One of the greatest threats to any relationship – marriage in particular – is an inability to forgive. Why do so many of us find it so difficult to let go of past hurts? The answer to this question can go several layers deep.
It’s common for an anger cycle to be set in motion when someone’s perceived needs (or, perhaps more accurately, wants) aren’t being met. Men, for example, generally want to be respected. Women, on the other hand, often feel a deep need for connection and validation. If either partner senses that he or she is being deprived of these fundamental needs or wants, anger kicks in and the relationship suffers.
The Bible tells us that if this anger isn’t dealt with promptly (Ephesians 4:26) it can fester and develop into a deep-seated root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). Bitterness, in turn, quickly becomes both self-perpetuating and self-destructive.
The good news is that it only takes one person to stop this vicious cycle. In their book From Anger to Intimacy, Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham argue that real intimacy can be reestablished if both parties are willing to take responsibility for their personal feelings and behavior. The tricky part is that someone has to get the ball rolling. You can’t change the other party, but you can face up to your own reactions to his or her behavior.
If you can do that, you’ll be ready to broach the subject with your partner. At this point, the key is to be as specific and personal as possible. Instead of blaming and dealing in vague generalities (for example, “you always ____!” or “here we go again!”) cite particulars and pinpoint actual incidents and events. Use “I” statements to keep the focus on your own feelings and reactions rather than the other person’s actions – for instance, “I was terribly hurt when you said _____, but I’m willing to move beyond that if you’ll work with me.” Be as honest and straightforward as you can, and don’t lose heart if the first response you get isn’t exactly what you were hoping for. Strong emotions can easily cloud communication during the early stages of the process, but you can overcome this barrier by asking the other person what he or she heard you say. Clarify your meaning as needed and invite your partner to respond. Then repeat the cycle until you’re able to come to some kind of mutual understanding.
Counseling can be an important aid in your efforts to get to the heart of your mutual woundedness. If you’re struggling with forgiveness, a professional therapist can help you identify destructive relational patterns and avoid them in the future. Meanwhile, if you’d like to do some additional reading on this subject, we recommend that you take a look at Matthew J. White’s article “Forgiveness When It’s Not Easy” on the Focus on the Family website.