Years ago a couple named Jack and Ruth asked to talk with me. They were part of The Greatest Generation, having endured many hardships over their fifty years of marriage. But they had one thing that threatened to drive them apart. Jack’s lack of forgiveness.
Jack married Ruth just before leaving for the war in Europe, but something happened between Jack’s departure and his safe arrival back home. While he was overseas, friends had written to Jack, telling him they had seen Ruth at a dance with another man. They had seen her kiss the other man. Jack was wild with anger, but could do nothing about the situation until he arrived home. When he did, Ruth admitted dancing with a friend of Jack’s, and, yes, she had also kissed him. Once. But that was all. Honest. Ruth begged his forgiveness and Jack shrugged back a response, muttering, “The past is the past”.
Life went on, as did their marriage. They had several children. Then grandkids. They celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary. But something was missing.
Jack had never forgiven Ruth. Through the years, whenever Ruth arrived home late, Jack was full of accusations and reminders of the past. If any man ever paid Ruth too much attention, Jack accused her. Although he had muttered, “The past is the past”, he continued to live with the past. He doggedly refused to forgive Ruth’s decades old indiscretion.
I asked a friend of mine who serves as a divorce court judge what the most common problem was among couples seeking divorce. “Lack of forgiveness” was his quick reply. “I see it in nearly every couple. It doesn’t matter if the initial issue was big or small, by the time they get to court the issue has become monumental because one won’t forgive the other.”
How do we learn to forgive one another? It is both a skill and a process. According to the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), there are several steps:
1. Forgiveness is giving up your perceived right to get even. It is canceling a debt. It is saying “I’m not going to hold this against you.”
2. Forgiveness is a conscious act of the will--a choice. I stop shouting “I can never forgive you for this!” and I start working through the sometimes long process of releasing my anger toward you.
3. Forgiveness is not forgetting. Forgetting is a sign of brain damage. We must choose to forgive not just once, but each time the offense comes back to our mind.
4. Forgiveness begins with an appropriate apology. Apologizing is a three step process: Acknowledge you’re wrong. Admit your regret. Ask for forgiveness. The apologizer looks the offended person in the eye, calls them by name, and says, “I was wrong. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Don’t leave out any of the three steps.
To my knowledge, Jack never did forgive Ruth. They celebrated fifty years, but they couldn’t celebrate their marriage. Lack of forgiveness chokes the air out of relationships, but an accepted apology breathes life back in. Breathe some life back into your marriage. Forgive.
By Jim Priest