What can a couple do to renew a sense of confidence in one another after many years of marriage that have included numerous painful circumstances requiring forgiveness on the part of both spouses? How can we restore trust to our relationship?
First 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 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 offenses 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. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, you might reasonably expect the following responses from your partner:
- A willingness to take personal responsibility for the damage done without shifting blame or adopting evasive tactics.
- A determination to come up with a precise and definitive plan designed to prevent further offenses.
- A commitment to join you in seeking Christian counseling. This would include an active resolve to sort through all problematic issues and to make all the necessary changes.
- Patience and forbearance in allowing the wounded spouse the time necessary to heal without undue pressure.
Forgiveness , too, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Many people seem to believe that forgiving means one of the following:
- Condoning or excusing the offense.
- Forgetting past abuses or injustices.
- Minimizing or justifying negative behavior.
- Immediately trusting the offender again.
By way of contrast, true biblical forgiveness is not a matter of overlooking offenses or sweeping them under the rug. Instead it means:
- Giving up unhealthy anger which is often expressed as bitterness, spite, rage, the "silent treatment," or revenge.
- Turning both the offender and the offense over to God for His righteous judgment.
- Making a commitment to work through the issues together until the root causes of the problem have been identified and resolved.
- 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.
We would strongly urge you and your spouse to discuss the concepts at length with a certified marriage counselor. We have a staff of trained Christian therapists here at Focus on the Family who are available to consult with you over the phone - you can call one of them at this number. Our counselors 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.
Total Forgiveness (book)
Overcoming Barriers to Forgiveness (broadcast)
Hope Restored® marriage intensives - Focus on the Family offers marriage intensive programs in a retreat setting, designed to rebuild and restore marriages experiencing significant distress.
Marriage Alive - The Web site of Dave and Claudia Arp, a husband and wife team who strive to help couples build better marriages and families.
Love and Respect - This ministry offers materials, articles, and conferences designed to help those already married to enrich their relationship and for those considering marriage to prepare for the journey together.