Whether a conflict is minor or earth shattering, forgiveness is an essential part of moving forward. Sometimes, though, we can be too caught up in feeling hurt to think clearly about forgiveness, or simply hold too much anger to want to offer it at all…
Let’s take a step back though, and explore what forgiveness actually means.
Real forgiveness has two parts: letting go and moving forward.
Letting go is a big hurdle on its own, because it means releasing feelings of anger and resentment over a perceived offense. Now, it’s important to remember that idea of perception – no matter what the problem at hand might be. You and your spouse will have different versions of what happened, and even if they are totally at fault in your eyes, they might not see it exactly that way. Regardless, letting go of that resentment and anger is the only way to prevent the issue from paralyzing your marriage.
The next step, moving forward, is just as important. It means doing away with any desire for punishment, retribution, or restitution for the wrongdoing. If you still want your spouse to be punished, then you are still harboring resentment.
You have to understand: the past is the past, and it cannot be changed. No matter how angry you are, how hurt you feel… What’s done is done. Forgiveness – both letting go and moving forward – is all about the future. You can’t change the past, but you can certainly make choices that will influence your future. You keep your marriage “in prison” if you focus on the issues of the past, and you set it free when you let go of problems that have already happened to start focusing on solutions.
Forgiving, however, is a little easier said than done. There are a few major roadblocks that prevent people from getting to a place of forgiveness for their spouse. To overcome them, we first have to understand them:
1. Believing Forgiveness Condones Behavior
Just because you forgive your spouse, it doesn’t mean that what they did is ok…You aren’t condoning the behavior, you’re just making your future a higher priority than holding onto a grudge. Forgiveness is not about saying everything’s ok. It’s NOT ok. Instead, forgiveness is about understanding how mistakes are made, understanding that you can take responsibility for your future, and deciding that your marriage is something worth fighting for!
We may do it unconsciously, but holding on to resentment is sometimes a way of keeping score. “She hurt me worse” or “he deserves to feel terrible after what he did to me” are just going to keep you and your spouse further apart. Keeping track of (and retaliating for) who hurt who will only bring more trouble. Your marriage can’t win if you’re keeping score against each other.
3. Different Standards
One of the hardest obstacles to overcome is realizing we may be holding difficult-to-meet standards – or at least, holding our spouses to higher standards than we than we do for ourselves. This can be tough to admit, but if you can realize that we’re all just human, that people make mistakes, and that it’s unfair (and unwise) to hold people to standards we can’t personally meet, forgiveness comes much easier.
4. Expecting A Guarantee
Your spouse can know that what they did was wrong, they can regret it and apologize profusely. They can do everything in their power to prevent the mistake from happening again, but they can’t guarantee it. There are NO guarantees here, just the best intentions and your best efforts. Accepting that things can’t be perfect, and that you’re never 100% certain the problem won’t happen again - or that YOU won’t make a mistake just as bad – allows you to move past the problem and work on building a marriage where the issues are less likely to happen.
5. Ineffective Apologies
If the apology doesn’t seem sincere, it can be very difficult to forgive. Unfortunately, many people who might mean every word of an apology don’t actually get their message across successfully. There are several important steps to presenting a sincere apology, and if they are overlooked, the breakdown in communication can make the apology less than effective. If you’re having a hard time forgiving, revisit the “apology stage” and go over what went wrong, how you both feel about it, and what can be done to make it better.
6. Lack of Understanding
To forgive your spouse, you will likely want to know how and why the issue happened in the first place. This can involve some tough admissions of your own role in the problems – or at least the climate of your marriage that led to them. It also involves doing some “outside looking in” investigating to see exactly what happened, evaluating how it can be avoided in the future, and looking for changes that can be made to help ensure a better future.
7. Holding On to Power
When your spouse is trying to be forgiven, and it’s your choice to accept their apology or not, you’re holding all the power. While it might feel like a good dynamic for the relationship - a way for you to see the changes you’d like, a way to punish your spouse’s mistakes, etc. – it’s actually poison for your marriage, and will only breed more problems and resentment down the road. Healthy marriages are about cooperation and support, not one person holding power over another.
If you can’t find a way to forgive your spouse for their mistakes, large or small, you won’t be able to get past the hurt they’ve caused – and if you’re holding on to the pain, you won’t be working toward a better, healthier marriage. Learn to forgive so you can create the marriage you deserve.
For more advice on how to strengthen your marriage, check out the StrongMarriageNow System today!
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Dr. Dana Fillmore and Amy Barnhart, co-Founders, StrongMarriageNow.com