by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Author, Attorney, Podcaster, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, and Creator of the World's Most Successful Breakup Program. 

  • Getting Past Your Breakup: How To Turn A Devastating Loss Into The Best Thing That Ever Happened To You (Hachette Book Group 2009)
  • Getting Back Out There: Secrets to Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup (Hachette Book Group 2015)
  • Getting Past Your Past Workbook: The Definitive Workbook to Emotional Healing, Health and Happiness (La Bella Vita Publishing 2012)
  • GPYP Power! Affirmations (La Bella Vita Publishing 2019) 


Backstory to this post: I tend to re-run this after someone in the Facebook Group asks about forgiving their ex. That means I run it A LOT.

After the Breakup: Forgiving Yourself and Others

Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. ~ August Wilson

Forgiveness of others starts after we do our grief work and our Relationship Inventory in Getting Past Your Breakup (GPYB) and our examination of the relationship and feel the spectrum of emotions. It does not start right away.

Forgiveness of others is the end, rather than the beginning, of the process. True – 100 percent forgiveness – of someone who has hurt you deeply is a myth. I was very comforted to read in Women Who Run With Wolves (full excerpt below): You can choose from any ways to do it. You can forgive for now, forgive til then, forgive til next time, forgive but give no more chances–it’s a whole new game if there’s another incident. You can forgive part, all, or half of the offense. You can devise a blanket forgiveness. You decide.

It usually doesn’t happen. You forgive as much as you can as soon as you can and then you just accept the rest.  My ex-husband went to his grave not ever apologizing to his kids – yet admitting – on his deathbed – that he was wrong.  He admitted it to his brother.  I have been enraged that he would a) drop that in his brother’s lap and b) not even have the decency to scrawl it out on a napkin: Dear Boys: I was wrong. Love you, Dad.

Nope.  True asshole to the end. I forgave him for what he did to ME long ago. I never truly forgave him for what he did to my kids.  When he got sick there was still a lot of anger in me about what he did to my kids.  When he passed without an apology KNOWING he was wrong, I have taken back the amount of forgiveness I previously had.  My boys deserved an opportunity to ask him what the hell and they sure as hell deserved an apology – a DIRECT apology.  It never came.

I will never forgive my birth mother entirely for the pain she inflicted on me and my siblings. I am trying to forgive her to the point where I can see straight when I think about her, but that is for me, not her.  I am trying to forgive my birth cousins who held from me the existence of my older brother.

Why would they do that to me?  The wound is fresh – he popped up 2 years ago.  But I may go to my grave feeling betrayed. I hope I can forgive one day.  For my sake, not for theirs.  I feel robbed…absolutely robbed…of my relationship with my brothers.  I was the only sister they all have and my younger brothers had to deal with my mother not speaking to me so I couldn’t truly be in their lives after she flaked out. My older brother found me after I was emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted and full of grief. I missed all those years with him – when my mother knew he was looking for family and my cousins knew he existed.  I was ROBBED by people who had no right to rob me. He and Michael would have been thick as thieves.  I would have had a brother, he would have had a sister.  Other people who had NO RIGHT to keep that information from me kept it from me. I lost 20 years with a brother I wanted to know all my life. And I’m physically and emotionally exhausted now. I’m angry to the point of being cross-eyed and I am trying – every single day – to let it go. I’m emotionally spent and I can’t even spend a lot of time with this. 

Other than that, life is too short to not forgive everyone else.  They’re not even that important. I have to live my life and have my peace of mind.

Part of that is accepting that I may never forgive my ex-husband and my birth mother for being the self-centered, self-serving asswipes they are or were. She’s alive. He’s dead.  She will outlive me.  Heaven doesn’t want her and hell is afraid she’ll take over.

As GPYB mentions several times, acceptance is the END of a long search for peace. You cannot begin to accept “it’s over” right away, especially if you are coming out of a longtime relationship and had plans for the future. People attempt, using the words of misguided philosophers or on the advice of a misguided or misinformed therapist, or advice from friends who have your best interest at heart but don’t understand the process, to forgive and accept before they are anywhere NEAR experiencing all the emotions.

While acceptance and forgiveness are vital to your healing, its place in your recovery is toward the middle and end, NOT in the beginning or early stage. What is an “early” stage? Well, like a good lawyer, my answer will be “it depends.”

But, honestly, I’m not just trying to be an ahole attorney, it absolutely DOES depend on where you are (are you going through a prolonged divorce? did your partner leave you for another? are you still in contact?). If you’re still in contact, you could have broken up a year ago, but the unnecessary contact (meaning not having to do with children or work-related if you work together – meaning any communication or contact that is not strictly business and business-like) is keeping you at square one. If your ex has moved close by and you see him or her, you are most likely going to be early in the process for a while.  Go to GPYB, go to the workbook, do the work on NC and move on!

If you’ve had a long relationship and don’t know what it’s like to be with anyone else, you will be early in the process a while. If you’ve been betrayed or cheated upon or coming out of an abusive situation where you might have PTSD or other trauma, you will be early in the process a while. Each situation is different, but a few months, in most situations is still very early and much too early to jump to forgiveness. You have to feel your anger, your pain and your broken trust. You have to grieve your secondary losses and the hopes and dreams of a future.

Other secondary losses could be your ex’s friends and family or the place where you lived or the pets you shared. You may have secondary losses as you had to depart with things that had meaning. You have to feel rage and deep devastation first. Your roller coaster of emotions will not just magically disappear because you’ve decide to forgive. In fact, suppressing your emotions to jump to forgiveness will be a surefire way to NOT heal. Ever.

Forgiving Yourself Is A Different Story

However, it is very important to start on self-forgiveness. This process of moving on and healing our hurt cannot possibly happen if we are holding our own feet to the fire. We didn’t know that we didn’t know. We didn’t do as well as we should have/could have. Okay. What have you learned? If you are working on your stuff and doing your inventories, you are learning a lot about you.

Gandhi said to be the change you want to see in the world. If you are working on your stuff and actively trying to be a better person, you are contributing to the good of all. Many never admit their mistakes, never come face to face with their shortcomings and never try to change them. If you are doing the work, you not only deserve self-forgiveness but you must have it. Guilt and regret will keep you forever stuck. Guilt is not good for anything except as a clue as to what we cannot live with in ourselves. That’s it. Use it for good, not for smacking yourself over the head. See Mean Lady Talking Podcast Episode 5 (Shouda Woulda Coulda).

Self forgiveness has to come early in the process because otherwise we become mired or not convinced of our worthiness to have a good life and be happy. There is no sense in doing this work if you don’t think you deserve to have a good life and be happy.

This is hard work. But, there is a huge payoff for doing it as there is in any endeavor that is hard work. That payoff is contentment. If you don’t feel you deserve that, the work is going to be impossible.

Forgive yourself.  Vow to be completely honest about your behavior in the relationship that led to its demise either through journaling or when you get to the Relationship Inventory. Vow to learn from your mistakes and then even if you have not done the Inventory yet, LET GO OF ALL GUILT AND REGRET. There is no other use for it. Let it go. You can look at the red flags you defiantly refused to acknowledge. You can look at the warning shots your lover, when the love was new, shot across your bow that you ignored.

You can look at the ridiculous and inappropriate things they did when love was new but you were so caught up in the freshness of the relationship you decided to let it slide. You can look at all these things and LEARN from them and vow not to do it again long before you get to the formal Relationship Inventory but you learn from it, vow not to repeat it and MOVE ON.

You don’t beat yourself up and watch your negative self-talk about the things you did wrong. Now about forgiving others…sometimes it is very hard and other times people are forcing themselves to forgive when they’re simply not ready. But if you’re stuck in not wanting to forgive and that not-wanting-to-forgive is keeping you from moving on, here is one of the best things I’ve read on forgiveness. And remember, forgiveness can be (and should be) done in stages. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can forgive little bits at a time. And, AGAIN, the forgiveness is for YOU and your healing. Not for anyone else.  The part of your journey NOW, after you forgive yourself that you didn’t know that you didn’t know, is to keep growing and changing, keep your side of the street clean and live your best life – honest, open, willing, changing and daring to dream. 

At every GPYB  Retreat we read part of WWRWW, this forgiveness excerpt is almost always on the agenda. I will be running a very special group in the fall where we read WWRWW. I have wanted to do this group for years, and am happy to be doing it. Sign up for our newsletter on the first page of the gettingpastyourbreakup.com website or on the Resources page above or the button below.

WWRWW is the only book that possesses a special place on my table and is highlighted in every color of the rainbow. I have a hardcover first edition and if my house was on fire, I’d be carrying my husband and cat’s ashes in one arm and this book in the other. 

GPYB is the ONLY breakup book of its kind written with all genders in mind and is meant to be a universal breakup/grief after a breakup book.  Most of what I teach and recommend is meant to be for EVERYONE.

Therefore, I encourage men and anyone not in a “traditional” constellation to look past the “Women Who…” and read the very informative and helpful thoughts by Dr. Pinkola Estes on forgiveness. Thank you.

These are excerpts from Women Who Run With Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. I urge you to buy this wonderful book. 

From the chapter Marking Territory: The Boundaries of Rage and Forgiveness Four Stages of Forgiveness 1. to forego—to leave it alone 2. to forebear—to abstain from punishing 3. to forget—to aver from memory, to refuse to dwell 4. to forgive—to abandon the debt

To forego: To take a break from thinking about the person or the event for a while. It is not leaving something undone, but rather more like taking a vacation from it. This prevents us from being exhausted, allows us to strengthen in other ways, to have other happiness in our lives.

To forebear: This builds focus toward the time when one goes to the next steps. It does not mean to go blind or dead and lose self-protective vigilance. It means to give a bit of grace to the situation and see how that assists.

To forget: To let go, to loosen one’s hold, particularly on memory. To forget does not mean to make yourself brain dead. Conscious forgetting means letting go of the event, to not insist it stay in the foreground, but rather allow it to be relegated to the background. To move off stage. We practice conscious forgetting by refusing to summon up fiery materials, we refuse to recollect. It means not to haul up certain materials and turn them over rand over again. Conscious forgetting means willfully dropping the practice of obsessing, intentionally outdistancing and losing sight of it. This kind of forgetting does not erase memory, it lays the emotion surrounding the memory to rest.

To Forgive: There are many ways and portions to forgiving a person, a community, a nation for an offense. It is important to remember that a “final” forgiveness is not surrender. It is a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment, which includes forgiving a debt and giving up one’s resolve to retaliate. You are the one that decides when to forgive and what ritual to use to mark the event.

You decide what debt you will now say needs not be paid further. Some choose blanket pardon: releasing a person from any restitution now or ever. Others choose to call a halt to redress in process, abandoning the debt, saying whatever is done is done, and the payback is now enough. Another kind of pardon is to release a person without his having made any emotional or other sort of restitution. Forgiveness is the culmination of all foregoing, forbearing and forgetting. It does not mean giving up ones’ protection, but one’s coldness.

Forgiveness is an act of creation. You can choose from any ways to do it. You can forgive for now, forgive til then, forgive til next time, forgive but give no more chances–it’s a whole new game if there’s another incident. You can forgive part, all, or half of the offense. You can devise a blanket forgiveness. You decide.

How does one know if one has forgiven? You tend to feel sorrow instead of rage, you tend to feel sorry for rather than angry with. You tend to have nothing left to remember to say about it all. You understand the suffering that drove the offense to begin with . You prefer to stay outside the milieu. You are not waiting for anything. You are not wanting anything. There is no lariat snare around your ankle stretching from way back there to here. You are free to go. It may not have turned out to be a happily ever after, but most certainly there is now a fresh once upon a time waiting for you from this day forward. ~from Women Who Run With Wolves

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