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Forgiveness: A conversation in marriage

For me, marriage forms one of the essential parts of my life. My marriage is a relationship that impacts me daily and involves my deepest emotions. Marriage is a gift that I’ve been given, but I don’t just receive it, I put effort into it. Without cultivation and care, my marriage wouldn’t be the blessing that it is.

But, of course, the fact that I’m willing to put work into my marriage doesn’t make me the perfect husband (if only it were that easy)! Being part of a committed, long-term relationship means that there will be times when I don’t do things right, times I ignore my spouse, cause pain and act egotistical, spiteful, jealous or sullen – and those same things might be done to me. If my marriage is to stay strong, it needs an element of forgiveness.

I recently sat down with Corinna, my wife, to talk about forgiveness in our marriage. What follows are some excerpts from our conversation.

We began by talking about times we had to forgive each other, and we quickly realized that our biggest challenges are rarely in forgiving each other. More often, we have a hard time forgiving ourselves. This means that we spend a lot of time and energy helping the other person forgive themselves.

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Alex: I feel like you have a lot harder time forgiving yourself than forgiving me.

Corinna: That’s probably true.

Alex: I feel like a lot of the hard work that we do is trying to help each other. I try to help you forgive yourself and you try to help me forgive myself.

Corinna: That’s true; you have to notice when the other person is really having a hard time and choose that as the time to say, “Don’t worry, I’m not that upset” – which battles to pick.

Alex: What do you mean by that?

Corinna: So in those instances, if there’s something that happens and you’re beating yourself up about it – I might be really mad too, but that’s definitely not the time when I’m going to show you how mad I am about it. There’s no need for me to make things worse. But on the other hand, if there’s something that I’m upset about and you don’t seem to care or understand why, I’m going to say, “No, you need to understand: Here’s why this is a big deal, and here’s why I’m upset, and here’s why it shouldn’t be that way.”

Alex: So it’s important to be able to both accept forgiveness and to forgive oneself. It’s important to recognize what went wrong and also work towards moving past it. Both things – helping the other person accept forgiveness and making them aware of the need to be forgiven – are acts of love. Communicating about these things also helps us learn more about each other and to build our relationship.

Sometimes, however, forgiveness isn’t just simple words. Forgiveness, especially in a committed relationship, means more than just saying, “I’m sorry.”

Alex: Do you think sometimes forgiveness is more harmful than helpful?

Corinna: Maybe sometimes forgiveness isn’t good enough. I can forgive you, but the situation might still need to be addressed. It’s one thing to say, “it’s OK,” but it’s another to have a full conversation about why you did that thing, why I’m upset about that thing and what’s going to happen in the future about similar things.

Alex: So, you have to deal with those steps. If you were to skip those steps, you wouldn’t really be offering forgiveness. To gloss over a hurt is the same as not forgiving.

Corinna: Kind of. For me, those steps are part of the whole act of forgiving. So, for instance, God’s going to forgive you even if you do the same sin over and over again. And it’s not like you sit down with God and have a whole conversation about it, learn why it hurt God and make a plan to never make the same mistake again before God forgives you. You can just do the same bad thing over and over again, and each time God can forgive you. But when I’m thinking about forgiving people, sometimes it might be easy to say, “it’s OK,” and sometimes that’s just not good enough.

Alex: So when I leave the freezer door open, you can forgive me for that, and keep forgiving me for that, even though it’s never going to be OK for me to leave the freezer door open. But for something more serious, you can’t just say, “it’s OK.”

Corinna: Yeah, I see different levels of forgiveness. There’s “Oh, I’m sorry, I stepped on your foot.” – “That’s OK.” And then there might be bigger issues or things that happen multiple times, things that would take more than just a quick “that’s OK” in order to consider it forgiven.

Having a conversation about the deeper hurts in a relationship opens up a number of possibilities. Throughout this conversation, we had a chance to talk about some of those hurts in our own relationship and learn even more about what the other person intended and how each of us healed from those hurts.

One hurt in particular came from something that I said that was unintentionally hurtful. It was helpful for Corinna to hear that an unintentional insult from the past really was unintentional – especially when those words are accompanied by some real effort to avoid the same mistake in the future.

Corinna: Yeah, it still happens from time to time, but then it’s easier for me to not get quite as upset and say to myself, “I know he’s not trying to say it this way.” And then it’s also easier for me to talk about it and say, “Hey, you’re doing that thing again,” because you can respond with an apology rather than saying, “What are you talking about?”

Alex: Yeah, which is kind of what happened the first time. I had no clue; I was just talking, not realizing what I was really saying. And the thing about that is, I don’t want that to happen. That’s awful to me. So it’s not that I have to stop myself from doing this thing that I really want to do. That’s not even the issue. I have to stop myself from doing this thing that I don’t really want to do. So in that sense, your forgiveness being more than just “it’s OK” is really helpful to me because I get to be a better husband, which is what I want to do. I get to do what I want to do because you’re willing to hold me accountable, and not treat me as if I don’t know any better. Forgiving me like that means trusting me to be a better person.

Corinna: Also, and I know this isn’t what you’re saying, but that also doesn’t mean that I’m trying to fix you or change you to be who I want you to be.

Alex: I agree. You’re not trying to fix me, but you are giving me the opportunity to be a better person.

I wanted to explore more about what happens after forgiveness, and what effect forgiveness has had on us over the long term. There’s a common saying: “Forgive and forget.” I had a hunch that forgiveness and “forgetfulness” didn’t go together as well as that saying implies, at least in terms of a long-term relationship.

Alex: What’s the difference between forgiving and forgetting?

Corinna: I think forgiving is dealing with it. Forgetting is like sweeping it under the rug for now. Eventually it won’t all fit under the rug.

Alex: And we don’t forget the things that we’ve forgiven each other for. We don’t bring them up all the time, but it’s not like they never happened.

Corinna: That’s true, and if you don’t forgive along the way, and you forget and sweep things under the rug, eventually it’s not all going to fit under the rug. And then you’re going to have a ton of things to try to deal with. And then someone’s going to say, “Why are you bringing up all of these things that we’ve forgotten about? I thought we dealt with those.” And we didn’t because we just forgot about them.

Alex: So the difference between forgiving and forgetting in a relationship is –

Corinna: – is communicating.

Alex: Yeah, communicating. With forgiveness, we both know what’s happened. With forgetfulness, I might think it wasn’t a big deal or that I was forgiven for it. And you’re just choosing not to deal with it. In reality, I might even know it’s a big deal. Then, if you don’t act like it’s a big deal, I might think, “Oh, she doesn’t actually care about it.” But if you do, I might make it worse later in an unintentional way because I’m not paying attention.

Finally, I wanted to know how forgiveness might have a special place in our relationship because both of us are Christians, and our faith places a high value on the concept of forgiveness.

Alex: Does knowing that I have a relationship with God make it easier to forgive me? Maybe because God is going to take care of judging me, or because Jesus offered you forgiveness, which allows you to offer me forgiveness?

Corinna: Well, I feel like this is not the right answer, but no – not really! I think the closest thing I can think of is that, because you are also a Christian, I would generally think you’re probably not consciously trying to do me harm. You’re trying to be a good person, you’re probably not intentionally hurting me. So, in that way, I guess forgiveness is easier.

Alex: So, that might explain why sometimes it’s harder to forgive someone if you don’t know their faith background…

Corinna: … or you just don’t know them very well at all. With people I don’t really know – I’m never going to see them again! Have I really forgiven them? Probably not always.

Alex: So what does that do to you, to not be able to forgive them?

Corinna: It makes it a more angry remembrance.

Alex: And think about the work it would take to forgive a stranger, or a coworker you didn’t know well. You’d have to build up your relationship in order to do that.

Corinna: We’d have to get to a good place. They would have to want it too.

Alex: And when you’re in a good relationship, you don’t have to deal with that. You know that if I did something terrible, I’d want to redeem myself, because that’s part of being in a relationship. When you’re in a relationship like a marriage, you can ask for and give deeper forgiveness.

Corinna: So, I can easily forgive my coworker for stepping on my foot, as I can for you. But I can more easily forgive you for doing something worse than a coworker who, say, lit my desk on fire.

I’m happy to report that, so far, Corinna hasn’t needed to forgive a single coworker for lighting her desk on fire. Unfortunately, I can pretty much guarantee that she’ll have to forgive me for leaving the freezer door open at some point in the future, as I’m sure I’ll have to forgive her for things as well.  

Our story is just one story of how forgiveness functions in a long-term relationship. You might have a completely different experience, but there are certain things that hold true across the spectrum of human life. Forgiveness is essential for any long-term relationship, romantic or otherwise. And even though it’s not always easy, practicing forgiveness has incredible benefits. Certainly, there are some things that can come up in any relationship that are unforgivable, at least in the sense that they warrant a break in the relationship. But it’s our experience that being open with each other, communicating often, trying to understand the other person’s intentions, and being generous in your own offers of forgiveness will bring a higher quality to your relationships.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania. CORINNA BECKER is the office and marketing coordinator for an audiology office. They have a zoo of animals: 3 cats, 2 dogs and a rabbit. And they love them all.

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