Over the last year, John and I have had the chance to talk with countless couples who’ve fallen in love, gotten engaged, celebrated their marriage and then found any number of reasons to get upset with one another. Many of the stories we’ve heard have been about losing a precious ring - maybe finding it, maybe not - but there are thousands of other reasons why we get annoyed or downright angry at our partners.
Rather than wax poetic about romance and love as we head into the Valentine’s (uber-commercial) holiday weekend, I thought I’d reflect on one of the more critical elements of making relationships work.
Image Credit: Jessica Key
There is a lot of research on the topic of forgiveness. One excellent summary podcast from Two Guys on Your Head suggests that, emotionally, it costs us more not to forgive someone because of pent up resentment. If we don’t forgive, we suffer from the inability to engage with our partners in the now, layering on past slights and creating a situation where trust, openness and enjoying one another is nearly impossible.
Far be it for me to say I am great at forgiveness - I am not. I am learning to get better at it day to day, just like I am also learning patience (over time). But I do know that when I forgive, when I don’t hold on to my irritation, when I choose to let go of something that’s not material - BOTH of us feel a lot better and I’ve created space where we can be open, honest and kind to each other.
When Should Couples Forgive?
Most of the things that require forgiveness fall into three categories: what was said, what was done and what wasn’t done. Hearing how others have handled similar situations always helps me gain perspective, so I thought I’d share a few. I chose issues that weren’t the big marriage ending kinds, rather the kind of insidious little things that can chip away at your union if you don’t consciously work at building it up.
Forgiving something you said …
One couple recounted a situation where, upon forgetting his wallet, a gent’s wife rolled her eyes and commented how he ALWAYS loses his wallet. The exaggeration and how she expressed her irritation made him feel pretty badly about himself and left him hurt and feeling disrespected. For months, there was a sort of tense undercurrent in their relationship - especially when it came to leaving the house or paying the bill at a restaurant. She didn’t realize how much her comments had hit home - and not realizing this, at some point when the wallet was misplaced again, the situation blew up into a more major argument. They finally talked through it and her husband shared his hurt, she apologized and more importantly acknowledged the progress he’d made on habits to alleviate future wallet mishaps. They’ve been much happier since and now make light of it if something is forgotten, rather than dwelling on it.
Forgiving something you did …
Another couple we at odds about how the husband was prioritizing video games over time spent together. For a while, his wife didn’t saying anything but, when several days in a row, her husband ensconced himself in his man-cave, she’d had enough. The next time they talked about date night she got really angry with him and told him that what he was doing made her feel unimportant. Initially, he wouldn’t acknowledge the behavior as an issue. They had a few more conversations about what they were each looking for in their relationship and free time. After hearing out his wife’s perspective, he was willing to make some changes but more importantly, they agreed how often they should focus on their time together as a couple - leaving other time free for whatever activity either might prefer. It took a few weeks of spending more quality time together and the wife knowing she could go do things she enjoyed before they rebuilt trust and she was fully able to forgive his prior game-happiness, but now they’ve found a great balance of time together and time enjoying their respective hobbies.
Forgiving something you didn’t do …
A friend’s husband forgot their wedding anniversary. She had spent time thinking about what special meal she’d make that evening along with a little gift she’d give him and she wrote a heartfelt note to share how much she cared. When her husband got home, she surprised him with all these little signals of her love and he was totally engaged and thankful. But he was also clearly a bit surprised. He didn’t have a card or anything to recognize their special day. She tried to shrug it off, but it bothered her. She was hurt that he hadn’t put any effort into commemorating something that meant a lot to her. The next few days were marked by chilly interactions, until her husband asked her what was wrong. He hadn’t realized that what he didn’t do had so impacted her well-being. Ultimately, he was sorry, but more importantly, he now knew that something small, but meaningful could really make a difference. He was from a family where anniversaries weren’t touted as a big deal - so this was new to him. His wife also learned that telling him about her concerns and forgiving him could take the chill out of the air and open up a chance for them to know more about each other and treat each other even better in future.
It doesn’t take a major betrayal like infidelity to warrant forgiveness. In fact, there are micro moments every day that we choose to forgive, which can help us build up the strength to forgive and ultimately forget bigger issues. Strong relationships are built up around small things - both positive and negative - learning about one another, improving how we communicate, how we treat each other and how we support one another year after year.
Do you have anything to forgive or ask forgiveness for this Valentine’s? Considering it a gift that when shared, could just make your relationship stronger.