4 Ways to Fail at Forgiving Your Spouse
- Dr. Ron Welch Transformational Marriage
- 2014 13 Aug
Forgiving but Not Forgetting
You’ve heard people say, “I will forgive but I won’t forget.” I understand why people say it but I don’t agree with the underlying premise. If you want to forgive someone, why would you be committed to remembering the anger and bitterness and resentment you feel? I think it is because at some level you don’t want to forgive the person—at least not completely. You want to do the right thing and you care about what others think of you and want to maintain the image of a forgiving person, but you don’t want to forget what has been done to you.
It’s difficult not to hold someone’s previous behavior against them. If you let go of something that someone has done to you, you may be risking more hurt in the future. To minimize being taken advantage of again, you should say the right things but maintain a clear distrust of the person.
Here’s the problem: if you can’t trust someone or if you expect less of her or him based on previous behavior, then I question whether you have really forgiven the person. I’m not suggesting that humans are capable of wiping their memories clean (other than on one of those corny Syfy Channel movies). I am suggesting that if you truly forgive someone, you will treat them as if what they did never happened. I mentioned in the last chapter that Jan had to learn to forgive me in order to stop expecting me to control her. You will have to forgive your husband or you will continue to expect him to fail.
I worked with a couple many years ago who could each cite chapter and verse of incidents that had occurred between the two of them ten, ﬁfteen, even twenty years before. They almost never had a discussion that didn’t involve comments like, “That doesn’t make up for what you did at Christmas back in 1982...” or “Okay, but that’s nothing compared to how bad you were on our vacation in ’76.” Every current relationship experience was seen in light of previous behavior.
It took us the better part of a year to work through this issue. They were both scared of letting go of the past. Being able to recall the times when each had been hurt in the past represented control and power over their spouse. They didn’t want to give up that power and become vulnerable again.
True forgiveness should lead to increased trust. If you ﬁnd yourself expecting that your spouse is going to let you down, forgiveness is probably not happening.
Expecting the one you love to fail is another warning sign that forgiveness may be absent in your marriage. If you are able to forgive your spouse and let the past go, it follows that you would not be pessimistic about your relationship. In other words, truly forgiving your spouse would lead to an expectation of success and a great deal of hope for the future of your relationship.
In the absence of forgiveness, the relationship is shrouded in a dark cloud of despair where there is an expectation of failure. Strong memories of previous disappointments lead to certainty that your spouse, who has let you down before, will do so again.
If you continue to expect your partner to fail, you won’t notice if they succeed. For instance, you may have come to believe that your husband will always correct what you say. You start assuming that this is simply a character trait: it’s just who he is. How can he be expected to change, or even want to, when the person who supposedly loves him the most has given up on the possibility that he can change? You end up paying attention to the one time he corrects you and ignore the ten times he doesn’t. I continue to be amazed at the creative ability couples have to sabotage change in a relationship, even when they both agree the change would be good. Often the driving force in this resistance to change is a lack of forgiveness.
The problem with expecting failure is that people have this annoying habit of behaving in the ways you expect them to behave. Psychologist Robert Merton called this a self-fulﬁlling prophecy. As long as you continue to hold on to the things that have gone wrong in the relationship, you will deﬁne your spouse in that way and expect him or her to fail in the future. And as long as you expect your partner to fail, he or she will be happy to do so.
Keeping Your Distance
Another indicator of the absence of forgiveness is the presence of distance and disconnection in the relationship. It’s the reason one partner asks the other, “Are we okay?” This question is an effort to ﬁnd out if the relationship is back to normal and the earthquake they just experienced is over, or if there are going to be ongoing aftershocks that will have to be weathered. Keep in mind that even an affirmative “Yeah, we’re okay,” may not mean things are ﬁne. It may just be that the person being asked doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of answering, “No, we are not okay.”
Regardless of how the question is answered, there are numerous indicators that provide a clear measurement of the relationship status without having to look it up on Facebook. People ﬁnd ways to keep a safe distance from their partner when they don’t feel ready to reengage. Finding reasons to be out of the house or away from the other person, not talking about anything other than extremely superﬁcial issues, and giving brief, terse responses to questions are all indications that things are not back to normal. You can probably identify the speciﬁc indicators in your relationship.
Dr. Ron Welch (PsyD, Central Michigan University) serves on the faculty of Denver Seminary. Welch has over twenty years of experience in clinical psychology and has extensive experience counseling struggling couples and men with narcissistic and antisocial personality styles. He has developed the Transformational Marriage™ approach, which helps couples through counseling, seminars, and publications. He and his wife, Jan, have walked the road of a controlling marriage personally and live in Colorado.
Publication date: August 13, 2014