Think about a time when you were deeply hurt by someone you loved. At the moment you first became aware of the offense, what was your response? Were you able to move quickly to a place of vulnerability and compassion?
Probably not. It’s more likely that you reacted in a way that is natural to most of us: either attacking or retreating. Our acts of self-protection are likely to continue until we believe the offender feels enough remorse. But it is at this very point that we may get stuck, especially when the wound feels deep. In response to our pain, we may limit our vulnerability by requiring ongoing penitence without offering hope for pardoning. We punish by withholding our forgiveness.
Last year, a married couple came to see me because they had not been able to move past the husband’s affair that had occurred over 10 years ago. I was the latest in a series of counselors they had seen. After a few sessions, it became clear that the wife had no intention of granting forgiveness to her husband. Despite the fact that he had confessed, repented, and never returned to that behavior again, she continued to focus on his betrayal. Her unforgiveness allowed her to stay in control and minimized the risk of being hurt again. But they were miserable; their marriage was full of conflict and void of intimacy.
I finally asked her, “What could your husband say or do that would allow you to begin moving toward forgiveness?” She just stared at me, expressionless, and finally said, “Nothing, because he can’t undo the past.” At least she was being honest about her position, but her marriage was doomed.
This pattern of requiring penitence without granting pardon can show up in marriages even when the transgressions are relatively small. Little offenses build up into big resentments, and the relationship gets stuck if the offended spouse never grants a pardon. Instead of giving the message, I’m willing to let go of this and leave it in the past, the hurt spouse communicates any of the following:
- Withholding forgiveness is a good way to punish you.
- I’ll let you know when you’ve done enough to earn my forgiveness.
- Forgiving you just gives you the right to hurt me again.
- I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget… and I’ll keep reminding you of that.
- In future conflicts, reminders of past offenses are fair weapons for me to use against you. Is it okay to want to see contrition? Of course.
Can it take time to truly forgive? Yes, and deep hurts often take more time to heal. But consider your partner’s relief, not just your own. Don’t get stuck in your pain. Find your way to I forgive you.