6 Steps to Forgiveness in Your Marriage

steps to forgiveness

Today’s post comes from America’s Family Coaches.

Who is supposed to initiate the process of forgiveness in a marriage relationship: the offender or the offended? We don’t think it really matters. Both of you are responsible for clearing up conflicts by initiating forgiveness. If your spouse offends you and you refuse to resolve the conflict until he or she makes the first move, you could be waiting a long time. And if your spouse plays by the same rules, think of all the intimacy you could forfeit by waiting each other out.

Barb and I mutually accept the role of being peacemakers in our marriage. Ideally, whoever recognizes the conflict first is the one to bring it up and initiate forgiveness regardless of who is at fault. If one of us senses friction, that person usually confronts the other on the issue. I use the words “ideally” and “usually” because, just like at your house, Barb and I are sometimes deterred from initiating forgiveness by hurt, anger, or pride. That’s why it is important to share the responsibility equally. Since both of us are committed to peace, if one is a little slow to step up, the other is there to take up the slack. This virtually assures that the conflict will be resolved sooner rather than later.

We call this process “whole forgiveness.” In any offenses, someone offends and someone is offended. Of course, it is rarely that cut-and-dry. In many conflicts, you both offend each other to some degree. For example, your spouse hurts you with a critical remark, so you snap back with a zinger of your own. Or you forget to buy your spouse a birthday gift, and in return, he or she gives you the cold shoulder for 2 days.

For each offense, whole forgiveness requires action on the part of both the offender and the offended. We have represented this activity with the following 6 statement for closing the loop with forgiveness:

1. I was wrong.

2. I’m sorry.

3. I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.

4. Will you forgive me?

5. I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.

6. I forgive you for…

Requesting Forgiveness

Statement #1: I was wrong.

The admission of wrongful behavior starts the process of whole forgiveness in motion. It’s not very important which partner points out the offense. The key is for the offending party to say categorically, “What I did was wrong.”

You may be tempted to wriggle off the hook at this stage by stopping short of, “I was wrong.” The following statements sound like the admission of wrong, but notice how they don’t quite go far enough: “Ok, if you think I did something wrong, lets talk about it”; “I don’t think what I did was such a big deal, but since you think it was, let’s talk about it.” You need to confront the offense for what it is. Say something like, “I am wrong”; “I have done wrong and need to talk to you about what I did to offend you.”

Statement #2: I’m sorry.

Simply admitting wrong behavior is insufficient. Having determined the nature of what you said or did, you need to state how you feel about what you said or did. Do you feel regret over hurting your spouse? Certainly you do! You need to express that sorrow. Together, the admission of wrongdoing and the expression of sorrow covey to your spouse your sincerity about making things right.

The Apostle Paul understood what it means to express sorrow. He wrote: “Now I am glad I sent it (a letter of correction), not because it hurt you, but because the pain caused you to have remorse and change your ways. It was the kind of sorrow God wants His people to have, so you were not harmed by us in any way. For God can use sorrow in our lives to help us turn away from sin and seek salvation. We will never regret that kind of sorrow but sorrow without repentance is the kind that results in death” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10).

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The expression of remorse and sorrow is healthy when it leads to healing in the relationship with your spouse and with God.

Statement #3: I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again.

True repentance requires a change of heart and mind. It goes beyond “I’m sorry” to actually changing your hurtful behavior and the patterns of your offenses. Seeking forgiveness without promising repentance is pointless. Only when you commit to turning away from your hurtful behavior can true healing take place.

This is the same response God seeks from us in our sinfulness. When we confess our sin, He graciously forgives (see 1 John 1:9). But He doesn’t expect us to keep going in the same sinful direction. He is looking for us to change direction.

Statement #4: Will you forgive me?

This key question brings the process of whole forgiveness to a crescendo. It is forgiving love at its best, the ultimate of humility and intimacy in marriage. You are never more vulnerable to your spouse than when you make this request. It means putting yourself at his or her feet as a servant to receive an undeserved favor. In asking this question, you are swinging the door wide open for whole forgiveness.

If you omit any of the 4 elements in requesting forgiveness, you run the risk of leaving the conflict unresolved. Too often we leap to the final element and ask for forgiveness without acknowledging any understanding, remorse, or repentance. This is cheap forgiveness, and it creates uncertainty in your spouse about how to respond. It is very important that you take all 4 steps as you approach your spouse for forgiveness.

Granting Forgiveness

When your spouse comes seeking your forgiveness, you can participate in whole forgiveness in 2 ways: graciously and specifically.

Statement #5: I forgive you and close the loop on this issue.

When you say, “yes, I forgive you,” you are reflecting the love of a gracious, forgiving God. You are granting something your spouse doesn’t deserve. It is a free gift; it cannot be earned or bargained for.

When you say, “I forgive you,” you must let go of the offense once and for all and set your spouse free. When you do, there is closure. Both you and your spouse experience emotional relief. The pressure is off, the pain begins to subside, and the healing starts.

Statement #6: I forgive you for…

In addition to being gracious, your forgiveness needs to be specific. State precisely the offenses for which you are granting forgiveness, the very offenses for which your spouse has requested forgiveness. For example: “I forgive you for not spending more time with me last weekend”; “I forgive you for committing me to serve on a church committee without asking me first.”

Being specific assures your spouse how complete your forgiveness is. It doesn’t leave anything hanging in the air. It answers for your spouse the nagging question he or she may have: Did he or she understand what I was asking forgiveness for? Did he or she really forgive me for what I did?