How to Forgive Your Spouse

A powerful decision that can truly change everything

Ruth Bell Graham said, “A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.” You don’t need to be married for long before you are given an opportunity to forgive your spouse for something. A reaction that was hurtful, an action that wasn’t loving, a disrespectful comment.

In any relationship that is important to you, especially committed relationships like marriage, learning to forgive is crucial. Forgiveness is essential for a healthy relationship. Every single couple experiences conflict and pain, offence and insult because we’re human. We fail to be loving 100% of the time. Any time we violate our agreement to love one another we have a wrong we need to right. There is a wound to mend, a chasm to bridge, a pain to heal, an offence to correct. We need to make repair attempts (see a great Gottman article here) and move through a process of true forgiveness.

Forgiveness restores relationships. The process of actively forgiving a person for what they’ve done to you is liberating (both for you and for them) and repairing. It sets us free internally from the bitterness that builds up over time in our heart, which also distances us from that person. It repairs the relationship allowing new closeness and intimacy, fresh connection and love to flow. In this process we also discover new things about one another, gain a new level of understanding and mature as humans a bit too. Almost always, a couple is stronger, more resilient and closer after journeying through an offence together properly.

So, how do we actually forgive our spouse (or anyone) for what they have done (or didn’t do) to us?

1. Acknowledge the hurt or offence

Firstly, we need to recognise and call it for what it is. This can take some processing but, after a while you should be able to identify why you are hurt by what happened. What button of yours was pushed? Or what did your spouse actually do or say (or not do) that was particularly hurtful? Some examples might be:

  • His tone was mean and sarcastic and I felt put down.
  • I felt rejected when she didn’t respond again to my kiss.
  • He forgot again to pick up what I asked from the shops and let me down again.
  • She was rude and disrespectful when she challenged me on my phone use.

2. Communicate with your spouse about it

When something painful has happened you absolutely must talk about it with your spouse. For smaller, insignificant things we can often just cover over them with our love. For anything that will affect your relationship, your love or your closeness, you need to talk. There are some important things to consider when having an important conversation such as timing, opening well, listening to understand etc.

The general rule of thumb is, if it’s going to affect you or your relationships for more than a day, bring it up. For the smaller stuff, no need to mention it. Just move on and keep loving.

3. Decide to forgive and let it go

Here’s where it gets real. Forgiving someone is a deliberate decision you make and a deliberate action you take. It’s a choice to forgive them. In forgiving you release them from what they owe you and you decide to stop holding it against them.

It helps to deliberately spell it out it in your mind rather than just saying to yourself, “I forgive them.” A helpful phrasing is:
Right now, I choose to forgive (person’s name) for (what they did to you) and I release them from what they owe me. I choose to no longer hold it against them and let it affect our relationship or our closeness. From right now, they are free and I am free.

From this point onwards you will begin to feel better until the forgiveness is complete. Keep in mind, forgiveness is often a process. Sometimes we need to decide to forgive multiple times before it feels truly real and it’s no longer affecting you nor your relationship.

4. Don’t bring it back up (unless they do)

Finally, forgetting is unreasonable. But it’s not wise to keep bringing up things (in your own mind or to your spouse) of what happened. You don’t need to forget it, but you don’t need to focus on it either. True forgiveness means you’ve dealt with it and you have chosen for it not to affect your relationship anymore. Of course, if your spouse does it again, you’re back on the merry-go-round and need to start at Step 1 again.

For major relationship challenges such as an affair (emotional or physical or both), deep-seeded pain and lasting conflict you should see a couples counsellor. If one of you is more affected than the other then it is wise for that person to also see a counsellor for their own healing and growth.

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