For some time now, I have been turning over the question of forgiveness, and in particular, what it means to forgive your partner within marriage.  Forgiveness is often touted as the answer to making a relationship work.  We see these messages in social media and the larger culture all the time, declarations of the absolute need for forgiveness for any relationship to survive. But, I have to say, mostly based on my work in couples therapy, I have my doubts about this.


But wait, let me back up.  What is forgiveness, exactly? Webster defines it as, to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong), or to stop blaming (someone).  That seems a tall order when, in marriage, you feel that the person who should be most concerned for your well-being has betrayed or disappointed you in some way.  It’s tough to simply ‘turn off’ those emotions. To be frank, I believe that there are things that happen in marriage (and other close relationships) that can’t be forgiven.  Not necessarily because these acts are so awful in and of themselves, but because they are so awful to us.


There’s something my husband did to me a long time ago, a minor thing to anyone looking from the outside, but something more than minor to my heart. (In his defense, my husband is the best human being I know, a better person than me by a mile. And yet, he is still human, and therefore capable of error).  Anyway, this thing he did, even when I think of this old act now, it smarts; it pinches a little part of me.  I definitely wouldn’t say that I—as the dictionary definition suggests—have stopped feeling anger about this issue or stopped blaming him. I don’t throw it in his face, either, but when this particular moment in our relationship comes to my mind, the emotion is definitely still there.


Here’s the thing: I don’t believe I can forgive him in that Miriam Webster sense.  I don’t know that I’ll ever not feel hurt when I think about it.  I don’t know that I can ever completely release those negative emotions, as the Greater Good explains forgiveness.


What I have done, instead of the herculean effort of forgiveness, is to extend grace, which to my mind is some mixture of kindness and mercy.  It’s saying that because I’ve chosen us and what we have, I accept that I’ll never fully understand his actions at that time, and that there is nothing he or I can do to change that.  I choose to say that you did this thing, and it hurt me, and it still hurts sometimes, but whatever feelings I have about the incident are mine to bear. Because I truly believe that he is honestly sorry and his intention was not to hurt me, I am able to prevent these feelings from getting in the way of our otherwise loving, healthy partnership.


It may seem that I’m putting too a fine a point on the matter in encouraging grace, rather than forgiveness. But I think we can get stuck in the work of trying to forgive; we may feel that we’ve failed or something’s wrong because we just can’t let it go. Instead of trying to make the emotions disappear, I have found it more useful to accept that they will remain, and that they can exist alongside my love and commitment to my husband.


Looking for real talk and real solutions to common marital concerns? Subscribe to our newsletter!