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Marriage: Forgiving and Being Forgiven

By Carol Luebering

Raking up every old grievance in a marriage just reopens old wounds. Marriages that survive break this habit.


Little Lapses
Gunnysacking Is Destructive
Being Patient
A Recurring Need
Testing and Mending
When Forgiving Is Hard
Learning to Trust Again
Discovering the Forgiving God

Marriage: Forgiving and Being Forgiven
Keith Thomas Productions/Brand X Pictures/PictureQuest

Marriage is not just something God calls us to at one point in our lives. Rather, it is also the way God speaks to us, the way we come to know the One whose whispered "This one!" set us on this road. What we learn from the struggle to be faithful in good times and bad slowly carries us deeper and deeper into the divine heart. But the journey is not always easy.

We know how essential forgiveness is to the survival of our marriages. In a thousand small ways, it has become a daily habit. And yet forgiveness is no easier to define than love. We spend a lifetime learning just what it means to forgive and, in the process, we learn something more about God.

Jesus taught us about forgiveness in his encounter with an adulteress: "Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She replied, 'No one, sir.' Then Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin anymore'" (John 8:10-11).

Scripture gives her no name; she is just a woman wrenched from her lover's arms and dragged to the public square to be stoned to death for adultery. Jesus literally saves her life by inviting the person without sin to throw the first rock. And then he sends her on her way to make a fresh start, leaving us with tantalizing questions. What did she say to her husband when she got home? What did he say to her? Was he in the crowd at the marketplace, grasping a stone in an angry hand? Did Jesus' challenge move him to open his arms and his heart to her? The questions haunt us.

Little Lapses

No two people living in such close proximity can avoid stepping on each other's toes from time to time. Every moment of carelessness, every lapse in thoughtfulness inflicts at least a scratch.

My husband, Jack, has a habit of leaving drawers slightly open—an admittedly small thing that bugs me enormously. If I say anything, he bridles. So mostly I just follow him around and close them. Depending on my mood, I may close them hard. But after all these years, I doubt if he's suddenly going to notice that a drawer isn't shut tight, so all I can do is forgive the annoyance. It's not worth a divorce, and I doubt if I could plead spousal abuse to a murder charge.

Anyway, Jack would be the first to agree that I'm not perfect, either. He snores; I groan and mutter in my sleep. He takes forever to paint a wall; I rush and spatter paint everywhere. He loves to travel; I hate the very thought of packing. We have done our best to drive each other nuts over the years. It's a good thing we both have a sense of humor, for part of forgiving just goes back to that old definition of love: being willing to affirm the other's value and to take delight in him or her.

There's another factor in the need for constant forgiveness. When husband and wife come together at the end of a day that has been filled with frustration of some sort for either or both of them, who can they take it out on except each other? We are all hardest on the people who love us best. The rest of the world won't stand for our irritability. Another major factor in forgiving is putting ourselves in the other's shoes and making allowances for the pressures he or she is under.

People handle their grievances in different ways, as well. "I have often heard my next-door neighbors screaming at each other," Lisa says, shaking her head. "I'm glad we just retire to our corners and sulk when we're mad at each other. By the time we're ready to meet again, we have usually decided that whatever happened wasn't really worth much of a fuss." (Her neighbors, on the other hand, might insist that a good blowup clears the air.)

Gunnysacking Is Destructive

It's harder when a couple's styles are at variance. My grandmother used to rail at Grandpa at great length. (She would defend him just as fervently if anyone else attacked him.) She practiced what some marriage counselors call "gunnysacking": She saved up everything he had ever done wrong and dumped it all into each scolding. I remember walking out the door with him one time when Gram had been letting him have it. He touched his hearing aid and said, "There, now I can hear you." In response to my puzzled look, he explained, "I always shut it off when she starts jawing at me."

Most of us learn—albeit slowly—that what the marriage counselors say about gunnysacking is true: It is destructive. Raking up every old grievance just reopens old wounds. Our marriages survive because we break the habit. We resolve our differences most readily when we limit an argument to the issue at hand. And the Scriptures we hear in church point out to us that God doesn't gunnysack. When we resolve a spat with our Maker, the slate is wiped clean.

As the Prophet Isaiah explains, "Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool" (Isaiah 1:18).

Being Patient

"Forgive and forget," the old saw urges us. Yet forgetting is the least important part of forgiving. We may well remember an injury, but we focus harder on what is really important: why we love the person with whom we share a life. For it is that love that enables us to be patient with a spouse's shortcomings.

St. Paul includes that truth in his famous hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13), which we have heard at countless weddings: "Love is patient."

Most of the things we forgive on a daily basis are not deliberate efforts to inflict injury. Rather, they rise out of the very differences that both draw us together and drive us mad.

Too easily we forget that strength and weakness are the two sides of the same personality traits. It's all a matter of perception. We call the same characteristics by different names, depending on how we interpret them at any moment.

The stubbornness that annoys us is also the perseverance we admire. The reticence that drives an extroverted partner crazy sometimes provides restful quiet. A partner's frugality is downright miserliness when the other's mood is extravagant. We often see fault in a virtue when the timing of its exercise is bad.

Jack, for instance, moves in one gear: low. Is his slowness an annoying fault or just one more sign of the steadiness I rely on so heavily? Depends on when you ask me! In my better moments, I'm willing to be patient.

Patience has always been God's strong suit, too, if we take the Scriptures seriously. Again and again the Old Testament describes God as "slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity" (see Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalms 86:15 and 103:8).

And when, at the end of a quarrel, I ask Jack if he still loves me, I think of Peter, my favorite biblical bungler. Immediately after naming him the first pope, Jesus predicted his own suffering and death. Peter, appalled by the thought, tried to dissuade Jesus—only to hear the Lord call him Satan and tell him to get lost (see Matthew 16:21-23).

Peter couldn't handle it any better when Good Friday rolled around. Three times he denied knowing Jesus. After the Resurrection, Jesus simply asked Peter as many times for reassurance of his love (see John 21:15-17).

A Recurring Need

As if it weren't hard enough to deal with the irritations we're used to, life keeps pulling the rug out from under us. Some crises are predictable. Such things as the birth of a child, a move, a job change, the emptying of the nest or retirement inevitably create new tensions in a couple's life together.

Patti remembers the birth of their first child as such a crisis. "We had tried so hard to get pregnant. We had to put up with all the indignities of fertility testing. And finally there was a baby on the way. We were ecstatic! But I wasn't prepared for what pregnancy did to my emotional balance. I cried all one evening because Ted didn't clear the dishes from the table. Can you imagine?

"When the baby came, she was the most beautiful creature we'd ever seen," Patti continues. "She was also the crankiest. We were both dragging from lack of sleep—and getting as cranky as she was.

"For a while, we wondered if we were cut out for parenthood after all. Forget making love—she was sure to wake up and start fussing the minute we began.

"The baby, of course, outgrew her newborn fussiness and we became lovers again. But the first few months were a real strain."

Testing and Mending

Bill's retirement was a tough time for Ellen. "I was working long hours as head nurse in the cardiac intensive care unit," she remembers. "We were just beginning to do heart transplants, and I was under a lot of pressure. I got way behind in things at home. The laundry piled up.

"One day Bill ran out of underwear. He could have called one of our grown-up kids for advice. He could have read the manuals on the shelf in the laundry room. He could even have read the instructions inside the washer lid. Instead, he solved the problem by eliminating it: He went out and bought more underwear. I could have killed him! That seemed a pretty messy solution, so I decided instead to clear up the mysteries of doing the wash for him."

Other crises sneak up on us without warning. Sharon, for example, didn't expect her thyroid gland to give out. For a while, she didn't even know it had. "All I knew was that I was terribly tired—and when I'm tired, I'm cross. I blamed it on the extra weight I was suddenly putting on. My doctor discovered an enlarged thyroid gland during a regular checkup and started me on replacement hormones. When I began to feel better, I realized that I had been more than just tired. I was totally apathetic; I couldn't work up any enthusiasm for anything."

"I didn't know what had happened to the girl I married," her husband adds. "Overnight she disappeared, leaving a stranger in her place."

Whether our differences rise from everyday tensions or from a sudden shift in life's direction, it is not always easy to forgive each other. Yet the truth we discovered when we were newly in love still holds: Making up is a joy.

I recently stood in the supermarket express lane behind a young man who was buying a lovely flower arrangement. I admired it and noted that it surely should get him some points. "I hope so," he replied with a smile. "I'm in the doghouse."

We usually express our reconciliation with some tangible sign. It may be flowers or homemade cookies or a bottle of wine. Most often it is a hug. But the very urge to celebrate the end of a quarrel expresses our instinctive conviction that a mended relationship is stronger than one that has never been tested.

When Forgiving Is Hard

The everyday need for forgiveness seems a far cry from the questions posed by the story of the woman taken in adultery. But some married couples have to find a way to forgive more serious injuries.

Jerry and Sue were one such couple. Maybe it was a midlife crisis that caused him to begin an affair with a co-worker. Maybe it was just old-fashioned sinfulness. In any case, he ended up moving in with her.

Sue set out to punish him. And, like any long-married person who knows a spouse well, she knew exactly where to put the knife. Her skill in managing the budget had always been what he considered her best contribution to their partnership. So she threw frugality out the window. Armed with their credit cards, she went on a spending spree and sent the bills to him.

I sometimes think that couples who are heading toward divorce put a lot of energy into stomping out the last embers of their love. That's certainly what Jerry and Sue were doing, until a pair of old friends, another married couple, stepped in.

"This is what you've worked for all these years?" the husband asked Jerry. "To live in this tiny apartment with this pretty young airhead?"

"What are you doing to yourself?" his wife asked Sue. "You have always prided yourself on being so practical. How well will all this stuff you're buying take Jerry's place?"

Slowly they came to their senses. And slowly they managed to forgive each other and start over again. When they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, they offered a special toast to the couple "who have seen us through so much." Only a few of the guests knew what they meant.

What Sue's friend had helped her see was that forgiving is not something we do for the other person but something we do for our own sake. "Wanting revenge so badly changed who I am," Sue admits. "I finally realized that it was making me into someone else, someone very different than the all-forgiving God who made me ever intended for me. It took time and effort for me to learn to trust Jerry again, but it was worth it. For too long I couldn't believe we'd see our golden anniversary."

It was Demon Rum, not an affair, that nearly broke up another marriage. When Phil's new job took him on the road regularly, Laura had trouble sleeping. "I'd be all over the bed looking for him," she explains. "I started getting up and having a drink to help me go back to sleep. Then I decided it would be better to have a drink before I went to bed. Or maybe a little bit before that, so I'd have time for a second and sleep really well."

"Then one day I finished my business a day earlier than I expected," Phil continues. "I caught an early flight and walked in our house to find her stumbling drunk. With a lot of help from a lot of people, I convinced her to enter a treatment program. But for months after she came out, I was a wreck every time I had to travel."

Laura chimes in: "He acted so suspicious, and I was working so hard to stay sober. Finally I asked him if he wanted a divorce, if he had stopped loving me. 'Honey,' he told me, 'I love you so much I can't stand it. Why do you think I urged you to get help? I just hated your drinking.' I remembered the old saying that God hates sin but loves sinners, and I felt like God had just hugged me." Laura puts her finger on another essential aspect of forgiveness: separating the offense from the offender.

Over the course of a lifetime, we become the sum of our actions. We become thoughtful, loving people bit by bit, or we become hard and hateful one decision at a time. But we are, until the moment of our deaths, still works in progress. Whatever bad choices we may make, we are still capable of changing our course as long as we breathe and as long as someone believes in that possibility as firmly as God does.

Learning to Trust Again

I don't know how couples manage to forgive really serious injuries. Happily, that's something I've never had to do. But I suspect it begins with the daily habit of letting the past become history and moving beyond it.

Tom found the way in an Easter-season homily. Joann had left him for another man months before. Now she had thought better of it and was asking him to let her come home. Tom wasn't sure he could make that leap.

The Gospel that Sunday was John's account of Jesus' first appearance to his disciples in the Upper Room. He breathed the Holy Spirit into them and said, "Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained" (John 20:23).

The Church has traditionally held this text as the foundation of the Sacrament of Penance, the homilist pointed out. But he went on to suggest that it applies not just to the clergy but also to all of us. "When we forgive someone," he explained, "we put the past behind us and find the freedom to move on. The person we forgive gains the same freedom.

"But when we don't forgive, we hold the moment of injury forever in the present," he continued. "Both of us are forever trapped in that moment, unable to move ahead."

"His words rang true," Tom recalls. "I was stuck in the hurt, constantly reliving it. I couldn't see Joann as anything but a person who had done something terrible to me. I still couldn't see how we could manage a fresh start, but I decided to give it a try."

Discovering the Forgiving God

Perhaps it is when forgiving gets hardest that we come closest to God. Many centuries ago, the Prophet Hosea told about his own experience with a faithless wife. Gomer didn't just have a brief fling; she played the harlot. But poor Hosea still loved her. He compared his situation to that of another anguished husband, faithless Israel's divine Lover.

And how did God resolve the issue? Hosea knew God as a jealous lover. The Ten Commandments were written in his heart: "You shall not worship any other god, for the Lord is 'the Jealous One'; a jealous God is he" (Exodus 34:14).

Yet hear the words the prophet spoke on God's behalf:

"So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart....She shall respond there as in the days of her youth....I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the Lord" (Hosea 2:16, 17, 21-22).

Forever is a long time indeed, much longer than the lifetime husbands and wives have pledged to each other. It is, I suppose, inevitable that the God whose very nature is love can promise everlasting mercy and fidelity. The rest of us must limp along as best we can, day by day offering forgiveness and a fresh start to each other.

This article is an excerpt from the new St. Anthony Messenger Press book Called to Marriage: Journeying Together Toward God (086716-389-5), by Carol Luebering. The book can be ordered for $6.95 by calling 800-488-0488 or on the Web or at your local bookstore.


Carol Luebering is the author of A Retreat With Job and Julian of Norwich: Trusting That All Will Be Well and four books in the Handing on the Faith series, all published by St. Anthony Messenger Press, where she retired as a book and homily-service editor. In addition, many of her articles have appeared in St. Anthony Messenger. The author and her husband have been married since 1956.

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