Forgiveness in a Couples Relationship

by Les Simmonds

Many couples hit a point in their relationship where one or both act in a way that causes the other emotional or psychological injury. When the hurt or distress is significant, the relationship is damaged. The ability to forgive is essential if a damaged relationship is to be restored to a balanced and harmonious state.

What is forgiveness? To give up resentment against someone or the desire to punish them is a workable definition. The act of forgiveness has the ability to restore a relationship or heal personal wounds caused by another’s behaviour.

Why should I forgive them after what they did to me? Broken promises, abuses, lying, cheating and being treated indifferently or with contempt, are good reasons not to forgive. In many instances, forgiveness has been used to excuse abusive behaviour, for example, the way some children were treated in orphanages run by religious groups. Forgiveness does have a place as long as it used to affect positive change and not to excuse unacceptable behaviour.

The healing aspect of forgiveness has been advocated by a number of religions for centuries and it is only recently that the connection of forgiveness and wellbeing has been given significant consideration by counsellors, psychologists and researchers. However, it is patently obvious to most of us that living with bitterness and resentment is unhelpful within the context of a relationship. Similarly, these emotions have a negative impact on people who have left a relationship if they continue to hold onto their bitterness and resentment.

Studies have shown that the act of forgiveness can reduce anxiety and depression and increase self-esteem. For couples, the act of forgiveness is essential in restoring trust and healing the relationship. Forgiveness is not an easy option and trust can only be restored when the victim and the victimiser do not forget the past, but make efforts to live differently as a result of remembering it.

Forgiveness is a process, a journey, and not the utterance of three or four words absolving someone of the wrong they have done to you. Forgiveness may not rest on the shoulders of one person in a relationship where the couple has inflicted hurt on each other.

Couple and family therapists, psychologists and the like have developed a number of approaches to forgiveness. Some are more complex than others, however, they all have a number of things in common. In relationship, the act of forgiveness is a mutual undertaking requiring the involvement and action of both parties taking a series of steps. If this task seems just too big to manage alone, you may wish to consult a professional.

  1. The first step is to name the injury, for example, spending $1000 without consulting the other and acknowledging the impact such an act has on the relationship. It may symbolise a lack of trust, love and consideration for the person who wasn’t consulted
  2. Express your feelings about the situation to your partner
  3. Hear your partner’s side of the story and try to work towards understanding their motivations
  4. Explore actions your partner could take in order to restore the relationship
  5. Discuss actions you could take to support this process e.g. accepting their apology
  6. Choose to forgive; say the words and if possible, engage in a ritual which symbolises forgiveness. Some couples have held a re-commitment ceremony to symbolise their new future together

The act of forgiveness allows the person who has wronged his/her partner to change and be different in the future. For the forgiver, it is an opportunity to let bitterness and resentment go and a chance to set oneself free from negative emotions. For the couple, it is a chance to restore and strengthen their relationship.