One Proven Key to Improve Your Relationships

This sure-fire tool will give you healthier, more enduring relationships.

Suits. Like so many other Netflix viewers, my husband and I got swept up in the recent mania. Maybe because it kept popping up in my husband’s queue as a “top show.” Maybe because I’d just finished reading Prince Harry’s memoir Spare (doubly interesting from a ghostwriter’s perspective) and was curious about the show that shot Meghan Markle to fame.

Whatever the reason, it did not take us long to get to season six. SPOILER ALERT: if you haven’t watched season six, I’m about to discuss some of what happens throughout the series up till then.

For the Suits uninitiated or for those need of a recap, one of the main themes, stated in the pilot episode, is that main character Harvey Specter, a brilliant lawyer and “closer,” needs to learn empathy. Over the course of the show, the series shows how Harvey’s lack of empathy ultimately hurts him more than anyone else:

  • he can’t maintain meaningful relationships with women he admires,
  • he hurts people he cares about, and
  • he and frenemy Louis Litt, one of the firm partners (who has his own issues), are always on the wrong page with each other when they try to reconcile their differences.

We start getting little hints along the way about where Harvey’s lack of empathy comes from.

  1. He loves his brother but rarely, if ever, sees him.
  2. His relationship with his mother is broken.
  3. His mother did something to his father.
  4. Ooooooh . . . his mother was cheating on his father, and when Harvey, as a young adult, caught her, she made him promise not to tell.

Harvey’s secretary, Donna, occasionally pushes him to reconcile. Then, after thirteen years as Harvey’s secretary, Donna, leaves him because he can’t admit his feelings for her even to himself, so she can’t work around him anymore. At that point, he begins to have panic attacks and goes to see a psychiatrist.

The psychiatrist pushes him far more than Donna ever did about his relationship with his mother and how he needs to make peace with it to heal, but Harvey resists, often angrily, even getting up and leaving his sessions with her.


This is savvy writing that is more than just Hollywood drama. I recently read two books that speak to that:

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, about how trauma rewires our brain. According to van der Kolk, we can then relive that trauma, projecting that trauma into other areas of our lives in ways that hinder our relationships.
  • It Didn’t Start with You, by Mark Wolynn. In it, Wolynn shows that not only our experiences, but those of our parents and even grandparents can shape our minds, and we can end up re-living traumas we never experienced. Wolynn says the only way to move forward past hurtful, negative behavior patterns, is to make peace with the past.

In other words, to have the relationships you want and to feel good in them, you have to delve into your history, face it, and forgive whoever hurt you.

What Forgiveness is NOT

WHAT!?!?!? Let that so-and-so get away with . . . ?

If you’ve heard that “forgiveness is about you, not the person who hurt you,” you probably think it sounds a little trite. I’ll admit, it does to me, too.

Doesn’t mean it’s not true, though.

Still, let’s clarify a couple of things: forgiveness is not about excusing bad behavior or about a lack of consequences.

Forgiveness ≠ Making Excuses

Mr. Wolynn says that, to heal from family trauma, we must learn and understand why the person who hurt us acted the way she did.

Understanding the “why,” though, does not mean that you’re saying it’s OK that she did it.

What it does mean is that you have to try to see the larger context of the person’s life: what led her to being emotionally distant? What broke in his brain that turned him to violence?

It’s Not About You

How does understanding that help you heal? I don’t know all the answers, but in part, it may be because then you can see that it wasn’t about you. It doesn’t make what they did OK, but at least now you know and begin to internalize that it wasn’t because you were a bad baby, a useless child, or an inept person.

Forgiveness ≠ Having a Relationship with a Dangerous/Toxic Person

Another thing forgiveness is not: a lack of consequences. Put another way, you don’t have to enter into a close relationship with someone to forgive him. Someone who continues to treat you poorly does not get the privilege of you being in his life just because you forgive him.

In Suits, season 6, the episode where Harvey finally travels to see his mom and goes out to dinner with her, he starts by telling her he forgives her. Her response? “I forgive you, too.”

Bad move.

Fortunately for our beloved Harvey, his mom comes to her senses and soon after apologizes for bringing that up. The relationship began to heal. Yay! The show can go on and maybe now, Harvey can find happiness.

Still, let’s think about that first conversation: she forgives him, too? How dare she? She caused the break, the initial pain! She was the grown-up, the one who should have known better. So any subsequent pain that Harvey caused her was—well, kind of a consequence of her actions. What did she expect?

Her reaction then, when Harvey said he forgave her, was unfair: “The way you hurt me is equal to the way I hurt you,” is what she was saying. Had she continued that toxic behavior, Harvey still could’ve chosen to forgive her for his own healing, but he didn’t have to have a close relationship with a woman who would still hurt him.

I won’t get into how to set loving boundaries here, but there are ways to love and forgive someone you’re better off not having around or whose presence you need to limit in your life. Check out these resources on boundaries:

It Takes Work

Boundaries or not, reconciling with the past takes work.

Let’s dig into this a little deeper. For years, decades even, Harvey didn’t address the situation with his mother. Anytime someone brought it up, he didn’t want to talk about it, much less do anything about it.


Aside from the fact that it was painful, his mom was the perpetrator. She should do the work to fix it. Right?

This is where trying to see the other person’s pain or trauma can help.

In Harvey’s case, his mother was almost certainly having an affair with his father’s best friend as a response to some pain in her life (the show implies as much). Forcing Harvey to keep quiet about it was her attempt to avoid more pain to herself without regard for the pain she was causing Harvey. So on top of 1) the pain she experienced that led to the affair, now she feels 2) guilt for the affair, 3) guilt for hurting her son, plus 4) the pain Harvey then causes her by not wanting anything to do with her. (Again, understanding is not excusing.)

So if Harvey is not willing to do the work to reconcile, why should she? She has (probably) even more to work through than he does. To take that a bit different direction, if you can’t do the work to forgive someone who caused you pain, why should you expect the people you hurt in your pain to forgive you?

Forgiveness takes work. But if you want strong, intimate relationships in the here and now, that’s what it will take to have them.

Humans need relationships to survive and thrive, and healthy, freeing relationships are beautiful and valuable. So, like anything beautiful and valuable, they require effort. You know all the cliches—diamonds form from centuries of pressure; oysters produce pearls after months or even years of friction; rainbows follow rain; no pain, no gain.

It’s the same in relationships. Making peace with the past isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary step to living a happier, more fulfilled life.

It Is About You

Ideally, we’d all get the happy resolution that Harvey got with his mother and as a result, the rest of his family. She apologized for what she said at dinner, accepted his forgiveness, and they were able to renew their relationship.

It doesn’t always happen that way. Sometimes the other person doesn’t know how to accept forgiveness, or worse, continues to act in hurtful, even harmful ways.

But remember how we said that forgiveness is not about the other person, it’s about you?

Whether your mind chooses to believe it or not, according to science, your biology—body and emotions—100% do, as Dr. van der Kolk and Mr. Wolynn point out. Chronic illness, failed relationships, and worse litter the lives of people who don’t do the work to make peace with their past, which can include forgiving another person or forgiving yourself. In It Didn’t Start with You, Mark Wolynn tells stories of people he’s worked with who have acted out generational trauma in ways that eerily mirror what their parents or grandparents experienced. Dr. van der Kolk discusses the mental health and relationship problems of the wives and children of Vietnam vets who haven’t dealt with what they went through. While he’s talking specifically about trauma, that can include and apply to forgiveness as well.

And, as both point out, simply understanding the past often isn’t enough—you must do more work: speak the words of understanding and forgiveness, find the right therapeutic tools to help you rewire your brain, and so on.

Because the beauty of the human brain is that it can be rewired. We can learn to have fulfilling lives—and since humans are social creatures, much of our fulfillment lies in our relationships. We can get past our past.

Not Just About You

Forgiving those who have hurt you isn’t just about you healing and improving your relationships. Like those who were hurt hurt us, if we don’t work to heal from the past, we will hurt those around us and those who come after us.

You have the power to hit the reset button and keep the past from becoming the future. You have the power to change the lives of those you love.

Final Word

Years ago, at church some friends and I sang a song called “The Key” by Steve and Annie Chapman. In it, the singer refers to a person who hurt him as “the offender,” someone he kept locked in the “prison of his heart.” The singer promised himself that he would never give the offender freedom.

But one day, a visitor came to tell the singer the truth about the offender. The visitor acknowledged that the singer had achieved his goal of keeping the offender’s “eyes filled with tears,” but that now it was time to let the offender go. “Here’s the key,” the visitor said, “These words [that] first came from Me, ‘Father, forgive them.’”

The singer decides to let the offender go. Then he says:

“So I opened up that prison door
I used forgiveness as the key
And when I let that prisoner go
I found that it was ME!”

He continues:

“And Oh! How sweet is the freedom
And it came on the day
When my heart prayed
‘Father, forgive them.’”

You see, on this one, religion and science agree: to be free from the burden of the past, you must let it go. And to let it go, you must face it, acknowledge it—and do the work to ensure that it is the past, not the future.

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