Forgiveness and Feelings in Marriage

Do our feelings matter when it comes to forgiving our spouse?


This is the first post in a new series based on anonymous questions we have received at Build Your Marriage conferences across the United States. Some details may be modified to protect the identities of individuals.

Question: “How do you keep your feelings out of forgiving someone? Do you believe that some sin is too great to forgive?”

The Cross and Your Marriage

Cross and marriage

The symbol of the cross is found on buildings, in artwork, jewelry and gestures around the world. It is both respected and reviled. In the middle east, Isis is actively tearing down every semblance of the cross. In eastern China, crosses were pulled down from 400 churches in 2014 because the Christians there are gaining more prominence.

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing….” (1 Corinthians 1:18) When you see the cross, what do you think about?

What is the impact of the cross of Christ on your marriage? Years ago when we were young and Good Friday would come around we would wonder what was so “good” about it? All we saw was the torture, suffering, sacrifice, and death of Jesus. But now as we have grown older chronologically and spiritually, we have a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ sacrifice means to us individually and to our marriage.

Here are four things the cross means to all of our marriages:

Six Steps Toward Reconciling A Marriage

Marriage Reconciling

Recently we have had people contacting us for help in reconciling a severed relationship that has ended in either separation or divorce. We thought it might be helpful for you—or for someone you know—to put into practice. Here’s what we’ve been sharing…

First, good for you for wanting to rebuild what was broken. Your heart honors God because He is all about rebuilding what was broken, beginning with what Christ did on the cross to restore us in our relationship with God.

Nothing is impossible with God. That said, he does give free will and the person you love and want to be reconciled to may not respond. It is a privilege for us to join you in prayer for the restoration of your relationship, and that God will be doing a work in the other person’s heart as well.

Each of these points requires the exercise of self-discipline to carry them out.

1. Stay centered

Center in on your relationship with God first and foremost. Spend time every day reading the Bible (15 minutes perhaps) and praying. Let your prayers be focused more on the person God wants you to become than on wooing the other person back.

2. Stay humble.

Get a pad of paper or sit in front of a screen and specifically ask God to reveal to you everything you did (even the small things) that contributed to the breakup of the relationship. Don’t focus on their part—that’s your spouse’s responsibility before God as he directs them.

Write down everything the Holy Spirit reveals to you. This is only between you and God—it can be destroyed after this exercise if you so choose.  Then re-read it to be sure it is complete. Do you agree fully with the list? Do you take full ownership of your part?

Once you are at that place of full ownership, then go through the list, one by one, and out loud before God, simply pray:

“God, please forgive me for ______________. I acknowledge that was sin before you and it contributed to the breakdown of my marriage. I accept your forgiveness for this.”

Do that for each item the Holy Spirit has you write down.

This list you wrote is one for you to fully own. Sadly, the “blame game” is what can stop any reconciliation in its tracks. Your spouse needs to feel safe and know that all the fingers aren’t being pointed in their direction—that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

3. Be accountable

Ask 1-3 godly and wise people of your gender whom you respect to be on your prayer team. Ideally, find people who have a long history of being married to the same person.

Ask them to pray with you and for you about the reconciliation. Use these people as your “personal advisory board.” Let them ask you hard questions (ask for it) to be sure you are ready to step up and approach your spouse for reconciliation.

4. Reach out

NOW you are ready to reach out. When a relationship is severed, there can be huge distrust and hurt. Don’t underestimate that. Sometimes we have seen spouses project anger or put up walls or stiff-arm renewed intimacy to protect themselves and see if the change that is being presented is really humble and true.

5. Go slow

Be patient. Be consistent. Listen and learn more than talk. We like the phrase, “listen to understand before speaking to be understood.”

6. Trust God

You may not know what to do next, but you can trust God to reveal to you the next steps toward reconciling your marriage.

In the end, you will have peace, confidence, and integrity. You will know that before God you have taken the wise steps that honor him to re-build your marriage.

The Game-Changing Forgiveness Question

Asking Forgiveness

A friend of ours named David used to have a one-on-one session with each of his three boys beginning when they were just preschoolers.  He would call them into a room, get down on one knee and have them sit on his knee. Then he would ask them one question: “Is there anything that I need to ask your forgiveness for?”

Invariably there was something that they would say he had done that they perceived was a wrong done to them.

The natural reaction for most of us would be to explain why we had done what we did so that the child would understand better what happened. But David held back from making it a teaching moment. He didn’t get defensive or corrective. His concern was for their heart to be freed from whatever pain they may be holding.

So David would humbly say—and model—for each son how to ask for forgiveness.

“I’m sorry. Would you forgive me?”

And with a quick “Yes!” and a hug and kiss each boy would scamper off…with a heart that was more whole and a deeper love for their father because he asked for their forgiveness.

There are SO MANY adults who go through life wishing that their father had done this for them. Because their father never did ask for forgiveness, wounds accumulated over the years. The intimate relationship longed for was never fully achieved.

Imagine what asking this one question could free up in your relationship with your spouse! It has the potential to set you on a new and steeper trajectory!

What might you hear if you asked the question of your spouse: “Is there anything that I need to ask your forgiveness for?” How do you think you would respond to what you hear?

We want to encourage you to seriously consider having this conversation with your mate. As you think about it, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Wait to ask the question until you are ready to hear the answers.

2) Just listen to their response without explanation or defense

3) If your spouse want to ask the question back to you, request that they bring it up a different time if they wish. This conversation is a focus on you making things right.

4) Be sure your timing is good and you have their attention. (Dinner prep., diaper changing, oil changing, etc is not good timing!)

5) When you ask the question, listen carefully. Make your request for forgiveness specific to what is shared with you.

6) If your spouse isn’t ready to forgive you, stay humble about the issue. Leave their processing in His hands and let it go. Don’t take offense at what is shared or at how your mate responds—that’s ultimately between them and God.

7) After the conversation, don’t raise it up again or go back to explain yourself. This is an opportunity to practice humility and learn to trust God in your marriage. Let Him be your Advocate.

8) Have peace knowing that you have honored Jesus by seeking to keep accounts clean with your spouse.

9) Ask the game-changing question on a regular basis—and watch how it helps you build your marriage!

Learning Forgiveness

Forgiveness freedom

Have you ever had to forgive your spouse but really didn’t want to? What happened when you didn’t? When you did?

One of the lessons we have had to learn repeatedly in our marriage is the art of forgiveness. We are both first borns and our basic nature is to be driven, focused, goal-oriented, have a desire to win and dominate until we succeed. When we are focused together on an outcome our drive is a powerful force for good. When we are focused on getting our way….well, that’s a concoction for a marital nuclear disaster!

Through our 30+ years of marriage we’ve grown in grace, patience, and the art of forgiving. As we coach couples, we watch them struggle to forgive one another. It’s usually not over the huge sins that can devastate, but the daily irritants that we allow to get under our skin.

As couples, we all need to learn how to forgive.

Why is forgiveness so important?

Quick! If you know it—rattle off the Lord’s prayer right now—GO!

Alright, now about that “and forgive us our sins/debts as we forgive those who’ve sinned against us (our debtors).”  We can’t appreciate the depth of God’s forgiveness given to us until we are willing to experience what it’s like to forgive. Even if it’s forgiving repeatedly. Even if we were unjustly treated. Even if what was done was deliberate.

The only person we hurt by not forgiving is ourselves. Forgiveness protects our heart from bitterness. Anne Lamott writes that, “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”

Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is an act of the will. It is saying, “I am not going to hold this against them, but instead I’m going to trust God to deal with the situation in his time and his way. I’m choosing to show grace.”

How do I show forgiveness in injustice?

Injustice will happen in marriage. You’ll be accused of something you didn’t do. A confidence will be broken. Money spent without mutual agreement. Betrayal of trust at any level may occur.

Peter writes about this using Jesus as an example saying, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23)

You may hurt. You may grieve. There may be consequences to your spouse’s actions (i.e. a rebuilding of trust, or possibly the loss of a marriage). But the choice to forgive is about your heart before God.

Forgiveness is often not a once and done event. The indignant feelings of being done wrong can come up at any moment. Each time, you make the conscious choice to say, “I have chosen forgiveness. I will not hold this against them. I am trusting God who judges justly.”

Do I tell them?

Often the question arises of whether or not to tell someone that you forgiven them. Our answer is: it depends.

  • Will telling them reveal to them a hurt that they unknowingly caused you? If so, it’s better to discuss with them what took place and why it hurt so that there is better understanding. In that context you will have to discern if you need to verbalize your forgiveness.
  • Are you telling them you forgive them to induce guilt in them—as a form of payback? Then it’s better to remain silent.
  • If they have expressed repentance on their own initiative to you…then offer forgiveness immediately and be willing to talk about what broke down between you and how to guard against it.

It’s up to you, and our challenge is to make the choice to forgive in the little or big things as you Build Your Marriage!

Asking Forgiveness

Forgive me

When our children were young, they would invariably show their dark side and cause some infraction toward one another. When confronted, the perpetrator would usually just want to rattle off an “I’m sorry!” and be done with it–never actually seeking forgiveness. But we didn’t make it so easy. We wanted to be sure they understood—and verbalized—specifically what they had done. This wasn’t just for their sake, it was for the victim’s (sibling) sake as well, to aid in their ability to forgive and trust once again.

As hard as you try, there are going to be things in your marriage that you will do, fail to do, refuse to do, or have-have-it-assumed-that-you-should-have-known-what-to-do! Naturally there will be things you ought to say or should have left unsaid. Your tone of voice may misrepresent your heart. Your eagerness may be mistaken for selfishness. Your focus may be perceived as self-centeredness.

There isn’t a married person alive who can’t dredge up a remembrance of hurt brought to their spouse in one of those scenarios. And those are just the daily issues. Some hurts are much, much deeper. The criticizing in front of friends and family. Disrespect and dishonor displayed in front of the children. Or pain at its worst: betrayal. Your spouse needs to hear you apologize—specifically. This isn’t an exercise in beating yourself up before they have the opportunity to do so—it’s humbly presenting yourself to them as one who recognizes the wrong you’ve done and the hurt that was caused. Intentionally or unintentionally, real or perceived, you need to make it right.

Have Perspective

So first, try to put yourself in your spouses’ skin and think about what they felt, how the situation may have looked to them. What behavior, attitude, words, tone of voice, etc. did you do (again, specifically) that created pain? If you are a Christ-follower, ask God to reveal to you any way you may have sinned against your spouse. You can be assured that the Spirit of truth will reveal your transgressions gently and thoroughly.

Have Humility

Now go to your spouse when they are ready to listen, look in their eyes and ask forgiveness for each thing that you did. Don’t offer excuses. Don’t pass the blame. Just own it.

Have Patience

Just because you are ready to apologize doesn’t mean that they are ready to hear from you. Be sensitive to your spouse’s readiness. Asking forgiveness is not so that you can be “off the hook” for what you did, it is so the relationship can be healed and reconciled. If they won’t listen, then perhaps write it down in a note and give it to them to read when they are ready. Even so, be prepared to verbalize what you have written. Some deep pain will probably need ongoing conversation and perhaps even counseling. Your humility in your apology must also include ongoing humility in rebuilding trust, willing conversation, and doing whatever it takes to Build Your Marriage.