I forgive you, but it’s not okay

Being in relationships with other humans, whether those relationships are romantic or otherwise, inherently puts you at risk of being hurt, and of hurting others. The more intimate the relationship — the more vulnerability the participants have invested in it— the greater the risk.

In short: we hurt each other. It sucks, but it’s the cost of doing business.

The healthiness of a relationship is measurable, at least in part, by how free the participants feel to express their hurt, to seek redress, to offer redress, to forgive. But this stuff is, in a word, messy, because hearing “you’ve hurt me” from someone you care for is in itself painful… which makes it very easy to make the hurt you’ve caused about you, and that’s no good for anyone.

You’ve doubtless had the experience of raising a problem or concern and then having to pivot immediately to reassuring the now-profusely-apologizing loved one instead of addressing the actual issue. This is a perfectly natural impulse, of course — their having hurt us distresses them, and seeing them in distress makes us want to offer reassurance. (At its most pernicious, this impulse is weaponized by abusers to shift the perceived moral and emotional responsibility for the abuse onto the abused.)

“It’s okay,” we insist, trying to interrupt the infinite loop of “the pain I’ve caused you causes me pain.” But here’s the problem with “it’s okay”: it doesn’t distinguish between “I’m not hurt” and “I’m hurt and I forgive you.” It doesn’t help that our standard social scripts don’t really provide us with a good way to talk about our hurts outside of states of affect — it’s hard to have these conversations without first taking a detour through tears or anger — so deviating from the “it’s okay” script is always going to feel uncomfortable, until hopefully one day it doesn’t.

Sometimes, a cuddle session with a partner goes long enough that my arm starts to fall asleep. When that happens, I adjust our bodies until the situation is addressed. When I do, I often hear an apology, to which I invariably respond with confusion: it wasn’t a problem, and when it became a problem I addressed it, so no harm was done. My response here isn’t forgiveness — no harm was done, so there’s nothing to forgive — it’s absolution. And it’s important that I communicate to my partner precisely that, because I definitely don’t want them to stop cuddling with me for fear of putting my arm to sleep.

At the same time, there are absolutely things that my partners do that do harm me, and that may be behaviors I’d like to see changed. A big thing for me, personally, is being kept apprised of changes in plans or dynamics. One of the quirks of my neurochemistry, like many on-the-spectrum and spectrum-adjacent folks, is that the disruption of patterns or plans is very stressful for me. In my case, this stress is diminished or eliminated when I’m informed in advance. So it’s totally cool if you’re running late or want to reschedule or need some space from me, but, like… let a guy know, man.

Part of that is on me to manage. For example, I have a partner who’s something of a fae creature: full of wit and whimsy and loveliness, and who winks unpredictably into and out of existence. I’ve learned that when they say “I’ll be there at 6,” they’re not making a future plan so much as stating a present intention. It’s a claim that’s true when they say it, even if they don’t show up until 7 or 10 or tomorrow. So I know that my job isn’t to have the Netflix queued up and the kettle coming to a boil at 5:59 like it would be for any other guest; it’s to go about my afternoon while holding some free spacetime for them to manifest. When they appear at 7:36 and apologize, I can offer them absolute absolution — I wasn’t harmed and so there’s nothing to forgive.

But part of it is on them. Sometimes we make plans — actual, objective, fixed plans — and then those plans fall through, sometimes without warning. That sucks. It’s stressful and can leave me spiraling uselessly for hours. If the plans involved other people, it can leave me feeling social guilt for delaying or inconveniencing others. When they apologize for this, I still find myself reaching for “it’s okay.” After all, they probably wouldn’t have disrupted our plans unless something stressful or taxing was happening in their life, and I don’t want to compound their struggle by making/holding them responsible for mine.

And that’s dumb and unhealthy of me, because what I should be reaching for is “I forgive you, but it’s not okay. That’s the thing I’m working on, these days: clearly identifying and communicating whether or not I’ve been hurt. Because I’ve found myself in patterns, in the past, where the instinctive “it’s okay” reassurance doesn’t just do a disservice to the people in my life (whom I trust to not want to be harming me, and who should be informed when they do so they can do better), but also to myself by leaving those harms unnoticed and untreated until I exploded with a resentment that takes everyone involved by surprise.

To be clear, not every harmful or hurtful behavior by someone in your life is forgivable or ought to be forgiven. And it’s totally fair to say “I forgive you, but… C-, needs work,” or to enforce your boundaries and demand changes be made if the relationship (whether romantic or otherwise) is to continue. It’s also totally fair to say “this behavior hurts me, but that hurt is a price of admission I’m willing to pay to preserve this relationship.”

If you’re not drawing or communicating these distinctions, you’re probably failing to sufficiently interrogate your own emotions and definitely failing to provide your loved ones with information they need to calibrate their future behavior. That last thing is super important, because what we find hurtful is often pretty arbitrary and impossible to anticipate without being told. (A partner’s husband, for example, has no objections to my sleeping with his wife in their bed, but hoo, boy, would we ever have words if I used his blanket.)

The wrinkle is that you can’t even meaningfully start figuring out how to enforce those boundaries or balance those needs if you’ve gone straight to “it’s okay” absolution and skipped the assessment of whether or not harm has been done to you. So this is my prescription, for you and me both:

Trust that the people who love you don’t want to hurt you. Tell them, and yourself, when they have, even when the conversation is uncomfortable to have. Practice hearing that you’ve hurt people you love without letting your guilt steal the spotlight. Work together to figure out what changes can be made to both redress and prevent those hurts. Forgive what you can and should. Accept forgiveness, but do the work.

Lawyer and translator of legalese into plain English. Also a cishet white dude trying to unlearn a bunch of baggage.

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