How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship

How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship

Here we will learn about how to forgive your partner, how to let them change, and how to move on in a relationship. I want to get right into it and start with what holding on to the past and rejecting change can look like and what might be holding us back.

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What Holding on to the Past and Rejecting Change Looks Like

“Woah, you stood up for yourself for once, what’s gotten into you?”

– said to a husband with anxiety, who’s working on setting boundaries.

“That’s funny, you think you can talk about forgiveness when you are the biggest grudge holder I know.”

– said to a wife who is trying to make amends with her parents.

“Oh, so you think you’re some type of fitness junkie now? We’ll see how long that lasts.”

– said to a husband who recently started working on his health.

“It’s funny when you try to act laid back. That’s just not who you are.”

– said to a wife who is working on being less anxious and pushy in her relationship.

“It’s weird to see you spending time with the kids, it’s like I don’t even know you anymore.”

– said to a husband who’s working on being a better father.


We judge people for what they do (or don’t do) and then judge them when they try to do something about it.

How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship
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These kinds of interactions are so obviously hurtful, but it’s hard to recognize when we are the ones saying it. This is because they often have emotional charge behind them, whether it’s resentment, fear, discomfort, envy, or pride.

Why Can’t I Let Go of The Past?

Hal Shorey, Ph. D offers some great insight on why we may not be allowing others the freedom to change on Psychology Today.

  1. 1. If someone changes, I won’t have an excuse to dislike them anymore.
  2. 2. If my partner changes, I’ll have to work on myself and take responsibility for my negative behaviors. 
  3. 3. I just don’t want to have to change my own attitudes, behaviors, or viewpoints.
  4. 4. I’m comfortable with the way things are. I don’t want to lose this (person, situation, place). 
  5. 5. If I believe this person is changing, I am gullible and will end up being taken advantage of.

When you are trying to change, what do you want most? You want the freedom and space to transform and grow. You want to make things right and move on. (Recommended reading: 4 Reasons Why Self-Love is Essential in a Healthy Relationship)

How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship
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So why can’t we assume that your partner would appreciate the same kind of allowance to change? How can you better your relationship with your partner if you try to control their behavior based on what you know to be true of them?

Accepting change in a relationship can’t happen until you let go of what’s holding you back and choose to be present in your relationship. Focus on forgiving, loving, and healing right now.

1- How to Forgive Your Partner

This is most definitely the hardest part of letting go of the past and accepting change in a relationship. Now, there are differences between allowing room for growth, forgiveness, and trust. Forgiveness is an important part of letting people grow, and it is the first step towards trust.

If your partner wants to change, let them. Letting go of the past does not mean you have to put all your trust into someone again, but it does mean you need to allow them space to work on themselves and encourage them when you see positive changes.

In Dr. Sue Johnson’s book, Hold Me Tight, she shares 6 important steps on how to apologize to and how to forgive your partner. The stories she tells in this section of her book brought me to tears multiple times. They break your heart and then put it back together again in a matter of 5 pages. This won’t be the last time I gush about this book.

6 Steps on How to Forgive Your Partner from Dr. Sue Johnson

  1. The hurt partner needs to speak his or her pain as openly and simply as possible.
  2. The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and his/her part in it.
  3. Partners start reversing the “Never Again” dictum. This means that they go back to the injuring moment and rewrite their script.
  4. The injuring partner takes ownership of how they inflicted this injury on their lover and express regret and remorse
  5. The injured partner identifies what they need right now to bring closure to the trauma.
  6. The couple now creates a new story that captures the injuring event, how it happened and eroded trust and connection. Most important, the story describes how they together confronted the trauma and began to heal it.

Something I found incredibly intuitive about these 6 steps on how to forgive your partner and apologize were that they included vulnerability from both sides, an honest and clear explanation of the injury, a sincere apology, and heartfelt forgiveness. (Recommended reading: 5 Steps to Stop Negative Thinking and Start Positive Thinking)

We can’t erase the past, but we can let go of the past. You can apologize, forgive, and let your story “become integrated into [your] attachment stories as demonstrations of renewal and connection.” This can be a long and excruciating process, but once you let go of the pain in your past, your relationship can flourish.

How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship
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A publication in the Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment found that among the studies reviewed, the willingness to forgive was shown to have health and stress benefits, forgiveness was shown to better relationship satisfaction, and relationship effort played an important role in helping forgiveness better relationship satisfaction.

An important distinction was made that if forgiveness was constantly given to a partner who was not showing any efforts or progress in changing their unhealthy or hurtful behavior, this had even more negative outcomes for the relationship.

It takes two. Healing and change in a relationship require forgiveness and effort from both sides.

Forgiveness and healing in a relationship works best when the forgiver can see their partner making an effort, and the partner’s efforts can be accepted and encouraged by forgiveness.

2- Stop Trying to Define Your Partner

Defining others is confining them from the possibility of change.

Growth and change in a relationship should be celebrated and honored. Stop trying to keep your partner’s character in a box and stop believing, “that’s just how they are, they can’t change.”

When you say, “It’s like I don’t even know you anymore,” ask yourself, “have I made the effort to know them lately?”

We’re all going through something. Instead of guilting your partner into forgetting everything they have been through and learned over the past few years, celebrate their journey, and appreciate their small successes.

Letting go of the past requires acceptance of the present.

Stop guilting your partner for not being who they used to be. Help them become who they want to be.

3- Get to Know Your Partner Again

Dealing with change in a relationship takes effort. Ask them about their goals, what they’ve been going through lately and how they’re getting through it. Support them. I tell you what, picking out your partners weaknesses only hurts everyone.

John Gottman created 3 exercises to help you “develop greater personal insight and a more detailed map of each other’s life and world” which he shares in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

They are absolutely amazing! He includes insightful and enlightening questions about injuries, healing, becoming, striving, legacy, and emotional worlds. These exercises are life changing for a relationship!

These are my favorite questions from the last exercise about understanding who you and your partner want to become:

  1. Describe the person you want to become.
  2. How can you best help yourself become that person?
  3. What struggles have you already faced in trying to become that person?
  4. What demons in yourself have you had to fight? Or still have to fight?
  5. What would you most like to change about yourself?
  6. What dreams have you denied yourself or failed to develop?
  7. What do you want your life to be like in 5 years?
  8. What is the story of the kind of person you would like to be?

Gottman also mentions that “getting to know your spouse better and sharing your inner self with your partner is an ongoing process. In fact, it is a lifelong process.”

You and your partner will both change throughout your life. Continue to learn about each other and support each other. (Recommended Reading: For the Workaholics- 3 Things to Stop Doing to Have a Better Relationship)

Let Your Partner Change in Your Relationship

You’ve picked out a young tree to plant in your backyard. It’s small but so full of potential to grow. When it grows, you celebrate. Never once would you think, “What is wrong with this tree? It won’t stop growing.”

You wouldn’t say that because you chose it, knowing how big it would be one day. If the tree ever starts to die you think, “Oh no, have I overwatered? Is it getting enough sunlight?” Never once would you think “Oh good, I hope it goes back to the way it was.”

How to Let Go of the Past and Embrace Change in a Relationship
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So why do we do this with the people we love?

The funny thing here is that the tree can’t go back to the way it started anyway, and neither can people. We can only continue to nurture ourselves and others to continue growing and changing.

In order to let go of the past in a relationship we can forgive, lose the labels, and seek to understand and appreciate the present.

Aalgaard, R. A., Bolen, R. M., & Nugent, W. R. (2016). A literature review of forgiveness as a beneficial intervention to increase relationship satisfaction in couples therapy. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(1), 46-55. doi:10.1080/10911359.2015.1059166

Sources and Recommendations-

Here are links to the hard-copy books/articles:

Allowing Others the Freedom to Change

Most readers of an article on relationships will be interested in some level of personal change. We may want better relationships, to change an old pattern or habit, to develop better attitudes, or to learn something new.