again. People have been hurt, and they do one of two things. Either they confront the other person about something that has happened, the other person says he’s sorry, and they forgive, open themselves up again, and blindly trust. Or, in fear of opening themselves up again, they avoid the conversation altogether and hold onto the hurt, fearing that forgiveness will make them vulnerable once again.

How do you resolve this dilemma?

The simplest way to help you to organize your thoughts as you confront this problem is to remember three points:

1. Forgiveness has to do with the past. Forgiveness is not holding something someone has done against her. It is letting it go. It only takes one to offer forgiveness. And just as God has offered forgiveness to everyone, we are expected to do the same (see Matthew 6:12 and 18:35).

2. Reconciliation has to do with the present. It occurs when the other person apologizes and accepts forgiveness. It takes two to reconcile.

3. Trust has to do with the future. It deals with both what you will risk happening again and what you will open yourself up to. A person must show through his actions that he is trustworthy before you trust him again (see Matthew 3:8; Proverbs 4:23).

You could have a conversation that deals with two of these issues, or all three. In some good boundary conversations, you forgive the other person for the past, reconcile in the present, and then discuss what the limits of trust will be in the future. The main point is this: Keep the future clearly differentiated from the past.

As you discuss the future, you clearly delineate what your expectations are, what limits you will set, what the conditions will be, or what the consequences (good or bad) of various actions will be. As the proverb says, “A righteous man is cautious in friendship” (see Proverbs 12:26). Differentiating between forgiveness and trust does a number of things:

First, you prevent the other person from being able to say that not opening up again means you are “holding it against me.”

Second, you draw a clear line from the past to the possibility of a good future with a new beginning point of today, with a new plan and new expectations. If you have had flimsy boundaries in the past, you are sending a clear message that you are going to do things differently in the future.

Third, you give the relationship a new opportunity to go forward. You can make a new plan, with the other person potentially feeling cleansed and feeling as though the past will not be used to shame or hurt him. As a forgiven person, he can become an enthusiastic partner in the future of the relationship instead of a guilty convict trying to work his way out of relational purgatory. And you can feel free, not burdened by bitterness and punitive feelings, while at the same time being wise about the future.


Taken from The New York Times bestselling book Boundaries. Learn more about this incredibly helpful resource.

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  1. Evalyn says

    Wow. This post really hit home for me. Dealing with separation from my husband of 28 (almost 29) years. We have been separated for 20 months, he has hurt and betrayed me through relationships with other women. I want to believe that they are over but he has yet to come clean with me, or ask for forgiveness and reconciliation. He says there is no hope. I absolutely need to forgive. This is something I have asked the Lord to help me with, almost on a daily basis. Over and over again, his actions betray me and our 2 daughters. We are on the brink of divorce. Please pray for me.

    • Patty says

      Sorry to hear this, I am divorced, 14 years and honestly, I wish I waited a while until he was ready for reconciliation. By the time it finally happened too many years went by and I met someone else. Just keep praying for a forgiving heart, he may not want that now, but you will have more peace and be in a better place and your daughters will see that.

    • Tammy Turgeon says

      Evalyn, my heart goes out to you.Sorry to hear that you are going through such a heart wrenching experience.I just want to encourage you to remember that God is with you every step of the way. He will continue to be your Rock and wants to reveal more of His intimate love for you.As you continue to pour out your heart to Him He will come and fill in the lonely hurting places.

    • Christine says

      this hit home with me as well. But don’t make the same mistake I did. I confused forgiveness and trust as one in the same.My christian husband decided he wanted a divorce after 15 years and an adulterous relationship. After the divorce he decided he wanted to return to me and our 8 year old daughter.I forgave him as we are called to do in Christ and opened myself to reconciliation but also blindly trusted him. I did not hold him accountable and he would not agreed to be accountable. I blindly trusted him. Not only were the efforts to reconcile half hearted on his part but he also continued in the relationship with the other woman. After two and a half years of this back and forth I finally said enough was enough. One month after that decision on my part, he moved back in with her and they married. As mentioned in the article, don’t confuse forgiveness and trust. And save yourself and your children additional heartache.

    • Maria says

      Hi Evalyn. Find yourself a good Christian counselor and do read these Boundaries books. You might want to look into a DivorceCare class….it is for separated and divorced people. I went to one after my divorce but I have friends who went into it separated and have since reconciled, so if that is your hope it could be a safe place to turn to for support and encouragement. I personally found lots of healing in it and it helped me grow in my walk with the Lord.

      You do not have to get divorced right away. You also don’t have to let him back into your heart and home until he’s shown real repentance. New Life sponsors a weekend retreat called Every Man’s Battle and it is for men who struggle with sex addiction, affairs, porn, etc. There’s also a weekend for women who have had husbands who deal with that issue called Restore. You may find some of the support and understanding you need to help you figure out appropriate boundaries for your situation so that you can protect your heart and the hearts of your children.

      May God bless you!

    • Joyce says

      I have gone through similar circumstances and have had much counseling to heal and learn to move forward in a godly manner.

      One of the best pieces of advice that I’ve been given is to look at a person’s actions rather than trusting and hanging my hopes on their words. A person will say what you want to hear to make peace, but their actions will reveal their true feelings/nature/intent.

      How to decide what to do?
      Your head can be confused by a person’s mind games and it can keep you up nights with conflicting lines of reasoning. Your heart can be fooled and your sympathies played upon. BUT, your gut…your inner sense, will tell you the truth. Pray. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Pay attention to what your insides are telling you, and you will know what to do.

      We have a loving, forgiving heavenly Father who will never leave you or forsake you, no matter what!

      Psalm 34 will comfort you as you go through life’s tough stuff. Be blessed.

  2. Liz says

    Hit home for me as well…… I can’t let it go and it happened 3 years ago. I find that I’m mean and negative to him (we decided to stay together), but at if I can’t let it go and see that he is trying to show me he is trustworthy and move forward. I argue with him any chance I get; I’m the one who is now damaging us further. I have to remind myself why I agreed to stay; to make it work. So now I have to show him I can make it work with him. If I can’t get over what he did then there is no point in going forward. I’m going to ask. God to help me everyday.

  3. says

    I’ve been in a similar situation. I was so ‘angry’ for a year (even today, if I think about it and dwell on it, it hurts.). Every day I ‘asked God to forgive me and also that ‘I have chosen to forgive the individual (my pastor) and have asked God to help me ‘line up my feelings with my choice.’ Then (a yer later) I asked the pastor to forgive my attitude and said that I had been angry with him. He said ‘nothing.’ In our relationship ‘I am ALWAYS in the wrong and nothing I do is right. I have even thought about ‘leaving the church’ and going elsewhere BUT with my credentials (I am ordained) I must attend a church of that particular denomination. Whether he realizes it or not ‘he plays favorites.’/

  4. missy says

    Oh Dear Evalyn,
    I feel for you so much. After we were married for 3 years, I found out that my husband is a sex addict. Not only did he have an affair, but he want to strip clubs and porn shops. It was horrible. He was living part time with his girlfriend and part time with me, so I moved back to our home town.
    I prayed and believed for four years- longer than we had been married! We didn’t even have kids. But my parents divorce when I was 8 felt so horrible and just wrong. So I decided to stick it out. People thought I was crazy. I even slept with him while he was with her. He was MY husband. Not hers. Proverbs says “There is one who pretends to be rich, but has nothing, and one who pretends to be poor but has great wealth.
    I chose to pretend I was poor. The Adulterous woman was pretending to be rich. But he was my husband, not hers. Proverbs also says “The adulteress woman is sweet at first, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood” I clung to Jesus and the Bible. I had only a couple of friends who helped me stand firm.
    By the time the adulteress woman is bitter- the wife is usually long gone, married to someone else, who may or may not be worse than her first husband. And a lot of women say “I wish I had waited for my husband,”
    People say it takes 2 to save a marriage, that is nonsense. There is a ministry called Covenant Keepers, who help a lot of husbands or wives wait for their spouse. People are sick, we are all sick. I prayed “forgive him Father for he knows not what he does” a million times.
    We have had a sort of happy ending. We did get back together. God wouldn’t let him go, and knowing I was waiting for him gave him a sense of value that made him want to change. We have 2 wonderful daughters now, but guess what? My husband is still an alcoholic and until 3 years ago was still acting out sexually.
    I have forgiven him. I have to -to be forgiven myself. But, I don’t know if I will ever trust him. Our marriage isn’t great. I have heard of many others who ended up with a wonderful marriage after being separated. You would be amazed when you look around a huge church , if people raised their hands, just how many marriages God heals.
    My husband has a very selfish, alcoholic, addict personality even when he’s not acting on his impulses. So we are friends who live together for our girls sake. It has been very hard at times, and I’ve wondered if I did the right thing. But I’ve heard that some of the happiest couples are those that stayed together for the kids sake and later found a wonderful marriage.
    I guess I would say, forgive, and let him know you aren’t perfect either. Don’t ever trust him unless he is in counseling and accountability and honestly trying.
    Tell him that he is worth as much as any man in the world, and you hope he will decide to get better for his little girls sake. They need him. They need mom and dad together.
    CC can help you a lot more than I can. I just want to give you hope. God is able to do so much more than most people are willing to believe for.
    And you are not called to change your husband, you are called to forgive, and work on your issues- What did you do to make the marriage difficult? There’s no excuse for adultery and cruelty, but we are all sick and broken. God bless you soooo much!

    • SuSa says

      To Evalyn,
      I went through a similiar experience. And I too, am a whole hearted and devoted Christian who understands we are all severely broken and in need of a Savior. WE also sometimes stick things out that we would rather leave. IF God tells us to. I am also “whole” now because of alot of the brokeness I endured, and I can tell you that NOW I am in a new place. My broken season, although it was for many years, is now over. And now I operated differently. In my new found “whole” state of mind, I would suggest something contrary to what you are currently doing, but pls hear me out. My heart is FOR you. I believe that it is best that you leave. I say that because we all make mistakes when we are younger, and you deserve a second chance to be loved the way God intended you to be. YES, I have two beautiful children who came out of a very abusive relationship. They are my gifts, and they are the BIGGEST reason to get out. If youy stay, you are teaching them, They are learning from YOU that they are not worthy to be loved by a person who loves Christ and will LOVE them, they are learning to stick out alot of pain and dysfucntion. They are worth so much more. Do you want them to feel the same pain you feel?? I know you love your children. I can hear LOVE in your words, but only God can heal your husband. Your staying with him but When God is in something, there is healing. God will not require you to stay with someone who is hurting you, cheating on you, etc forever. Your love must be directed towards your kids now. Sometimes love is teaching them, they are worth more and that if they ever draw to a similiar man (and they may bc HE is their father,) then they know they have the option to get out, be redeemed and live again. They will thank you for getting out!! God says let no man seperate what God has drawn together. BUT God did not put every marriage together. Sometimes it is our immature desires and brokeness that drew us to someone. I pray that You get out, and go after a NEW life in Christ. I pray your realize you are WORTH more and so are your babies. God will be your husband, and your kids heavenly father. And even if God wants to heal your husband, the way that happens is if you leave and give him a reason to change. Once he proves change, thats different. But either way, leaving is your best bet to find out which plan God is supporting. This one Im sure is not blessing you. Yes, its made you a beautiful character, all suffering does if we submit to it. But that season should end, and I believe in leaving for you and your babies, You will be much happier for it. <3 Blessings

      • Rosy says

        This is exactly what I did. I left for my kids. I left because i knew i didnt want my lil girl thinking its ok foe someone to treat her like that. I am not saying my life now is perfect. My boyfriend after him, i loved him but we got off on a wrong start. I wasnt over my ex husband all together. It affected the new relationship i had. It sucks because the pain i caused him in the beginning of our relationship never left him even 3 yrs later. He never forgave me and never trusted me. I really tried to show him i was different that times were different, but it was almost daily that he would remind me of my wrong doing. Eventually, i had to say again, enough is enough and i cant be happy if he doesnt trust me. So this second relationship too ended. But, i am a different person now than who i was. I prefer me now, more than the me when I was with my ex husband. I dont know if i can find another man like my ex boyfriend. I dont even know for sure if he was just an illusion, maybe there were other motives why he wouldn’t forgive me. I could be wrong maybe there weren’t any, but this i do know. I am done suffering. I just want peace in my life and if being single is how i can achieve this goa then so be it.

  5. Linda H. says

    I love the way you broke it up by past, present and future. That makes it clear and easy to remember. I am happy to see that God won’t hold it against me that I act to protect myself in the future. “You hurt me once? Shame on you. You hurt me twice? Shame on me for letting you back in when you already showed me what you’re about.” Life is too short.

  6. Laura says

    I too am in a sad situation. My husband waited til our 10th anniversary to tell me that he has been in an online relationship with another woman for 3 months and is ending our marriage. I am devastated. Clinging to my faith for He is my only rock. Claiming Psalm 68v19. So broken.

  7. shawn rood says

    What may be happening is, and I speak from my experience being married to a women my mother babysat till we were 5, romance seems to become something women avoid with their husbands. In my case I have been replaced with the television, and I have tried to spend time with my wife by watching TV with her but find the shows make me blurt out criticism which then remind her of the negativity in some of my character traits. I prefer to call it sarcasm. The next step would be what is described and occurring in the previous posts. A book called the 5 love languages can save any marriage quickly as it is written by an anthropologist which I credit with saving my marriage in the past. Why someone would cheat on a spouse is to me not unlike rationalizing a first strike with nuclear weapons, especially when you have children and having children is really the only reason to get married. It seems to be a vicious cycle, ignoring, causing anger which turns to paranoia, meaning thoughts like, she must be having an affair or something. Then she gets angry and all I want is to spend some time together with no schedule or plans or other people with us. But she is a women and can out schedule me, and apparently has informed me in every case what the schedule is, and I for some reason can not remember this and am thinking I must be coming down with Alzheimer’s. So it may be that Men, unable to compete with the superior intellect of a women’s turn to suspecting and name calling to help with the displeasure they have against her. Maybe its time to break out the book again? Oh, and I would never forgive her for cheating on me, and I think vise verse for marriage is a sacrifice to begin with and that act shows they are not worth the trouble and you made a mistake by misjudging their character in the first place.

  8. says

    Thank you so much for this article. I just found out that my husband had been having online affairs. He’s been repentant and remorseful, but I do not want to play the fool again. I want to learn the difference between forgiveness, reconciliation, and boundaries. I want to have proper boundaries from here on out, and this article helps me so much. This is great information as we begin in the process of going through counseling through our church. I plan to get the book called Boundaries, read it, and learn from it. Thank you again.

  9. Jenny says

    I too am glad to read this article. My boyfriend of the last three years has been holding onto the hurt from his second wife. She openly cheated on him at every turn. He holds even the most innocent conversations with people I work with against me. He just broke up with me and has said it’s because I am seeking out other relationships with people, when the conversation is all work related. It has been a very difficult week. Ending with him doing g something that no one should ever do. I forgive him for that but I am being overly cautious. I am praying for him to seek the help he needs to turn over that anger and hatred. This is a wonderful article and I can’t wait to read the book again.

    • GamGam says

      Wait…you don’t have to print what it was, but if that thing he did that as you put it “no one should ever do” was violence against you or forced sex in any way, then run!!
      Report him. Forced sex is rape, even in marriage. Violence is a crime every time. If this is what you meant, leave now, and do not let him back into your life. God does not call us to accept rape or violence.

  10. A wife but not sure how long says

    I am happy to be able to read this article. My husband and I have been going through a lot, but his selfishness, insecurities, and jealous crossed the line recently and I don’t want to be in a marriage like that. He has been manipulative and accusing me of stuff i didn’t do or threating to hurt other people (men who are friends of ours) if he feels they are to nice. There is no physical abuse but i REFUSE to feel like a Battered Woman and go another 25 yrs trying be controlled. Now he once again doing everything right, but lm tired of honeymooning, but i said my vows and meant it. Now i feel like if i end it what if i did the wrong thing

  11. Gazz says

    I’d like to know how come there are comments from June 2014 when the article was posted with a date of 25 September 2017??

  12. Samuel says

    I find this a very interesting concept. I personally don’t have any experience with this idea from a marital perspective, but I apply it to all aspects of my life.

    What I’m having trouble with, is the difference between forgiveness for the past and reconciliation in the present. For me, I can’t separate the two. How can I forgive someone for the past, without reconciling with them now? And if the two go together, I feel like I can’t truly forgive them properly. If I can’t reconcile with them now in the present, how can I possibly forgive them for the past? I can differentiate between the present and the future, even the past and the future, but think I’m incapable of truly forgiving someone without present reconciliation, which at the time, I might not be willing to do.

  13. Glass Butterfly says

    This is all extremely helpful for me, thank you everyone….I am currently in the process of separating from my husband after being together 33 years this month. I discovered he has been seeing several other women, who he claims are all only just friends, but he clearly prefers their company to mine, texting and phoning one who he confesses to fancying, very often. He spends whole long days out with her, has done DIY jobs at her house, has been on numerous singles holidays over the last few years and dragged me down into depression for the last 2 years. I am in counselling and cry on a daily basis, and I haven’t needed to cry for the past 20 years! I feel my life is falling apart, and when my husband finally said he wants to go back to being a bachelor and be free to do what he likes and when, it became clear we really can’t live together any more so I am moving out in a couple of weeks. He has split up our family, taken our hopes, dreams and plans for our future retirement and trashed them. I can only see the rest of my life as one filled with loneliness and depression and living hand to mouth. I don’t want anyone else but him as I take my marriage vows seriously and to death means just that. He is looking forward to his new life and exciting times in his retirement…I am still at work and will have no hope of retiring any time soon. I am not angry at him despite several people saying I should be! I am just so, so sad….I want to keep the lines of communication open always and he knows I have forgiven him for feeling like this and for his behaviour but I now don’t trust him. I still love him though feel he doesn’t love me at all despite him saying he does. These boundaries excerpts are so helpful, thank you so much, and God bless all of you who have posted here, I know some of these posts were a few years ago so hope and pray your situations are better now.

    • Courtney says

      I too felt like that before I divorced my ex he was “the only one I wanted to be with” but after I realized he hadn’t changed he cheated on my twice after getting out of Jail for a month he was in a half way house the hole time he was in jail I was faithful to him!! I too seemed to forgive and trust him though out our marriage, but he was very abusive and controlling, just before he got out he threatened me and I actually set proper boundaries, then he brought up about cheating on me again, so I ended the marriage and filed for divorce, found the most amazing man 3 months later! God doesn’t expect us to live that way, to be treated that way! by the time I finally decided to end things he put me through so much because I felt like I couldn’t let go after all we were married I felt like he was the love of my life, but a real man would never lay his hand on a women! We were together 5 years married for 3 and a half and I am so thankful I didn’t wait any longer then I did to end things!!

  14. HMD says

    How do you forgive someone you once loved that physically and emotionally harmed you when you have no desire for reconciliation or future trust? How do you forgive someone you want to have no contact with again? How do you forgive those “friends” around you that abandoned you in your hour of need? How do you ever open your heart up to trusting another man knowing how much you were lied to, manipulated, and eventually attacked by?

    • debi says

      So many in the Christian community jump so quickly on the “forgiveness bandwagon”. Yes, forgiveness is what Jesus asks. BUT! We hardly ever address the critical first step in the process….grieving the loss!! A person CANNOT properly forgive until you grieve what was lost or taken from you. I have experienced this. And I have learned how to forgive well because of it. Take the example of Jesus…He was grieving in the Garden before His crucifixion to the point of drops of blood, and then on the cross, He was able to say, “Father, forgive them…”.

      There is another book I have read, Wounded, by Terry Wardle, which has been very helpful for me. I hope you can find peace and healing in the brokenness you have experienced. Jesus is amazing, and He LONGS to heal the hurt you have experienced in this relationship. Take courage, my friend, for He is near to your heart!!

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