This story appears in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
In the wake of his election, and the protests that followed, soon-to-be president Trump issued a Thanksgiving address that called for embittered Americans to "heal [their] divisions" and "restore the bonds of trust between citizens." Such pleas for healing become common rhetoric following divisive elections, but in this one, more than most, the path to national healing seems elusive at best. President Trump's approval rating remains at a historic low, according to a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, evincing a "starkly divided American electorate." Amid growing investigations of Trump's involvement with Russia, trust in the new president seems a long way off. In this environment, calls for healing sound like a tone-deaf salve to deeper calls for rupture.
How does this dynamic of trust and healing translate to our relationships? Forgiveness is an inevitable component of any life lived in relation. Yet, despite its ubiquity, the research of Hope and Healing Institute psychologist Kathryn Belicki and her colleagues reveals that it is exceptionally hard to define. In a time when women, in particular, are aggrieved, I wanted to talk about when and how we forgive and choose to heal a relationship. In an era of fake news, can trust be rebuilt? I talked to artist Victoria Campbell, writer and visual artist Elise Peterson, and writer Sarah Gerard about love after transgression.
Ana: First, to ground our conversation, how is forgiveness—giving it, asking for it—playing out in your relationships right now?
Elise: Forgiveness is the all-consuming vision of my life right now. I don't know if it is the age I am at—I am turning 29 this year—and just really wanting to come into womanhood and letting a lot of things go. To get there, there's a lot of forgiving I need to do with myself and with other people, especially the men in my life.
Sarah: I recently broke up with my husband of roughly five years. I'm living alone for the first time in my life. We argued a lot. Our fights were so loud that our superintendent once called the police. So I'm thinking a lot about forgiveness these days. I'm working on forgiving him. I did things to him that I've asked to be forgiven for, and that will be his determination to make. We're working on being friends.
Victoria: With forgiveness, what else is there to work through but sin? If you were to confront me with something I did, I'll probably tell you I didn't. And then I'd ask for forgiveness.
Ana: How do you define "forgiveness"? Is it a decision? An emotion? A process?
Victoria: I googled it. According to Google's Ngram Viewer, the published use of the word "forgive" drops in the 1940s, hits an all-time low in the 70s, and then starts to peak again in the post-Obama late 2000s. So forgiveness is definitely a process.
Sarah: I think it begins with a decision and is something you have to revisit within yourself. It also doesn't have to include trust. I forgive my ex, but I don't want him to be a daily part of my life anymore, because the situation isn't healthy for me. It isn't healthy for him, either. I have to think through this each time I feel some tenderness toward him or miss him, and feel, again, hurt by the memory of our relationship, and angry with him and angry at myself.
Elise: I think so far I have experienced forgiveness as a process and then a choice. Maybe if you had asked me this a few months ago, I would have said it's all a process, but I realized in my process of forgiveness—of others, of myself—that I cannot let that be based on how someone else receives my forgiveness. I have to make a choice to forgive a person no matter where they are.
Ana: Do you think that forgiveness is a prerequisite for healing?
Elise: For me, forgiveness and healing are one and the same. When you are seeking forgiveness, you are seeking to be healed. I can't wait around for someone to feel ready. I have to choose to forgive and let it go, which is hard as fuck.
Sarah: In my relationship, there came a time when I realized that my husband and I were the fundamental problem of our relationship. We're just fundamentally different people who love each other but who can never be fully compatible. I think accepting that we are just different people is a form of forgiveness. It implies that the ways that we hurt each other weren't intentional. And didn't happen because we don't love each other.
Victoria: The idea that "forgiveness is the price I pay to make everything OK" is not a useful paradigm. Sometimes things just aren't OK, and that's OK.
Ana: How do notions of healing and forgiveness shift with our "broken" political system, where, as women under the Trump administration, we are transgressed and gaslighted on a national scale?
Sarah: I'm feeling highly suspicious of the male gender in general at the moment. Male toxicity and rage have brought us to this place. I don't forgive them. I'm currently dating a woman who is smart, beautiful, kind, thoughtful, creative—I care about her deeply and take it very personally that the Trump administration believes their heteronormative version of love is the only one worthy of protection under the law. I don't forgive them for their hateful views. The election of Trump is a trauma that will take a long time to heal, if it even can. I don't trust him. I don't forgive him.
Ana: Are there instances where you have forgiven something that surpassed what you thought to be your threshold for tolerating a wrongdoing?
Victoria: What we can't forgive in the other we can't forgive in ourselves.
Elise: One of the things that I have had to forgive is a really bad emotionally and physically abusive relationship I had with an ex-boyfriend about six years ago. After the relationship ended, I thought I had forgiven him. I empathized with him and understood him—all of the things we do with people we care about. And then I went back, and the relationship was really awful, and I started to relate forgiveness as being a mistake. I forgave this person and look where this got me. Not until recently have I been able to step back and understand where I was at, and that comes back to forgiving yourself.
That relationship caused a lot of embarrassment and humiliation and people looking at me like, You forgave this person? Other people's judgment also comes into play.
Ana: Right. I've often noted how I hold on to grudges because my friends do. Has anyone else had experiences where they've regretted forgiving someone?
Victoria: Forgiveness is for me. It's not really about them. It's rare that I find anger the most interesting position to take, especially given the political situation.
Ana: How has forgiveness—or indiscretion—affected your sex life?
Sarah: Well, my ex and I had a lot of makeup sex. There were times when I wondered whether it was keeping the relationship together, because good sex tends to inspire feelings of closeness. After fucking him, I would feel so close to him again—while in the back of my mind, I'd be thinking, This feeling of closeness isn't right, and I don't trust it. And my ex and I were in an open relationship. He understood my need to see other people, and that only came about because he found out I was already seeing someone and decided to forgive me. So, for me at least, forgiveness has resulted in a greater variety of sexual partners.
Elise: With my ex, it was the last time I truly allowed myself to be 100 percent vulnerable in a relationship. After that, it took some time for me to have sex with another partner. I felt way too vulnerable to have sex to the point where I couldn't even reach orgasm.
Victoria: For a while, I'd be begging for forgiveness every three months in my long-term relationships. I learned that I commit to connection in a relationship, not individuals, so now I only ask my partners to commit to connection, instead of to fidelity.
Ana: Would you consider yourself someone who forgives easily? Or someone whose forgiveness is hard-earned?
Elise: I am not a person who forgives easily. I mean, I hold on. I'll hold on to things and the person might not even know. I might not express it to them, but in the inside, I am seething. And I don't want to be that way.
Sarah: I think I generally forgive people too easily and too many times. Apologizing is important, but it can also be used as a weapon—I've accepted people's apologies over and over, even though the relationship is plainly not improving. I also tend to stay in relationships longer than I should. That's because I tend to have relationships outside of my primary relationship, either because I'm cheating or because I have a non-monogamous arrangement with my partner. I've spent a lot of time not forgiving myself—and then working on forgiving myself—for things I've done while cheating; the guilt from lying and sneaking around compounds.
Ana: How have you worked through self-forgiveness?
Sarah: I think the first step is thinking deeply about how you intend to be a better person going forward, which takes courage because it means changing your behavior. This can be a really vulnerable process because we've developed our behaviors to protect ourselves—if you're lying, it's probably because you're afraid to be honest, right? So the relationship has to be an environment wherein you feel safe changing your behavior. It's inevitable that you'll make mistakes. They don't mean you're a bad person. Just do better going forward. Nobody is perfect. Everyone fucks up.