Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation in a Relationship

When you’ve been hurt or betrayed by someone you love, you may hear the old adage that forgiveness is the key to your own freedom. But does that give the other person a hall pass for their behavior? Does it mean they don’t have to take responsibility for what they’ve done? And does forgiving someone take away all the hurt and anger you’re feeling?

In truth, forgiveness has nothing to do with your ex-spouse (or whomever you might forgive) and everything to do with you and your well-being. It’s not a condonation of what they’ve done. It’s a freeing of your mind so you can pursue your best life. 

Does forgiving mean you’re reconciling with your former partner? Not at all! You can forgive all on your own without ever uttering a word to that person. 

Forgiveness vs. reconciliation

Forgiving certainly won’t erase the past, but it can help you heal from it. When you forgive someone, it releases you from the emotional burdens of the past so you can finally heal and move forward. The person you forgive never has to know anything about your choice to forgive them. It’s a gift to yourself.

Reconciliation requires effort from both people. If both of you want to try again, it can open the door to a reconciliation – but to be successful, both must commit and work hard.

Bottom line: It only takes one person to forgive, but it takes two to reconcile. 

How long do you want to let all the hurt from your past relationship take up residence in your heart? And how long do you really want to carry around all that hurt? 

Quick answers: Comparing forgiveness and reconciliation at a glance

    • Purpose: Forgiveness benefits your healing. Reconciliation benefits both of you by repairing and rebuilding your relationship and trust.

    • Process: Forgiveness is a personal internal process of letting go of anger, blame, or a need for revenge after you’ve been hurt, regardless of whether the other person “deserves” it or not. Reconciliation is the process of restoring a relationship that requires both partners’ mutual communication, agreement, and action.

    • Involvement: Forgiveness requires one person’s involvement: yours. Reconciliation requires both partners’ cooperation and commitment and usually relies on an acknowledgment or apology from one or both of you.
  • Conditional/unconditional: Forgiveness is an unconditional gift to yourself so you can heal and find peace. Reconciliation is highly conditional and depends on both of you to move the relationship forward healthily.

  • Outcome: With forgiveness, there’s no need to restore or continue the relationship. The intended outcome is healing for yourself. With reconciliation, the goal is to restore and resume your relationship with new understanding and agreements. 

How to forgive someone

Anger and resentment keep you rooted in the past, causing you to feel unhappy with yourself and others. If you do not forgive, you remain stuck in victimhood. It’s bad for your mental health and holds you back from the ultimate goal of a fulfilling and happy life. 

When you release the self-consuming negative energy of anger, however, you give yourself a clean slate from which to start.

Forgiveness requires self-examination and self-compassion:

  • Take accountability for your role in the break-up. 
  • Permit yourself to feel the betrayal and hurt. At the same time, understand that allowing yourself to stay stuck in these feelings indefinitely would hurt you even more.
  • Establish better boundaries to prevent repeat mistakes.
  • Be patient with yourself. Forgiveness is an ongoing process. Just when you think you’ve gotten over those past hurts, they can come crashing down on you all over again. 

We’ll say that again: Forgiveness is an ongoing process. It can take some people years to find forgiveness and finally get closure. But it sets the stage for a positive future and can be well worth it in the end.

Forgiveness does not exonerate your ex, but it releases you from their negativity.

6 steps to forgiveness: A practical approach 

While the act of forgiveness is a personal matter that looks different for each person, there are some steps you can take to move you closer to that end. 

1. Identify and accept your feelings.

The reality is, you were hurt. You feel betrayed. It wasn’t fair, and you’re angry. Your feelings are valid. Name and accept your feelings, and know that you’re entitled to every single one of them.

2. Consider the impact of holding onto these feelings.

Your feelings are real, and you have every right to them. But how are they affecting you and your well-being? Is hanging on to resentment and anger doing you more harm than good? Consider how unencumbered you might feel without these negative feelings weighing you down. How could your life be different without all this resentment?

3. Give yourself emotional distance.

Your feelings of anger and betrayal can become residents in your head, and they can consume you. While it’s natural to ruminate for a while, this anger and resentment will keep you stuck in the past, and that’s not where you need to be. Whenever they start circling back on their talktrack, thank them for their concern, but don’t allow them to remain full-time residents any longer. 

4. Try to find empathy.

Forgiveness requires a certain amount of compassion and empathy. The break-up of any relationship is rarely one-sided, and if you’re honest, you probably had some role in it. This isn’t about making yourself feel guilty or giving your partner a free pass. It’s about trying to understand it from a more neutral and compassionate viewpoint.

5. Make it a conscious choice.

Forgiveness is a choice you make for yourself and nobody else. You’re not absolving anyone for their actions; you’re realizing you no longer want to be held captive by the pain. Clearly set the intention to forgive for your own healing and well-being. 

6. Dare to consider the future.

Once you actively decide to forgive, it frees up time and energy that you can use to focus on your future. Forgiving won’t take away all the hurt and anger immediately, but it will open space for healing. With that newfound freedom, the emotional sting will fade. You can get on with all the new and wonderful things you plan to do with your life. 

Actions to get you there

Forgiving is hard work. Your anger is your way of protecting yourself from more hurt, and letting that go can leave you feeling vulnerable. You’ve worn a deep groove with that anger, and it takes effort and time to climb back out. How can you do this?

  • Write it out in a journal. Journaling can be an effective way of moving your feelings outside of yourself. Write about the situation in depth: how it made you feel, how it impacted your trust in that person, what it will take to forgive that person. Revisit your entries over time to look for any movement in your feelings.
  • Write a forgiveness letter. A letter forgiving the other person puts your intentions on paper, releases some of the hurt and anger, and helps move you into an emotional place of forgiveness. Afterward, simply discard it. The other person will never receive it. Only you know it existed. 
  • Try the empty chair technique. This technique allows you to pretend you’re talking to the person you are trying to forgive. It allows you to say all the things you’ve wanted to say and haven’t had the opportunity to or have held back. It allows you to explain how the situation made you feel and how you are trying to move on from the hurt.
  • Practice gratitude. If it’s an ex you’re forgiving, your relationship with them probably wasn’t all negative. There may have been many positives. Take time to review all the ways your life and memories were enriched by this relationship. Find things you are grateful for that came out of it. Why? It’ll help you become a stronger version of yourself because of it.

Forgiveness is a marathon, not a sprint

The process of forgiving will take time and have its challenges. Forgiveness could initially make you feel weak; you may have conflicting feelings, wanting to forgive yet still wanting to hold onto your anger. After all, you never want to feel this kind of hurt again, and your anger can feel necessary right now. It may reopen all sorts of old emotional wounds you thought you had put behind you. What’s more, friends and family may not understand how you could ever want to forgive your partner’s actions. 

If your forgiveness hinges on getting acknowledgment from your partner for their mistakes or an apology, know that it may never come. This is especially true if you’re still being negatively impacted by this person. You’re doing this for yourself. Your forgiveness doesn’t minimize or ignore anything they’ve done. 

Forgiving yourself for allowing it to continue may be the final piece of the puzzle. You only knew what you knew. You were limited by your hurt, lack of knowledge, lack of self-understanding. Forgiveness is that light at the end of the tunnel that carries your emotional freedom with it.  

What research says about forgiveness and mental health

Forgiveness does more than help move you beyond a traumatic life event like divorce. Evidence-based studies show that while forgiveness helps you heal from something like a break-up, it also fortifies your mental and physical health. 

Forgiveness and stress

Life is stressful in and of itself. Add divorce to the mix, and your stress moves into overdrive. However, it appears that the very act of forgiveness counteracts an individual’s perception of their own stress level. 

In one study, a group of respondents ranging from ages 16 to 79 who were able to forgive experienced a decrease in stress, which in turn led to a reduction in mental health symptoms. 

Forgiveness and mood

Forgiveness has been found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which turns off hyperarousal and produces a calmer and more relaxed feeling, both mentally and physically. One study even linked forgiveness to greater longevity because of its effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. 

Forgiveness and lowering the risk of psychological disorders

Rumination, or replaying things over and over, is common when someone can’t forgive. These invasive, circular thoughts can lead to depression, hopelessness, and anxiety. Habitual rumination can even lead to psychological disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD. 

Studies have found that being able to forgive helps individuals let go of these repetitive thoughts and their emotional and psychological consequences.

How to reconcile with someone

Maybe forgiveness isn’t your end game after all. Maybe what you really want is to reconcile with your spouse. Let’s say you’re part of a married couple, and your spouse commits adultery. The two of you are in the middle of the divorce process when you suddenly realize that this marital relationship might be worth saving.

Will you succeed at patching things up? Maybe. But know this: Reconciliation takes two people who are fully committed to healing, whether it’s a marriage relationship or another type of relationship.

A successful reconciliation requires both people to do the following:

  • Acknowledge your hurts and resentments, and commit to putting them behind you. Agree to focus on the present instead of the past. Rehashing old conflicts will only eat away at any healing you accomplish.
  • Keep your expectations realistic. As only half of the healing equation, you have half of the power over what happens. You must rely on your partner for the rest.

  • Try to see the other person’s point of view. Looking at your relationship from your partner's perspective helps you understand their side and take accountability for your own role.

  • Offer heartfelt apologies to each other. Taking responsibility and being truly sorry for your actions allows the other person to feel heard and validated. 

  • Continue to take the time and effort required to build trust. Reconciliation is not a set-it-and-forget-it thing. It took time for your relationship to break down, and it may take even longer to build it back up. 

  • Respect each other’s boundaries. You’ve been hurt, and you’re taking baby steps toward a mended relationship. That means you need to be especially respectful of each other’s feelings and boundaries. 

Navigating the reconciliation process

Reconciliation can be a slow process and hard work. The trust and comfort you’re looking for will take time to restore, and the relationship you’re expecting might even evolve into something entirely different from what you were expecting. 

Before initiating a reconciliation, ask yourself some important questions. Are you ready for a reconciliation, or are you harboring doubts? Have you had time to reflect and understand the reasons for your break-up and how the future will need to be different? Have you acknowledged your role and made an apology? Do you think your partner is open to it?

How and when will you approach the conversation? Give yourself plenty of time and space for a heartfelt conversation. If it’s appropriate, begin with an apology for your part, but don’t expect immediate forgiveness. Acknowledge that even though you’ve both been hurt, you’d like to work through the issues and keep the door open for more dialogue.

Once you agree to take the next step, go slowly. Trust will only be rebuilt with consistency over time. Keep your communication honest, open, and kind. Discuss and set boundaries or new rules that could help prevent past conflicts from reemerging or avoid misunderstandings. 

Be patient. Expect that there might be setbacks. Old wounds can resurface, and you might fall into old patterns. Moments of doubt? No doubt they’ll be there, too. While you might get stuck in old grievances, focus as much as possible on the future. You can’t fix what happened, but with enough understanding, communication, and compassion, you can ensure that it won’t happen again.

If you can’t do this on your own, get help. A professional therapist can offer strategies for working your way back to each other and get you back on course if you temporarily lose your way. 

Can you reconcile without forgiveness?

While reconciliation is a process, it’s a difficult one without forgiveness. To successfully reconcile with someone who has hurt you, it takes commitment, accountability, and a good dose of empathy on both sides.

If one partner is still holding on to hurts and resentments of the past, forgiveness and reconciliation can be challenging, if not impossible. Without forgiveness, the old hurts have a way of circling back and making it difficult to move forward. 

Can you forgive without reconciliation?

Forgiveness is yours and yours alone. Whether you want to reconcile with that person or not, forgiveness is the gift that allows you to move forward with your life without the burden of past hurts getting in the way of your future.

Forgiveness and reconciliation are hard work. You may have years of hurt and resentment to revisit and move beyond. Whether you’re doing it for yourself or as part of a reconciliation process, getting support from a trusted therapist or divorce coach can help you better understand and navigate the emotional terrain of forgiveness and reconciliation. 

When professional help is needed

Navigating forgiveness or reconciliation can be emotionally charged terrain. A professional can offer a knowledgeable, empathetic, and structured approach to healing, whether that is in the form of forgiving or reconciling. 

When could seeking professional support make sense?

  • If you have persistent negative emotions about your partner that you can’t let go of, and these are hurting your life
  • If you have difficulty talking about past hurts without it escalating into a conflict
  • If you’re hoping to improve your relationship or reconcile but don’t know where to start

A therapist provides a safe, confidential, and nonjudgmental space for you to express your needs, feelings, and vulnerabilities. They have the training and expertise to help you explore the roots of your issues and guide you through your emotional processing. If you’re there with your partner, a therapist will facilitate calm and respectful communication between you and encourage you to see things from each other’s viewpoints.

Therapy isn’t easy. Expect intense emotions to come up, and know that you’ll probably be asked to do some serious work between sessions to help you better understand the issues or practice strategies to move your healing forward. Both forgiveness and reconciliation take time and dedication. Therapy offers guidance, but it doesn’t offer a quick or easy fix. 


Mediation may be a valid option if you and your partner are considering reconciliation. Mediation is a structured process with a neutral third party who can help guide you toward the resolution of specific problems. Unlike a therapist, a mediator doesn’t look at the emotional or psychological roots of a problem. Instead, they can help you forge agreements around your financial life, career, parenting, or other matters to help your reconciliation go more smoothly. 

At Hello Divorce, we exist to support you before, during, and after your divorce with legal plans, professional services, and a library of extensive resources so you can move through your divorce and into the future with courage and optimism.


Forgiveness, Stress, and Health: a 5-Week Dynamic Parallel Process Study. (April 11, 2016). Annals of Behavioral Medicine.
Forgive to Live: Forgiveness, Health, and Longevity. (June 25, 2011). Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 
REACHing for Forgiveness: Exploring the Impact of the REACH Forgiveness Program (video). (May 1, 2023). Templeton World Charity Organization.
Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.