When we are hurt, it is natural to want to protect ourselves from further pain. When our mate wounds us, we think they owe us something. An apology would be nice—a guarantee or promise never to do it again even nicer. We withhold forgiveness until they have sufficiently paid for their offense or to keep our barriers up in an attempt to avoid future hurt.
Withholding forgiveness suggests that we are blind to our own imperfections and hurtful ways. Matthew 7 reminds us, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” When we see our faults clearly, we have a better vantage point to see our mate’s flaws. When we show a willingness to extend forgiveness, our spouse will likely be more forthright about their responsibility in hurting us.
How do we go about forgiving our mate in a way that releases them from debt and paves the way for restoring the relationship? Here are four steps you can take:
- Search yourself. Acknowledge any feelings that come up as a result of your partner’s offense. Allow yourself to feel the pain, disrespect, fear, and so forth. Notice your protectors that get activated in an attempt to ensure your safety—anger, a desire to punish, or erecting an emotional wall.
- Engage your spouse. Let your mate know what you are feeling and that you desire to forgive them. Be specific about your hurt and what you need in the future. Set any necessary boundaries that will protect the path of reconciliation (no name-calling, no late-night computer time, and so forth).
- Release. Let go of negativity toward your partner. Relinquish blame, bitterness, resentment, and anger. Tim Keller offers this word on the release necessary in forgiveness: “One of the most basic skills in marriage is the ability to tell the straight, unvarnished truth about what your spouse has done—and then, completely, unself-righteously, and joyously express forgiveness without a shred of superiority, without making the other person feel small.”[i] Releasing is about letting go of any need to hold the offense over your spouse, any need for retribution or payment.
Assure whatever parts of you that may be fearful of future hurt that you are an adult and you will take care of yourself if and when that becomes necessary.
- Restore. Tell your mate you forgive them. Invite them to help rebuild your lives together. Brainstorm, with each other, steps that will heal your marriage. If the infraction was small, it may be enough to plan a fun date on the weekend. If the offense was large, restoration may take weeks or months. Think about areas of reconnection, which may begin with shared activities such as holding hands or attending a marriage conference, and then advance to cuddling on the sofa, a weekend away, or getting silly together. Over time, you will likely enjoy a full repair that restores the vitality of your relationship.
For more on forgiveness check out Focus on the Family, Forgiveness and Restoration.
[i] Keller, Meaning of Marriage, 165.