Month Five: Forgiveness
Objective: As a couple, successfully evaluate areas where you can heal hurts on a deeper level using the communication skills learned and this new understanding of forgiveness.
“Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive ... And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger.”
Welcome to month five! We (the CKFF and Baylor University team) want you to know how proud we are of you for your commitment to this program, your squad, and to each other. It is hard to believe that we only have one more month to go before we celebrate! A lot of life can happen over six months and we trust by now you have been able to experience growth in your ability to communicate and connect in your marriage.
Last month, we addressed the topic of trauma and its impact on your profession and marriage. While not everyone has experienced trauma, it is likely your family has been vicariously touched by it in some way. Since it is impossible to erase difficult memories from our past, we must embrace how it shapes who we are, how we see the world, and what we choose to do with it. This is not an easy task; it is a lifelong process. Therefore, your willingness to be patient with yourself and each other is key to strengthening your marriage. It requires extending grace: grace to yourself and grace in your marriage.
Grace is an unmerited act of kindness, compassion and/or mercy. It is not something that comes naturally, especially if we are hurt, disappointed, or feel wounded by the other person. Yet, it is one of the most powerful tools we can learn to implement with ourselves and in our relationships. This month, we will cover the importance of grace and forgiveness in your marriage, and it is important to know the difference between the two. We understand that each marriage story is unique with chapters of both joy and pain. For some of you, there are chapters that include betrayal or other deep wounding as well.
Grace, is an unmerited act of kindness, compassion and/or mercy.
This is why this month is so important.
We have found, as an organization that serves military and first responder couples, that service couples are more at risk for destructive behaviors within their relationship if the stressors of the lifestyle are not managed appropriately. While there is some debate over whether the divorce rate is higher for service couples than non-service couples, we hear couples frequently confess to addiction, adrenaline seeking behavior, pornography, and affairs. Hurts such as these, as well as everyday miscommunications, can accumulate to a point where your marriage feels hopeless, as if there is not a path towards restoration. Our hope is that MYM has given you some tools regarding communication and conflict management so that you and your spouse can enter into a more vulnerable conversation that leads to deeper healing.
If you are currently struggling with an exceptionally hurtful event, especially infidelity, we strongly encourage you to seek out professional help to assist in navigating this crisis as you finish out MYM. Healing from betrayal is possible, but it requires intentional and specific work from both of you and should not be attempted alone. We encourage everyone, especially those who have experienced betrayal, to listen to the supplemental interview with Dr. Michael Sytsma- an expert on affair recovery.
As an added caveat, this material was written assuming that you are in a safe relationship, free from emotional, verbal, or physical abuse. If you are experiencing any of these, your safety is the first priority. We encourage you to seek professional help and/or reach out to us to help you find those resources. If your relationship has navigated towards these extremes, the following content on grace and forgiveness may not fit within your circumstances.
Finally, as you learn to appropriately apply grace and forgiveness to your spouse this month, we ask that you also consider applying it to those within your squad. This topic tends to be a vulnerable one and will require your ability to extend overarching grace to those who are in differing seasons from you. Keep in mind, it may be your extension of grace that provides hope to someone you are doing life with!
The Need for Justice
Forgiveness is one of the most challenging topics to master in marriage. Why? Just the idea of forgiving someone who has hurt you feels quite complicated, “But he…” “But she…” Holding on to hurt, anger, resentment, or any other negative feeling is a protective measure that is warranted in some cases. However, at some point, holding on to these feelings can eat away at your ability to move forward- for you, your spouse, the relationship, and the family.
Since this is such a complicated topic, let’s make it clear from the beginning that extending forgiveness and grace does not mean that there are no consequences for destructive behavior. In the case of a physically unsafe relationship, the natural consequences are physical separation and oftentimes legal repercussions. If your marriage has undergone infidelity, there are natural consequences like emotional hurt and distance that must be tended to before the relationship can be restored. Even smaller behaviors can carry consequences. If you have not been a person of your word, and done what you said you would do, over time, your spouse will not trust you. He or she will understandably feel emotionally disconnected from you, which is a natural consequence to the accumulation of hurt over time. Therefore, the severity of consequences typically match the severity of the behavior.
Consequences that are a natural part of relationship dynamics are not always the same as justice. As humans, we long for justice when we or someone close to us has been wronged. We long for the scales to be balanced or punishment to follow wrong doing. This makes complete sense in your professional career where many of you enforce a system of right and wrong. It can be especially challenging to not bring black and white thinking into your home and marriage.
Blaming, shaming, withdrawing emotionally as punishment, harboring long lasting resentment are all examples of how we naturally want to bring justice into our relationship. Yet, it rarely resolves the hurt and heals the disconnect. When it comes to the everyday misunderstandings, hurts, and disappointments- even some of the bigger wounds that can happen over decades of marriage- it is grace and forgiveness that have the biggest impact.
What exactly is the difference between grace and forgiveness? Are they the same?
During month one, we mentioned the importance of believing that your spouse has the best intentions. As a reminder, Shaunti Feldhahn, an author and researcher, discovered that the happiest couples truly believed that their spouse wanted the best for them. As simple as that sounds, it is a lot harder to believe when you are hurt from something your spouse said or did. Our most natural reaction is to react in retreat or retaliation- to seek justice.
However, in Feldhahn’s research, she discovered that successful couples were willing to extend grace to each other rather than entertain hurt. As we mentioned before, grace is an unmerited act of kindness, compassion and/or mercy- even when it seems the other person doesn’t deserve it. The term “unmerited” means that it is not earned and may not be deserved in that moment either. It is an act of mercy that you extend, simply because the other person is worth more than the justice that you desire. Grace is a pro-active, all-encompassing attitude towards a person or situation that accepts imperfection and extends mercy.
For example, you can extend grace towards your spouse’s work schedule because they have little control over it, even though it has caused frustration and hurt due to rescheduled date nights. It is choosing to control what you can control- which is you, the state of your heart, and releasing the frustration and hurt that burdens you.
Grace is an act of mercy that you extend, simply because the other person is worth more than the justice that you desire.
Forgiveness is an action that is more specific, complex, and oftentimes multi-layered compared to grace. It usually centers around a specific act or event rather than the overarching reach of grace. For example, if your spouse has had a bad attitude lately, you might extend grace because it has been a stressful week for them. However, if they lashed out at you because of work stress, it may be a conversation of forgiveness surrounding that specific event.
Similar to grace, forgiveness can, and is often, extended from a distance- especially when the person you want to forgive is unreachable, the relationship has moved on, or there are protective measures in place that keep that relationship separate. In combination with grace, it can be another level of unburdening your heart and mind and taking back lost territory that has been consumed by hatred, resentment, or other negative thoughts.
Forgiveness is at its best when it is an exchange between two people. In marriage, most couples settle hurts with the less vulnerable approach of issuing a quick “I’m sorry”. You may have noticed in an argument that those words rarely settle a dispute. To the offended spouse, it is a start, but often feels like a blanket statement and one-sided. Instead, actually saying the words, “Will you forgive me for…” is an entirely different conversation. It is true soul to soul care because one heart is in great need of release, or mercy. The other heart is in great need of freedom from hurt and both are in need of each other.
Few couples actually incorporate this into their relationship though because it requires an extreme amount of vulnerability. Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and researcher who is very popular for her work on shame and vulnerability described vulnerability as:
“uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability.”
According to Brene Brown, to love is to be vulnerable. To be vulnerable is to do so at great risk of hurt, and exposing yourself to the possibility of hurt is one of the most courageous things you can do. But to not do it is to rob yourself of love and connection. If this is true, then allowing ourselves to love and be loved means we must also learn to deal with the hurt that will inevitably happen when we love another imperfect person.
Allowing ourselves to love and be loved means we must also learn to deal with the hurt that will inevitably happen when we love another imperfect person.
The act of forgiveness is extremely vulnerable as we allow ourselves to be seen (flaws and all). To ask for forgiveness for a behavior is taking a big risk that your spouse may choose otherwise. Extending forgiveness takes just as much courage, because you are choosing to release your spouse and let go of anger, resentment, the need for justice, or anything else that is keeping you apart. Extending grace and forgiveness is not easy, and often will cost something from you.
Forgiving doesn’t mean you will forget what happened or that you will never have negative feelings that come up again. Instead, it takes time, remembering your decision to forgive, choosing not to harbor negative thoughts when they resurface, and moving towards your spouse.
Extending grace and forgiveness is not easy, and often will cost something from you.
Let’s look at an example of how grace and forgiveness play out in a service marriage. Sarah, a veteran spouse, spent years parenting the kids and revolving the family around her active duty husband’s schedule. It was her joy to support her husband, and she often pushed down her own needs by saying the common phrase “the needs of the military come first.” Her husband remained connected to many of his platoon battle buddies after his service ended. There was always an unspoken understanding that if his guys ever needed anything, he would be there.
Years after their separation from the military, Sarah arranged for a girls’ night out where she could relax and enjoy time away from the kids. Sarah and her husband agreed that she needed (and was long overdue) for a night that would be “all about her”. Half-way into her evening, Sarah got the call. One of her husband’s battle buddies had died by suicide. Her husband was understandably upset and needed to connect with the rest of his men. At the request of her husband, Sarah canceled her evening to return home disappointed and resentful that the calls couldn’t wait until morning while simultaneously feeling selfish for feeling that way.
This is unfortunately an all too familiar dynamic in the service profession. Deep relationships are formed through service together. To her husband, time had stopped, and he understandably wanted to be there for his men. He was not responsible for his battle buddy’s suicide, but he was torn between being there for his deep friendships and his wife. Sarah also had understandable and valid reasons for feeling hurt and disappointed that her time was “once again” sabotaged by the military. Sarah had extended grace to her husband by changing her plans. It was an unmerited act of mercy that communicated that she had compassion for what he was going through. However, she was hurt was that he could have done something different to also honor the plan they had made for her. In a highly charged situation such as this, it can be hard to be vulnerable and ask for forgiveness for hurting your spouse- even when you didn’t mean to. Which is why it takes great care, respect, and maturity, to enter in to this space.
What do you need to forgive and what do you need forgiveness for?
Now comes the hardest part of this month’s topic- talking with your spouse. Perhaps there is something you have said and done or not said and not done, that has wounded your spouse. It is an uncomfortable conversation to have, but we are encouraging you to make yourself vulnerable by asking for forgiveness for something in your relationship. (Hint: Every one of us can find something we can ask for forgiveness for, even if it is something small). Perhaps it is the fact that you have been unforgiving or harboring anger and resentment that has caused hurt in your relationship.
It may be time to extend grace to your spouse or forgive them for something they have repeatedly asked for mercy on. Before we give you the couple questions, here is a quick summary on what forgiveness IS and IS NOT:
If you are asking for forgiveness, it:
- IS recognizing what you may have done, knowingly or unknowingly, to cause hurt in another’s life. It is then admitting that during knee-to-knee and asking for forgiveness.
- IS NOT putting a Band-Aid on the problem by only saying “I’m Sorry”. Instead, try, “Will you forgive me for….”
- IS about taking opportunity to accept that you have wounded someone else and commit to change rather than avoiding or spiraling into shame.
If you are forgiving another person, it:
- IS NOT forgetting what happened- this is impossible for humans to do. Instead, we can practice not entertaining or dwelling on the behavior we are trying to forgive.
- IS NOT a one-time event. For larger wounds it may be a multi-layered process of forgiveness that could require professional help to sort through.
- IS NOT mercy free of consequences. You can forgive someone and still enforce (or have to live with) the natural consequences of the behavior.
- IS worth taking back lost territory in your mind that you lost due to hurt and pain caused by imperfect, flawed people.
- IS NOT opening your heart too soon when trust needs to be reestablished (such as in the case of infidelity).
Finally, we extend grace and forgiveness because we are imperfect. Seeing our own ability to hurt another person, even accidentally, reminds us of our own need for mercy. Remember this as your spouse makes themselves vulnerable to you.
For this month’s communication tip, we want to cover Gottman’s last destructive communication barrier- stonewalling. It fits well with this month’s topic in that stonewalling is when we defensively withdraw from the relationship but act like we are still there maintaining contact. You zone out, check out. People do this for a variety of reasons. You may feel emotionally flooded and overwhelmed, deeply discouraged, enraged, or even hopeless. If you find yourself “checking out”, Gottman says that you should call a time-out and choose something healthy to do to calm yourself. It does not help the relationship if you are disconnecting and withdrawing. For some of you, there is so much resentment that has built up over the years, your marriage has entered an entire stone-walling season and perhaps that is a great place to start your conversation.
We want to take this opportunity to remind you of just how many tools you have in your “Communication Kit-bag” to have this vulnerable conversation with your spouse on forgiveness. Use them as you need to!
- Use the Communication Hand to articulate your facts, thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs and use reflective listening to make sure you are hearing each other.
- Take appropriate Time-Out’s if the conversation escalates. If you initiate the Time-Out, be the one to state when the “Time-In” will be and make sure you initiate it!
- Sit knee-to-knee for tough conversations! Our ears, minds, and hearts open up when there is loving, physical contact.
- Practice a daily check-in before a tough conversation so your spouse knows what else might be going on that impacts how you are communicating.
- Watch out for Gottman’s four destructive forms of communication: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.
- Extend GRACE as you try something new…