How to forgive your spouseWritten by Bill Arbuckle
What's inside this article
What comes to mind when you hear, “Forgive your spouse?” The big stuff, right? Affairs. Anger. Betrayal. That’s true. But what about the day-to-day issues? All those little things that add up and – if not dealt with – create tension and frustration between you and your spouse.
Forgiveness is never easy. It means letting go of an offence. It means giving grace instead of nursing a grudge. How do you do that? Can you forgive your spouse?
Karen folded the last T-shirt and placed it atop the stack of laundry headed for the boys’ bedroom. She sighed as she fussed over the pile. “How much clothing can two little boys go through in a week,” she muttered to no one in particular.
Someone answered her question. Someone with a stern voice. “Maybe they wouldn’t go through so much if someone didn’t keep buying them clothes with money we don’t have.” The voice belonged to Karen’s husband, Joe.
Overcoming betrayal: A moment of broken trust
Karen looked up, surprised. “I didn’t see you standing there,” she said.
“Well, I didn’t see this until I grabbed the mail.” He held up a credit card bill and read the charges aloud. “Three hundred dollars for kids’ clothes. Two hundred for a pair of boots. A couple of meals . . . and five – no, six – Amazon orders.” He glared at his wife. “C’mon, Karen, we talked about this. We just paid off the last card, and here you go again.” Joe struggled to keep his voice from rising.
“I can explain,” Karen wanted to say more, but Joe stopped her.
“Explain what?” he snapped. “Explain how you promised me you wouldn’t use the card unless we talked first? You promised the credit counsellor and me that you were done. That you’d learned your lesson. You lied. Here’s a thousand dollars in charges to prove it. I trusted you. And you lied.”
Karen’s eyes filled with tears. Joe had never sounded so harsh. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I messed up.”
“No,” Joe said, “You lied. You broke your promise. I thought you’d really changed. And if you’re lying about this, what else are you lying about?” He stared at Karen for a moment and then turned to walk away. “I’m done with this,” he called over his shoulder.
Karen listened to his footsteps as he walked down the stairs and opened the door to his home office. A moment later, she heard him turn on the TV. Once she was sure she was alone, she looked down and cried.
Have you ever been in Joe’s shoes and felt betrayed by your spouse? Marriages are unravelling every day like Joe and Karen’s. In moments like these, it’s important to know how to forgive your spouse.
What forgiving is not
Before learning how to forgive your spouse, you must understand what it does and does not mean to forgive. Like other aspects of the Christian walk, just about the time we think we have things figured out, life happens, and God teaches us something new.
So, here’s a fundamental truth: forgiveness is a daily challenge. But as God does with so many other challenges we face, he gives us renewed grace for each one.
Forgiveness, however, seems more difficult. It takes something extra. That’s because forgiving your spouse means cancelling a debt your spouse created by committing an offence against you. Forgiveness starts with acknowledging that an offence was committed and then choosing to cancel – or absolve – the debt. Psalm 103:12 explains it like this: “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions.” Sound good?
God not only cancels our sin debt, but totally removes it. That’s comforting! We’re free!
The challenge, then, becomes doing the same for our spouse. That’s not so easy. Maybe it seems even more difficult because we’ve confused forgiveness with three “Christian myths” or wrong ideas. Do any of these keep you from forgiving your spouse?
Wrong idea #1: Forgiving means excusing your spouse’s behaviour
It may be gracious to excuse a spouse’s behaviour when they have done something hurtful, but that’s not the same as forgiving them. Forgiving your spouse doesn’t mean saying, “It’s OK, no harm done.” Instead, you should say, “I know I was harmed, but I choose not to hold this offence against you.”
To fully forgive, you must fully acknowledge the offence and the hurt that came with it.
Wrong idea #2: Forgiving means forgetting your spouse’s behaviour
God forgives and forgets, right? Jeremiah 31:34 speaks of a time when God will no longer remember his people’s sins. But like wrong idea #1, there’s a significant problem with “forgetting.”
When we talk about forgetting, we often attribute it to weakness. “I’m so tired, I can’t remember the details,” or “Aunt Betsy is just getting old, and her mind isn’t what it used to be.” Neither phrase can be applied to God. He “will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom (Isaiah 40:28).” So, how does God “forget” something?
The words of Jeremiah 31:34 contains the answer. God will “remember their sin no more.” His “forgetfulness” is not some passive accident. It’s a change of perspective. In a sense, God “changes the landscape.”
Our offences (sins) erect a barrier. Forgiveness removes the barrier. And now, instead of focusing on the wrong, he takes it away and then faces a different direction. Our offence is no longer in his field of vision. His forgetfulness is intentional. Because of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins, God now relates to you and me based on our new relationship with him – not our past offences.
After learning how God chooses to see us, you can take a fresh look at your situation. How do you forgive your spouse? Yes, an offence has been committed. But instead of keeping it in your field of vision, you choose to remove the barrier. You remember it no more. In so doing, you live out the truth of 1 Corinthians 13:5 “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
Wrong idea #3: Forgiving means immediate reconciliation and trust
Forgiveness is often confused with the ideas of reconciliation and trust. Forgiving your spouse makes restoration possible, but the restoration process takes time and only comes after repeated trustworthy interactions.
To equate forgiveness and trust is like equating the vows spoken on your wedding day with years of faithfulness and fidelity; the vows set a relationship in motion, but faithfulness is proven over time.
In the same way, while forgiving your spouse means cancelling a debt, trust and reconciliation take time to develop. To immediately presume I should be trusted because I’ve been forgiven may cause additional pain to my spouse. If I receive forgiveness in humility, I respect the process of building trust and reconciliation over time.
The right idea about forgiving the one you love
Matthew 18:21-22 records an interesting conversation between Jesus and his follower Peter. “Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times’.”
It’s easy to mock Peter’s question. After all, his offer seemed grandiose. The Jewish leaders in Peter’s day used God’s judgment in Amos 1:3 to teach that forgiveness should be offered just three times: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four,” God says, “I will not revoke the punishment.”
Peter’s offer was above and beyond. Jesus, however, countered Peter’s offer with God’s unlimited grace. “Not seven times,” He said to his disciple, “but seventy-seven times.”
God forgives us over and over. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). God sets an example for us to follow when forgiving our spouse. Ephesians 4:32 says to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”
Maybe you know someone – a friend or family member – who refuses to live out Ephesians 4:32. Instead of forgiving, they hold on to the offence so tightly their life becomes a monument (or tombstone!) that memorializes the offence. In a sense, that person becomes frozen in time, unable to move beyond the offence. Eventually, they move away in bitterness and cynicism.
Christ commands us to forgive as he has forgiven us. Jesus’ command to Peter – “forgive seventy-seven times” – challenges us to reset the landscape, remove our spouse’s offence from our field of vision, and forgive our spouse as God has forgiven us.
How to forgive your spouse: The decision
“He swings . . . and he misses. Strike three.” The sportscaster called the play and the colour commentator followed with an observation. “Not a good game. And he’s had a rough season so far.”
Joe watched as the player on the screen removed his batting helmet and slowly walked to the dugout.
“I’m right there with you, buddy,” he mumbled. “Not a good season for me either. Especially with the way I just talked to Karen.”
He stepped away from the television and moved toward a bookcase. A dusty baseball and a leather glove lay on the top shelf. Joe picked them up, blew the dust from the ball, and then tossed it into the glove. It landed with a satisfying smack. He tipped the ball out of the glove and then repeated the motion.
“I can’t believe I said that,” he said to himself. “I can’t believe Karen did that. Especially after all the counselling and hard work. And all her promises.”
Bitter realizations amidst unkept promises
He threw the ball into the glove harder than the last toss.
“Hey God,” he looked at the ceiling as he spoke, “I can’t do this again.” He kept tossing the ball as he prayed. “I trusted her. It’s not right. We could have bought a new car with all the money we had sunk into paying off credit cards.”
He tossed the ball again but missed the glove. The ball landed on the floor. Joe bent over to grab it. When he stood up, he came face to face with a photo of Karen. His favourite. The one from the college backpacking trip. There she was, standing in the sunshine. Hiking boots, socks pulled mid-calf, a denim ball cap, and that ratty-looking backpack she insisted on carrying. And a smile. A huge smile that started at the corners of her mouth and ended in little crinkles around her eyes. Joe had snapped the shot to share with the group and then made an extra copy for himself because that was the moment he’d fallen in love with Karen.
“Why can’t we be like that,” he prayed. “I’d give anything to see that smile again.”
Revisiting a love lost in time
He looked down to the ball in his hand long enough to toss it back into the glove. The sound of a baseball smacking a leather glove brought back memories of sunny afternoons and happy-go-lucky days. He glanced back at Karen’s portrait and caught a glimpse of his own reflection. The site of his scowling face overshadowing Karen’s triggered a reaction.
“I wonder if that’s what she sees,” he said softly. “Now I know why I never see that smile anymore, and it has nothing to do with the credit cards.”
“Yeah, she made a mistake,” Joe looked back to the ceiling. “But I’ve held it against her. For a long time. I’ve been acting like a human credit card that can’t be repaid. I’ve refused to let things go. I haven’t wanted to. It frustrates me. Her spending hurts our family. But my unwillingness to forgive is just as bad.”
He stopped talking and walked to the bookshelf to return the ball and glove.
“God, will you help me forgive?” He plopped back down in his office chair. “I’m ready to do what it takes to get that big smile back on her face again.”
How to forgive your spouse: The action
Karen listened as Joe walked up the stairs one at a time. He stopped at the bedroom door. She wiped the tears away and stood up to face her husband.
Joe knocked on the door.
“Yeah?” she said.
“Hey, babe,” he opened the door. There was a softness in his voice that she hadn’t expected to hear.
“Joe, I’m so sorry,” she said. The tears started to flow again. “I wish I could explain . . .”
Joe interrupted her. “I’m willing to listen,” he said. Karen looked into his eyes and saw something had changed. Something significant. Joe caught her look. “Yeah, really listen,” he said. “I think I can. I really want to. I’ve been holding on to my frustration. It’s time to let it go. So, talk away. I’ll listen. And then, if you’ll let me, I want to apologize. If you’re willing to listen.”
Karen couldn’t speak. But she nodded. And smiled. A great big smile that started at the corners of her mouth and ended up in crinkles around her eyes.
Practical steps to forgiving your spouse
Maybe your story doesn’t have a “Hallmark” ending like Joe and Karen’s. Your marriage may be in a messy, ugly place. You want to forgive and reconcile, but don’t have what it takes to forgive your spouse.
Guess what? You’re right. You don’t have what it takes to forgive your spouse. But if you follow Jesus Christ, you have his Spirit living in you. Ephesians 3:20 says Christ can do “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us.”
When you choose to forgive your spouse, Jesus offers his strength. You won’t face this alone.
- Start with prayer
“Jesus, I’m not sure how to forgive my spouse. Help me start this process because I can’t do it alone. You’ve forgiven me, and now I’m asking for your grace to forgive.”
- Be honest about the pain
Your spouse caused pain. Deep pain. Be honest with yourself about the pain your spouse has caused. Take time to mourn the brokenness. In Psalm 69, David opens his heart to God and shows him the depth of his pain. “I am suffering and in pain. Rescue me, O God, by your saving power” (Psalm 69:29).
Sometimes, being honest about the pain means seeking help from a Christian counsellor, pastor or mentor. Find someone who can help you process the pain and then help you start the forgiveness and reconciliation process.
- Admit you feel helpless and vulnerable
You’ve experienced real pain and brokenness. You don’t want to re-open your heart for fear of being hurt again. In a sense, you’ve built a fortress around your heart to protect it from pain.
Unfortunately, those walls you’ve erected from protection can block hope and healing. Admit the pain and then invite God into it. Ask him to show you who to trust and how to begin caring for the person behind those walls: yourself.
- Take responsibility for your fears, pain and feelings
This means learning how to care for your heart – your personal well-being. It means finding fulfillment in Christ and letting him define your worth.
- See the hurt and pain from God’s perspective
God never wastes pain.
Just look at Joseph’s story in the Book of Genesis. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they were jealous. Yet, God redeemed Joseph’s story and set in motion a chain of events to place Joseph in the right place at just the right time to save lives during a famine. Joseph recognized God’s work, “You intended to harm me,” he told his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
God redeemed Joseph’s pain. He can redeem yours as well.
- Release the offender from ever making it right
Scary? Yes. Your spouse may never be able to “make it right,” or they may never want to. Their response is between them and God. He will take care of it. Your role is to work through these six steps, forgive, and leave the outcome to God.
Forgiving your spouse is a process
Dr. Greg Smalley, vice president of Marriage at Focus on the Family in the U.S., writes about forgiving your spouse:
“Forgiveness is not a one-time event; it is a process. Too often we hear some version of ‘If he really forgave me, then he would be over this by now!’
“But that simply is not realistic. We shouldn’t expect immediate healing or instant forgiveness, especially if we’ve done something extremely hurtful. Your spouse will not get over the hurt right away; it takes time.
“The pain of some hurts never fully goes away. An event may spark an old memory, and the pain may return with it. We think this is one way in which God keeps us humble. It’s hard to get overconfident about our emotional or spiritual maturity when we remember how things ‘used to be.’
“We need to dispense with the belief that once we say those magic words, ‘I forgive you,’ all pain and hurt instantly disappear. Forgiveness is a process, and only by going through it can we begin to heal.”
Need help? We encourage you to contact our care and counselling team at 1.800.661.9800. Our office hours are Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT. Visit FocusOnTheFamily.ca/Counselling to learn more.
© 2023 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Originally published on FocusOnTheFamily.com. Adapted from "Producing a Blockbuster Marriage: Writing our Love Story" by Dr. Robert Burbee, Brett Sparks and Tricia Cunningham. © 2008 Focus on the Family.
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