Forgiveness quotes? No more please, I’m up to my ears in them. According to the rumors, it’s one of the ‘greatest gifts you can give yourself’; it’s the ‘final form of love’; forgiveness is something that ‘only the strong can do.’ Blah-blah-blah. The one thing nobody tells you about forgiveness – the most important – is that it’s hard work. Messy, confusing, and … painfully slow. It’s like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in loafers (not that I’ve ever done such a thing but I’m sure you see the point.) And more often than not, forgiveness is an entirely one way process.

How many people have I had to forgive in my life? I’m not sure exactly, but it’s less than 50 and more than 30 (the list includes members of my own family). They could all fit happily on a bus but one that’s driving in the opposite direction. Very few of these individuals have stopped and apologized for the hurt they caused. But accepting that some people are incapable of taking responsibility for their behavior is one of the toughest lessons we will ever learn.

There is one person in my life that caused more damage than anybody I’ve ever known. Let’s call her Tanya. We were in a relationship for four years – though ‘slow motion car crash’ might be a better description. We both had childhood issues but as an introvert and an extrovert, we dealt with them in very different ways: I suppressed my pain whereas she transmitted hers on a regular basis. If her needs were not met, she would instantly go on the attack. It was always my fault: ‘Why can’t you be more spontaneous?! Why can’t you make me laugh more?!’ My low key personality was too much to stand. ‘Sometimes I want to shake you!’ she would shout, often putting me down in front of friends. Behind closed doors, things were worse: When your partner starts a row in the middle of sexual intercourse, it’s clearly time to get the hell out but even that wasn’t enough of a wake-up call. Boundaries? Nope, I’ve never heard of them.

Tanya had the most extreme mood swings of anybody I have ever met. Trivial incidents – such as my buying the wrong brand of margarine from a supermarket – would lead to unhinged rages. Arguments would often go on for days; though I see now that these incidents were merely triggers for something deeper.

Tanya’s anger was always followed by crashing despair, and she would take to bed and cry for hours. Seeing her in such despair meant I had to put my aggrieved feelings to one side. When I did find the courage to challenge her, Tanya would absolve herself of any wrong-doing. There was always some external explanation for her outbursts: she had been stressed at work; her mother had been ill; I hadn’t paid her enough attention. I attempted to end things a few times but she always begged for another chance. She promised to change and like a fool, I believed her.

Tanya’s behavior became more extreme: ‘I’ve invested 3 years in this relationship’, she once shouted, ‘you owe me a child!’ Her demands were always tempered by low level aggression. I said I didn’t want a child with her, kick-starting another epic argument. The stress of living with someone so volatile took a toll, and I started staying up after she’d gone to bed, nursing a bottle of wine for company. Towards the end of our relationship, I visited a psychic who knew nothing of my personal situation yet noted, with astonishing perception, that there was someone in my life who was ‘draining the energy’ from me. Tanya was clearly ill but she was also a vampire. It was like living in a toxic pressure cooker.

Why did I endure this misery? ‘I stayed because I was stupid; because I thought it was a test of my ability to love; because part of me wanted to rescue and make her happy. If you look up the word ‘Co-Dependent’ in the dictionary, you’ll find a picture of us both though neither will be smiling.

After 4 years of pushing, pulling and going round in hellish circles, our relationship ended in spectacularly combustible fashion on Valentine’s Day 2006. ‘I don’t see any love, only frustration!’ she yelled. Having been driven to breaking point, I decided I couldn’t take anymore, and flounced out in the middle of the night (I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic). I went to live at my parents but even then I wasn’t entirely free: There were desperate phone calls in which Tanya pleaded with me to call round because she was dying of loneliness. Cue more anger and tears. ‘Why did you leave me?’ she would say. She had been abandoned by her father, and now I had abandoned her.

I moved some of my stuff out of the flat we shared but she claimed a lot of my possessions as her own. It was impossible for her to behave reasonably, so it was easier to say ‘keep it.’ The engagement ring I bought was never returned. Our last conversation was in June 2007.

What has any of this got to do with forgiveness? I spent several years waiting for an apology which never arrived. Surely I was entitled to one. Hadn’t she hurt and abused me for no good reason? And after all I’d done for her! Tanya didn’t know the meaning of the word gratitude. I was expecting an encyclopedia size apology, with the word ‘Sorry’ repeated over a 1000 pages in a series of varied fonts. It took an age for me to realize it was never going to arrive. Now it was my turn to be angry.

I spent months beating cushions with my fists, trying to purge myself of my hate. Yes, I hated Tanya and for a while, wanted her dead. I saw myself laughing and moon-walking on her grave, an awful thing to admit (I’m not that good a dancer). I didn’t know I was capable of such extreme rage; I’m supposed to be a ‘nice guy.’ I won’t repeat the disgusting language I used in purging myself of my bile.

Just when I thought I was done our paths would cross; it was the universe’s way of highlighting unfinished business. We caught sight of each other one winter morning, as we drove in opposite directions – a fleeting glance which triggered more rage. Briefly I bumped into her at a local library, and we exchanged a curt ‘hello’; I was going to a 12 Step Meeting, and she was on her way to a poetry reading in the room next door. What are the chances? I went home and beat some more cushions. On another occasion, I saw her in a café wearing the most unfashionable spectacles I’ve ever seen. I was still angry. Those cushions looked flatter than a pile of proverbial pancakes.

Years later, I started reading about Borderline Personality Disorder; it was apparent that Tanya was affected by the condition, which helped me understand the cause of her unhappiness. Eventually, my rage subsided and I was left only with grief. Tanya was not a bad person, she was just wounded – we both were but in different ways. I cried because there was a time when we genuinely cared for each other. She made me laugh like nobody I have ever known. I remembered the good times between us because there were some – not a lot but more than enough.

I understand why some people never get to forgiveness and stay trapped in rage. It’s easier to nurse bitterness. I see it in the eyes of people I know who are still smarting over failed relationships, their anger a fragile container for profound feelings of betrayal and abandonment.

The last stop on the road to forgiveness is compassion. I have not seen or heard from Tanya in ten years. She’s still got my engagement ring. But that’s okay. I have no animosity towards her. I wish her well. In some strange way, I’m probably a better person for having known her. I hope she is happy, wherever she is, and whatever she is doing.

Yes, forgiveness is a motherfucker, and the process requires a lot of heavy lifting. It nearly broke me. But the rumors are all true – forgiveness really is the ‘greatest gift you can give yourself.’

It’s the most important work we will ever do.