Should You Push Couples to Forgive?

When Do You Tell a Couple in Pain to Forgive?

David and Sarah were sitting across from us and they were in deep pain. David found out a few weeks ago that Sarah had an affair. He was furious. He was hurt. His emotions were very confused. He couldn’t believe that she had done this to him.

Sarah was very apologetic. She regretted the pain that she caused him and she wanted to make it right.

They were sitting in our living room because they didn’t know what to do. They wanted help.

Some of the toughest language in the Bible is when Jesus said, “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Matthew 6:15, NET)

That is a tough passage. My forgiveness by God is somehow contingent on me forgiving others.

I see someone like David and he hasn’t forgiven Sarah.

Should I tell David to forgive? As a mentor, when should we talk about forgiveness? How do we handle this?

John’s Story

I was talking to John and he told me his story. John had caught his wife cheating on him. He was hurt and he was furious. She swore it was a one-time thing and that it wouldn’t happen again. He decided that he would forgive and forget. He wanted to put it out of his mind.

As time went on, whenever the hurt came back, John told himself to just forget about it and move on. Eventually, he found that his feelings for his wife died. He was shut down. He tried to love her, but he couldn’t.

After a couple of years, they divorced.

I asked him, “What would you do differently?”

He said that he tried to forgive. He thought that was the right thing to do, but it didn’t help his relationship.

It seems like John’s approach didn’t work too well.

How to Process the Hurt

When the offense is great and there is deep hurt, there are three options.

Option 1: Deny the hurt – John denied his hurt. He tried to forgive and forget. The risk is that you eventually shut down. You risk depression. Unfortunately, when he denied his pain he shut down his positive emotions as well. This is not a great way to handle it.

Option 2: Hold onto the hurt – If we hold onto the pain too long, we end up with a great deal of resentment and bitterness. Something can come up, even years later, and remind you of that event and you can lash out. This is not a good way to handle it.

Option 3: Process the hurt – When we process the pain effectively, a couple can restore feelings of love and trust. You forgive each other. We don’t end up with resentment and bitterness.  This is the healthy choice.

In our online material, we have a whole section on how to forgive. We outline a four stage process:

  1. Be Angry, Be Sad – You need to grieve your loss and understand how you have been hurt. You need to feel your emotions.
  2. Decide to Forgive – This might be a conscious decision to forgive, even though you may not feel very forgiving.
  3. Develop Compassion – Develop compassion for the offender by understanding their perspective. You may not condone their actions, but compassion will help you to let it go.
  4. See the Good – Recognize the good that came from the experience. You may not be happy about the situation, but you can be happy of how you’ve improved from it.

I can’t tell you how many couples that come up to us after a few years and tell us how their relationship has been restored. I’ll ask them, “What good has come from it?”

They’ll tell me about how they had to work through some very difficult items, but the process has helped to make their marriage better than they could have hoped. While they aren’t happy about circumstances and the hurt, they are thrilled that they were able to rebuild.

What Do I Say to David?

When I see couples that are struggling with a great deal of hurt, I know that telling them to not hurt isn’t going to help. I could quote Matthew and tell him to forgive, but I don’t think that will be helpful. The risk is that he will go into denial.

I might say something like:

“David, you are very hurt right now. You are angry. It is a very emotional time. It sounds like you want to get through to a better place.  I want your relationship to be healthy. Honestly, I don’t want you to either deny your emotions or to get stuck in bitterness or resentment. Would you be willing to enter into a process where you work through your hurt and anger?”

What I’m really asking David to do, is to process the hurts done against him. Eventually, I’ll ask him to be willing to forgive Sarah.

Some couples may not be willing to commit to their relationship at this point. Their anger and hurt and may be causing them to want to get out. I suggest that they not make any big decisions right now, but take some time and process some of the hurt. Then, they can decide if they want to commit to one another or not.

Tips for Marriage Mentors

  • Allow people to be in pain – Big hurts hurt. Coming alongside of a couple is allowing them to be in pain. We can give them a listening ear.
  • Follow the forgiveness process – You can work through this. You can get out the other side.
  • Provide hope – Anything you can do to provide hope will help. Perhaps you have a story to tell? Perhaps you can introduce them to another couple. It takes work to process the hurt, but you can get out the other side.