Question: After many years of marriage that have seen numerous painful circumstances requiring forgiveness on the part of both spouses, what can a couple do to restore trust to their relationship?  

Answer: 

In the first place, be wary of clichés and pat answers that promise quick solutions to the problem you’re facing. By your own testimony, it’s taken many years to build the wall of bitterness and suspicion that now stands at the heart of your relationship. You can’t expect to tear it down in a single day. Restoring trust takes time. It’s a process that requires both an accurate understanding and an appropriate application of the principle of forgiveness. But you can’t begin to move in this direction until you know what the words "trust" and "forgiveness" really mean. 

Trust needs to be earned

Trust is something that has to be earned. It’s a mistake to assume that a person is worthy of trust simply because he’s expressed remorse and you’ve offered him forgiveness. That’s just the beginning. As has already been indicated, trust can be broken fairly quickly, but the rebuilding process can be lengthy and tedious. This is especially true where the offences in question were unusually hurtful or if they’ve been repeated numerous times. When you’ve been wounded, it’s difficult to trust again unless you can see tangible evidence that things are going to be different in the future. So if you’re the spouse taking the initiative to restore the relationship, look for change and insist on seeing it implemented before moving forward. At the same time, don’t make unrealistic demands. 

What to expect

Depending on the seriousness of the offence, you might reasonably expect the following responses from your partner:

  1. A willingness to take personal responsibility for the damage done without shifting blame or adopting evasive tactics.

  2. A determination to come up with a precise and definitive plan designed to prevent further offences.

  3. A commitment to join you in seeking Christian counselling. This would include an active resolve to sort through all problematic issues and to make all the necessary changes.

  4. Patience and forbearance in allowing the wounded spouse the time necessary to heal without undue pressure.

Understanding forgiveness

Forgiveness, too, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Many people seem to believe that forgiving means one of the following: 

  1. Condoning or excusing the offence.

  2. Forgetting past abuses or injustices.

  3. Minimizing or justifying negative behaviour.

  4. Immediately trusting the offender again. 

By way of contrast, true Biblical forgiveness is not a matter of overlooking offences or sweeping them under the rug. Instead it means:

  1. Giving up unhealthy anger which is often expressed as bitterness, spite, rage, the "silent treatment" or revenge.

  2. Turning both the offender and the offence over to God for His righteous judgment. 

  3. Making a commitment to work through the issues together until the root causes of the problem have been identified and resolved.

  4. Actively rebuilding the relationship, brick by brick, on a foundation of solid trust.

Remember: forgiveness is not optional for the Christian. God requires that you forgive your spouse – "for if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15). So "be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another just as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32). If this is a struggle for you, begin by asking the Lord to help you in those areas where you’re finding it difficult to forgive. Sin is the obvious reason we hurt each other, but it isn’t always easy to get to the practical heart of the matter. For helpful insight into this aspect of the problem, we’d highly recommend that you and your spouse get a copy of R.T. Kendall’s excellent book Total Forgiveness and study it from cover to cover. This resource is available through the ministry of Focus on the Family Canada and can be ordered by calling our offices or visiting our online store. 

Seek professional help

We would strongly urge you and your spouse to discuss the concepts at length with a certified marriage counsellor. We have a staff of trained Christian therapists here at Focus on the Family Canada who are available to consult with you over the phone  –  you can call one of them Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800. Our counsellors can also provide you with a list of qualified professionals practicing in your area. They’ll be more than happy to assist you in any way they can.

© 2010 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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