My work with couples involves frequent discussions of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the “decision not to make the offender pay for the offense.” It is a decision made in a moment but lived out over time by treating the offender as having no debt. There are volumes of books written on this topic, and this little blog cannot address all the facets of this challenging choice. But I want to focus on a little moment in the forgiveness process. I want to look at the initial moment of the decision. I want to zoom in microscopically on the brief microseconds in which the decision is made.
There are a few assumptions I am making when writing about this process.
- There are two types of forgiveness: one where reconciliation is impossible and one where we work toward reconciliation. Reconciliation is the restoration of the relationship and the granting of mutual trust. When this cannot happen, the decision to forgive is personal and only for the benefit of the person experiencing the injury. Therefore, we will focus on scenarios where reconciliation is the goal, which can only occur where…
- The offender has taken complete responsibility for the offense. We cannot offer trust where the offender has not accepted ownership for the injury or betrayal.
- Both parties commit to making sacrifices to make the relationship work and function in new ways—protecting the relationship from future injury.
Now I want to zoom into the brief microsecond time in which the injured person decides to forgive and move into the stages of reconnection and reconciliation. It is a moment of birth and new life being given to something approaching death.
I want to use a relatively minor injury as an example. I use this example because it occurs in most relationships. So we can all easily understand, I am also using gender-neutral language in the model so we don’t get distracted by our gender biases.
The forgotten commitment.
The weekend is approaching, and this married couple is discussing their schedules and expectations for the weekend on a Thursday evening. Unfortunately, this Saturday is not looking to be very restful for either of them. One agrees to take the children to their soccer games in the morning, while the other plans to run shopping errands after mowing the grass early. One of the kiddos has a friend’s birthday party that afternoon while the other younger child needs to nap. The parent who agreed to stay home needed the parent to pick up an essential gift for their evening plans. This spouse (staying home) was responsible for organizing the retirement gift for their boss, who was retiring after 20 years. The gift was ready for pickup this Saturday, and the partner out at the party agreed to pick up the gift. As the couple was getting ready to leave for the retirement party that evening, they both realized the gift pickup had been forgotten. A massive argument ensued.
“You are always forgetting…you never seem to care about what is important to me.”
“You never reminded me…I never wanted to go to this stupid party because I hate your boss and coworkers.”
Feelings of hurt and betrayal lingered through the night and into the next day.
Imagine being a fly on the wall as this couple attempts to process the argument from the night before. In an ideal world, the hurt spouse would share their feelings and experiences. The offending spouse would validate and take ownership of the injury and offer a corrective action plan for future events. But these discussions could be better, and I want us to recognize that it is most likely related to what happens in a fraction of a second decision. In those twinkling moments, we need to decide–what will we do with POWER?
In the case of our story above, the spouse whose important gift was forgotten has gained the leverage of power. Their partner needed to remember. This created a debt that needed to be repaid. Obligations create power differences. This spouse holds power over their partner and now must decide what to do. There are many ways to make the perpetrator pay–Rejection, criticism, shaming, reminding them of this, and past failures. The list could go on. But the decision in the blink of an eye is whether to sentence the offender or surrender the right. Forgiveness is a surrender that takes the tension out of the room. Power becomes peace.
In my book, Revolutionary Marriage, I share how experiencing moments of forgiveness is like staring into the vastness of eternity. Living in the burdens of this world and time constraints, we often feel pressured. There is tension. Forgiveness releases these weights for even a moment, and we can experience the breath of an eternal, truly free reality. There is no freedom when power is applied. Obligations pile on top of each other, and we keep score.
So when the offended spouse says, “I forgive you. It is all right that you forgot, and we will solve this problem.” They sacrifice their power, offering freedom to their partner. Freedom breeds new life.
But what does the offender do with that freedom? They also have a decision to make in a flash. Do they use their new life to usurp power and continue to take advantage? Should the perpetrator use this gift to their advantage? Maybe they feel entitled, “You need to forgive me because of all the things you have done recently.” Perhaps they feel defensive, “You need to forgive me because you are always making too big a deal of things.” Freedom creates the opportunity to have power over others. But just like their offended partner, they must sacrifice their power. They must submit.
So the offender says, “I am thankful for your forgiveness. You are my priority, and I should not have forgotten. Next time you need me to remember, I will write myself a reminder to help ensure I don’t forget.”
By abandoning power, both partners take a significant risk. The offended spouse risks future injury. Forgiveness loosens the chains of control and contempt, and by offering freedom, their partner may hurt or fail them again—the perpetrator of the injury risks failing in the future. Through submission, they make themselves accountable for change.
It is in freedom and change that new life is born. In a flash of forgiveness, a breath of life-sustaining air is given to the marriage.
Postscript — This reminds us of our assumptions earlier in this blog post. This risk of forgiveness and submission only works in the context of a marriage where there is a commitment by both partners to maintain trust and reconcile their commitments to each other. There have to have been patterns of reciprocal sacrifice. Suppose there is long-standing contempt, threats of divorce, substance abuse, violence, ongoing affairs, and any other significant betrayal. In that case, getting those addressed in a safe therapeutic environment is essential. Seek counsel with a qualified mental health professional. Allow the hard work in that context to create fertile soil for healthier practices like the one described above.