Emotional wounds can be like physical wounds. If you had a cut on your arm but didn’t clean it or care for it, the wound could become infected and you wouldn’t even be able to touch it because it would hurt so much. Even if you covered that wound so that no one could see it, if someone bumped into it, you would jerk your arm back in pain and might even lash out at the person. Your reaction wouldn’t be reflective of what that person did because what he or she did was simply an accident. But that person might receive the full venting of your pain because you did not treat your wound.
Unforgiveness is like an untreated injury of the soul. It can set in motion a cycle where small marital scuffles become large marital wars. When the wounds in our hearts are left untreated, they often produce pain in other areas of our lives. As a result, we become highly sensitive and reactive to the actions, inactions and words of our spouse. The slightest offense from our mate — even if he or she didn’t mean anything harmful — evokes a harsh reaction. We may lash out, accuse, blame, cry, or say and do things we later regret. All the while, our spouse is caught off guard by our reactions. To overcome unforgiveness, we need to treat our wounds and let them heal.
Ejecting the offense
Biblical forgiveness means you release your spouse from a debt owed to you. Forgiveness is not contingent on how you feel about your spouse. It is a choice to no longer blame your spouse for an offense. First Corinthians 13:5 details this in a most straightforward way: Biblical love “keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV). Biblical love doesn’t justify wrong, nor does it ignore wrong, excuse it or pretend it doesn’t exist. All of those types of responses to wrongdoing would lead to enablement. Rather, biblical love acknowledges and addresses the wrong and then forgives and releases it. I’ve been in counseling sessions with some couples who bring up things that were said or done not only years ago but decades ago. When I hear this — and it happens far too often — I sigh inside because I know that the roots of bitterness and unforgiveness run deep.
One of the better analogies for forgiveness is comparing it to ejecting a DVD or Blu-ray Disc from a player. You can’t play two discs simultaneously. You must eject the first disc to play the second. Likewise in marriage, you can’t experience a healthy, thriving relationship with your spouse if you keep replaying whatever he or she did to anger you. You have to eject that offense and replace it with love. You have to turn the offense over to God and replace your thoughts of anger, hurt and pain with thoughts of thanksgiving — gratitude that God has given you the faith and ability to be released from the stronghold of unforgiveness.
You may be surprised at the advice I give when I encounter a lack of forgiveness. I’ve seen this method work in countless marriages, and I believe in its effectiveness because it addresses the unresolved anger that often feeds our failure to forgive. Arguments frequently become so toxic and volatile in their language and tone that they drive a deeper wedge of division into the marriage. So this is what I propose for couples who are in a marriage with unresolved anger:
Say or do something every day that expresses value to your spouse. This might be a note, an unexpected phone call, a hug or a time of cuddling. Married couples are good at doing big things on birthdays, anniversaries or Valentine’s Day, but they often neglect small, consistent ways of expressing that they value each other.
Pray daily for and with each other. This is a specific time for you to come together — holding hands or holding each other, kneeling beside the bed or sitting on the couch — and pray aloud for your marriage. This is not an opportunity to hash out differences by bringing them before the Lord in prayer. It’s a time to pray that God will bless your spouse and that He will bless the two of you together with His grace and mercy.
Date regularly. By date, I mean doing something fun together every other week, if not more often. It doesn’t count if you’re just grabbing dinner at a restaurant because neither of you feels like cooking. Too many marriages get caught up in drudgery or routine, and spouses lose the joy they once shared.
Set a weekly agreed-upon time when you allow the spouse who holds the unresolved anger to vent. Many married couples rarely give each other the freedom to voice frustration. This is a set time — one hour every week — when one spouse is allowed to vent his or her pain without the fear of being shut down. This means that the other spouse agrees not to argue, defend or tune out. Turn off the television and your phone. The other spouse must agree to give his or her undivided attention to the venting spouse. When you agree to listen, the spouse who is venting also agrees not to bring up these issues during the week — unless something is time sensitive. Before long, that one hour may turn into 30 minutes and then 15 minutes. Then it may not be needed at all.
Filling your spouse’s “love account”
So much of what married couples harbor against each other is stuffed internally. Later, when you don’t feel heard or validated by your spouse, it’s easy to throw those harbored offenses at each other in your nagging or fighting. But healing comes from a place of understanding and affirmation. When you allow your spouse the freedom to communicate what has pained him or her — and you validate that pain without becoming defensive or saying your spouse is wrong to feel it — you will be amazed at how quickly healing and forgiveness can come.
When you simultaneously implement all four of the above recommendations, you can see and experience healing in your marriage. Doing these things allows you to make more deposits than withdrawals to your spouse’s “love account.” Too many spouses “overdraw” their accounts. Men, in particular, have the propensity to come home after work and look for what their wife can do for them — making dinner, cleaning the house, caring for the children — even if their wife is working full time outside the home, too. Men far too often want to know what their wife can do to meet their needs each day rather than looking at what they can do to meet their wife’s needs. As a result, they make frequent withdrawals from their wife’s love account, and the account runs empty.
Both spouses need to put more into their relationship than they take out of it. When you wake up in the morning, and as you go about your day, ask yourself what you can do to make a deposit in your spouse’s love account. It doesn’t have to be huge, but it does need to be consistent. Life has a way of dictating the withdrawals — they’ll come whether you seek them out or not. So look for ways to make deposits. Otherwise, when forgiveness needs to be given, you will lack the emotional depth and relational harmony for it to be granted easily.
Forgiving an unrepentant spouse
What about those times when your spouse isn’t sorry — how do you forgive then? Unilateral forgiveness is when you choose to forgive your spouse even if he or she has not asked for it and may have not even repented. Essentially you are forgiving your mate on your own, without his or her involvement.
Why would you grant forgiveness to someone who doesn’t want it, has not asked for it and may not deserve it? The reason you grant unilateral forgiveness is not to set your spouse free but to set yourself free. Unilateral forgiveness keeps you from being bound by something the other person may never set right. This is what Jesus did on the Cross by “not counting [our] trespasses against [us]” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Forgiveness is crucial for any marriage to thrive. But if that forgiveness is conditional, it is not couched in the love of God. Jesus Christ died for our sins and asked His Father to forgive us while doing so himself. He didn’t wait to give us His gift of mercy and grace until we got our act together or came humbly to Him with flowers or chocolates. Forgiveness is probably the greatest gift you can give your spouse, but it’s also the greatest gift you can give yourself.
Adapted from Kingdom Marriage, © 2016 by Tony Evans. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.