Forgiveness in marriage is an important part of what we help couples to do in our marriage counseling. It’s because forgiving your spouse is not as easy as it may seem. The simple fact is that many of us don’t know how to forgive. A big part of the problem is in the way we define what forgiveness means. One definition of forgiveness is “giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me.” Another definition based upon our experience working with couples is “giving up my right to remain hurt indefinitely for your hurting me.” This implies letting go of those thoughts and feelings that keep you bound to the offense committed against you.
Those who condemn their spouses to hell because of an unwillingness to forgive them, sentence themselves there as well. Forgiving your spouse does not mean forgetting or condoning what has happened to you. Forgiveness in marriage is not saying that things are okay now and then going back to an abusive situation and accepting your spouse’s unacceptable behavior. The act of forgiveness is primarily for the benefit of the person who forgives. It is not letting the guilty spouse “off the hook” and it does not minimize or justify the wrong. Your decision to forgive means that you have given up your need to define yourself as a victim because of the offense. Forgiving your spouse releases you from the negative thoughts and feelings associated with the offense and it allows you to live a freer and happier life in the present.
In spite of their best efforts, some spouses need help learning how to forgive. Forgiveness in marriage can be a challenge, especially if you really don’t want to forgive, or your spouse is unwilling to admit their wrong, or does not express any meaningful regret or remorse for what they have done. So how can you forget the unforgettable? How can you forgive the unforgiveable? There are some things that are “deal breakers” in marriage, especially if the spouse continues to repeat over and over again certain unacceptable behaviors.
Each individual must decide for themselves exactly what those behaviors are and the consequences should they continue. However, if a spouse determines that an offense is forgivable, that they want to forgive no matter how difficult it might be, and both spouses want to mend and move forward, then, it is possible to heal and move on. A first step is to remember that none of us is perfect and that demanding “perfection” from our spouse is unrealistic. You may have made a mistake(s) yourself but maybe you were lucky enough not to have gotten caught. So, a little compassion would be appropriate. Secondly, what’s required in forgiving your spouse is a decision—a willingness to move forward by letting go of the old hurts. If you find this difficult, we’d suggest that you go for marriage counseling on your own.
What if you’re the one who needs forgiveness? Some spouses don’t know how to forgive themselves when they’ve hurt their spouse. You may feel an intense sense of guilt and shame for what you have done. Holding onto resentments against yourself is just as harmful as it is holding onto resentments against another person. Mistakes are just that—mistakes—bad judgments. The thing to do is what our parents and teachers taught us long ago—that is, to learn from our mistakes and move on.
There are some important questions to ask, such as: Where did I go wrong? What was the error in my thinking? How did I handle that situation poorly? How will I think and act differently in the future? Add your own. Do some real soul searching. And if you’ve hurt your spouse deeply, go to them, admit your mistake without making excuses, seek their forgiveness, share what you have learned from the experience, commit to a new path and make amends, and allow them time to heal. Marriage counseling is also recommended to help both of you forgive and chart a new course.
Learn how to forgive your spouse and yourself to re-write the story of your marriage.