Forgiveness: An Essential Ingredient in Successful, Committed Marriages

Forgiveness in marriage

Have you heard the parable about the king and queen who sent their oldest son, destined to be king, on a worldwide quest for an honorable, kind, intelligent wife to share his throne?  “Keep your eyes wide open,” his parents advised insistently as their first born left for his search.  A year later the prince returned with his choice, a young women instantly loved by his parents.  On the day of the wedding, in voices stronger than the ones used before his journey, his parents offered further advice, this time to the couple:  “Now that you have each found your forever love, you must learn to keep your eyes partially closed, as you overlook and forgive for the rest of your married life.  And remember, if you ever do anything hurtful in any way, immediately apologize.”

A close friend with years of experience as a divorce lawyer responded to the wisdom of this parable:   “With so many ways that couples hurt or rub each other the wrong way it is a miracle that two people can ever live well together. Overlooking, picking your issues, and apologizing for hurtful behavior are the wisest counsel possible.”

As wise as the message is, however, forgiveness is not always easy to achieve.   Yes, of course, it is easy to forgive a husband who forgets to call to say he will be late for dinner when he is overworked and anxious.  It is easy to forgive a wife for forgetting to pick her husband up at the train station when overwhelmed by her responsibilities.

But how do we forgive when we feel hurt or betrayed by complex interactions involving betrayal, loss, and rejection?  Experience has taught me that in situations like these the wisest approach is not to bury hurt, anger or even rage, but to seek counseling for fuller understanding and awareness, a reliable road to forgiveness that also offers sound direction. Examples from my practice that shed light on this approach follow.

Kerry and Tim: Betrayal caused by parental holds

Betrayal caused by parental holds

Kerry and Tim (not real names, of course), parents of a darling 4-month-old baby boy, met in college and fell in love soon after this meeting. Tim’s parents, a wealthy couple, live a couple of miles from their son and daughter-in-law, while Kerry’s parents, of modest means, live a thousand miles away. While Kerry and Tim’s mom did not get along, Kerry’s parents enjoyed their son-in-law’s company (as Tim does theirs) and were close to their daughter.

Tim and Kerry sought counseling because they could not stop arguing about a recent incident. Before the birth of their son Kerry believed that she and Tim had agreed that they would not contact their parents until the baby’s birth.  As soon as Kerry went into labor, however, Tim texted his parents, who rushed to the hospital.  Tim spent much of Kerry’s labor texting his parents to update them on progress.  “Tim betrayed me,” Kerry angrily explained in our first session, continuing,” My parents understood they would hear from us after a safe delivery. “Look, Kerry,” Tim countered, “I told you what you needed to hear, but believing that my parents had a right to know everything going on.”

In three months of hard work Tim saw that he had not embraced an important step in successful marriages:  the necessity for a loyalty shift from parents to partner, something that Kerry’s parents understood.  He also saw that it was necessary to have a heart to heart discussion with his mom, whom he realized looked down on his wife due to her parents’ lack of wealth and what they considered “lack of social status.”

Kerry saw it necessary to offer friendship to her mother-in-law, whom she realized “couldn’t be all bad – after all, she raised a wonderful son.”  With Tim’s clearly defined expectations of his mom, and Terry’s determination to let go of grudges, tensions were eased, and a new, positive chapter began for the entire family.   

Cynthy and Jerry:  Chronic deceit

Cynthy and Jerry were each 35 years old, and had been married for 7 years.  Each was committed to a career, and neither wished children.  Cynthy came to counseling alone, as Jerry refused to join her.  Cynthy began to cry as soon as my office door was closed, explaining she had lost trust in her husband, “I do not know where to turn and am so hurt and angry because I don’t think that Jerry’s late nights are job related, but he will not talk to me about what is going on.”  Explaining further, Cynthy shared, “Jerry is no longer interested in our making love, and seems totally disinterested in me as a human being. “

During three months of working together, Cynthy realized that her husband had lied to her throughout their marriage.  She recalled an incident early in their married life when Cynthy took a leave of absence from her work as an accountant to lead a close friend’s bid for a state elected office.  After the election, which her friend lost by only a few votes, Jerry told Cynthy coldly and gleefully, “She was your candidate, not mine.  I pretended to back her to shut you up.”

During her fifth month of therapy, Cynthy told Jerry she wanted to separate.  He gladly moved out, and Cynthy realized that he was relieved to be able to spend time with another.  Soon after she became aware of the interest in her of a member of her book club whose wife had died the year before, and their relationship soon blossomed.  Cynthy especially loved getting to know Carl’s children, two little girls, ages 6 and 7.  By this time Jerry realized that he had made a huge mistake.  Asking his wife to drop plans for the divorce and forgive him, he was told, “Of course, I forgive you.  Your brought me greater understanding of who I am, and why divorce is so necessary.”

Therese and Harvey:  A neglected spouse

A neglected spouse

Therese and Harvey had twin sons, ages 15, when Harvey fell in love with another woman.  During our first session, Therese expresses fury about his affair, and Harvey countered that he too was furious because his wife’s entire life revolves around their sons.  In Harvey’s words,  “Therese forgot a long time ago that she has a husband, and I cannot forgive her for this obliviousness.   Why wouldn’t I finally want to be with a woman who shows interest in me?”  Harvey’s honesty was a true wake up call for his wife.

Therese was determined to understand reasons for behavior she had not realized or recognized and soon realized that because her dad and brother had died together in an automobile accident when she was 9, she had become overly involved with her sons, named for her late dad and brother.  In this way, she believed she would be able to protect them from the same fate as her father and brother.  Harvey realized he should have spoken of his anger and disappointment wife a lot sooner, rather than allowing it to fester. By the time of this joint understanding, Harvey’s affair had ended; awareness brought them closer than they ever had been; and insights alleviated all anger.   

Carrie and Jason:  Denied opportunities for pregnancy

Carrie delayed pregnancy because Jason was not sure he wanted a child.  “I like to be able to be free for us to pick up and have fun whenever we want to,” he had told her repeatedly.  “I do not want to give that up.”  Jason still did not want to be a parent when Carrie’s biological clock, at age 35, began to scream “Now or Never! ”

At this point Carrie decided that with or without Jason, she was determined to become pregnant. This seemingly unsolvable difference, and their rage toward each other for desires that could not be agreed upon, brought them to therapy.

During our work Jason realized that his parents’ divorce when he was ten years old, and a dad who had no interest in him, made him fear that he did not “have the stuff to be a dad.”  However, as our work progressed he saw all that he was denying his wife, and he promised to “learn to be what I should have learned to be.”  This support and compassion eased Carrie’s anger, and, of course, Jason realized that his anger at Carrrie was “irrational and cruel.”

By this time, however, innumerable tests following Carrie’s failed attempts to become pregnant (Jason always at Carrie’s side) revealed that Carrie’s eggs had become too old to be fertilized. Further consultation led to the couple’s learning about the possibility of a “donor egg,” and together Carrie and Jason sought a reputable agency and found a carefully selected donor.  Now they are the glowing parents of Jenny, age three.  They agree:  “How could we ever have hoped for anyone more marvelous than our daughter?”  And more.  In Jason’s words, “I am grateful I could learn to see all I was denying a wife I love so much, and just as grateful that I gave myself this shared happiness.”

SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is devoted to highlighting destructive societal forces through communication, advocacy and activism. In her work she illuminates the impact of abuse, not only on individuals, but on the attitudes and behaviors that destroy marriages, families, friendships, work settings, communities and societies.

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