How do you forgive someone who has hurt you very deeply? And what if that someone is your spouse? How can your marriage survive and eventually thrive again following a breach of the likes of abuse or an extramarital affair? The ability to move on and forgive under these circumstances is one of the greatest challenges even the most humble and willing among us will ever face. But it is always possible to forgive no matter how great the pain or wide the resulting rift may be. And by doing so, you can build not only a stronger and more intimate marital bond than ever before, but greater awareness and fulfillment as individuals as well.
The old cliché not withstanding, forgiveness actually has nothing to do with forgetting. Think about something quite painful that you've experienced at someone else's hands. Have you forgiven that person? -- Hopefully so, for both of your sakes. Yet have you forgotten what happened? -- Likely not, especially if the wound was deep. True, forgiveness springs from a conscious shift in perspective, rather than amnesia; it is based on the choice to focus on what makes that person and the relationship so valuable, rather than just the offense. If your marriage has been moderately satisfying and healthy, there is a wealth of positives to help temper your hurt and angry feelings. Invest the effort to consider the 'big picture' and forgiveness will be a much easier choice.
The following are several suggestions I offer married couples that I work with to help facilitate the process of forgiveness and repair:
'State of the Union' Meetings: Schedule regular times to discuss how things are going in important areas. Treat them like real appointments. Limit the length from 30 minutes to an hour, and make sure only one person speaks at a time. Use these meetings for praise and support as well as for airing grievances. Keep them even when there isn't something big to talk about. When these discussions have become a well-established habit, they will provide the best context to communicate effectively without fighting or withdrawal when something goes wrong.
Get Up, Stand Up: It is critical to stand up and take responsibility for the behavior(s) that caused your spouse so much pain, to express the simple but magic words "I'm sorry" with genuine sincerity, and then ask for forgiveness. Do not justify or defend the negative actions in any way. After all, who feels like pardoning someone when they don't seem to be sorry for what they did wrong, or are unwilling to right it? So unless you're married to the Dalai Lama, you're not going to get a gracious pardon without taking responsibility.
Lightning Can Strike Twice: The final step in the healing process is to declare your clear commitment to protect your spouse from future offenses. This should be backed by a concrete prevention plan. Without such a plan, history is likely to repeat itself and further damage the foundation of your marriage. If infidelity during frequent business travel caused the wound, for example, commiting to searching for a position that entails less or no business travel may be an essential part of the plan. If you tend to become verbally abusive owing to a lack of good communication skills, propose several sessions to work with a couple's therapist.
Living Out Loud: When your spouse openly solicits your forgiveness, respond by saying "I forgive you" out loud. You can go even further by saying "I love you unconditionally and commit to healing our marriage." These words are for you -- not just for your partner because statements of intention are very powerful ways to mobilize the subconscious mind to do WIT (Whatever It Takes) to achieve your conscious goals.
A Mile in Their Shoes: As part of your growth, both as a spouse and as an evolving human being, reflect as deeply as possible on what occurred from his/her standpoint. This will take a great deal of willingness and humility because your hurt feelings will tell you there is nothing legitimate about what happened. But no matter what it was, it is possible to understand more fully where they were coming from to facilitate forgiveness.
Accept What You Can't Change: Learning to accept circumstances and characteristics we don't have complete control over paves the way for forgiveness. It is also a key ingredient of wisdom and a happier life. If your spouse has a tendency to be impulsive, over- or under-emotional, for example, he/she probably always will. It is the ongoing commitment to growth that counts -- to work at managing and improving upon our flaws -- and compassion rather than judgment from our partners that helps us to our feet when we stumble.
Only The Shadow Knows: Intimacy means you and your partner know each other intimately well. This includes situations where you're both stripped of the social personas you show mostly everyone else -- and it's sometimes not a pretty sight. You get jealous. He gets loud. And you are guaranteed to hurt each other with your 'shadow' side.
For Better Or Worse: When we take marriage vows to honor each other "for better or worse," we are not just talking about external circumstances. It is a promise to love our spouse unconditionally, for the best and yes -- even for the worst -- of themselves. This does not mean "loving them anyway." It reflects a commitment to love them, shadow and light together. Because it is only by reaching beyond the boundaries that separate us as human beings to embrace our common foibles and challenges that we experience true connectedness and meaning in life.
In this spirit, the choice to forgive when your spouse hits you hard where it hurts most is like calling a toast to all of humanity...and the power that made us perfectly imperfect.