Over the years, I have had the opportunity of counseling many couples who were experiencing problems in their marriage. And while there always are a number of factors in play in any struggling marriage, there is one problem that seems to come up over and over again. That is the problem of unforgiveness. Most – dare I say all – couples who are struggling in their marriage have a hard time practicing forgiveness.
The fact is people in healthy marriages find joy in cancelling debts. I love being able to offer forgiveness to my wife, and I know that when I ask with a broken heart, my wife is always willing to forgive me. Forgiveness does have a cost, but when it is done, the return in a marriage is so much greater.
But what happens when we don’t forgive? What does our marriage look like when we do not cancel the debts we have piled up against each other? What does the harvest of unforgiveness look like?
Paul Tripp, in his book What Did You Expect?, breaks that harvest down into a number of descending steps. These steps are from his own experience and are based on the principle found in Galatians 6:7-8: Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (ESV)
Step 1: Immaturity and Failure. Many people who enter marriage are immature and relatively naïve. They do selfish, dumb things. The aftermath of that immaturity and selfishness is all too often hurt, blame, accusation and judgment rather than confession and forgiveness. These initial responses are poor and can often set a direction for their marriage.
Step 2: Comfortable Patterns. Forgiveness is hard – it carries an emotional cost. Due to its cost, couples often find it easier to fall into other behavioral patterns in their marriage. For some, it is easier to flee the problem. Others give in to bitterness. Still others formulate a list of their spouse’s wrongs. Some get angry, either holding that anger in or letting it loose at one’s spouse. Every one of these “easier” patterns is destructive.
Step 3: Establish Defenses. The natural result of being hurt and not having that hurt resolved through forgiveness is for a person to build up walls of defense against the wrongs wrought by their spouse. Walls may protect the person, but they damage communication and trust. Other couples go on the offense against each other – returning criticism for criticism. In this environment, a couple quickly goes from being partners to adversaries.
Step 4: Nurturing Dislike. When hurts are not dealt with, our tendency as human beings is to dwell on them. We meditate on the wrong caused by our spouse, rather than celebrating God’s gift of our spouse. We quickly gain a negative perspective on our marriage and as a result interpret our spouse’s actions and words through that negative lens. A couple living in this perspective simply does not like each other anymore.
Step 5: Become Overwhelmed. Eventually every spouse gets tired of defending themselves from their spouse’s criticisms. They get tired of bearing the brunt of what they consider the other person’s faults. The same problems resurface again and again, never to be completely resolved. As a result, their relationship becomes one of dread and caution, never knowing when the ticking time bomb of emotional hurt will explode once again.
Step 6: Envy of Other Couples. Couples who find themselves emotionally overwhelmed start to wonder what it would be like to be married to someone else. They use comparison on their spouses. “Why can’t you be more like….?” Of course, they only see a small part of those other marriages – they don’t see the hidden things or the hard things that those couples do to make their marriages work.
Step 7: Fantasies of Escape. The ultimate result of forgiveness always, eventually leads here. When a spouse or a couple is angry, hurt, overwhelmed and without hope for change, they want to escape their troubles by escaping the person who is the source of their troubles, leading to separation or divorce.
Are you depressed yet? It is a pretty bleak picture. But it does not have to be like that. That cycle can be broken by genuine confession and forgiveness, both between the members of a marriage and between each spouse and God. Our God is a God of new life. His mercies are new every morning. As God applies His grace to our lives, we learn to apply His grace to our spouses as well. The end result is not a depressing spiral of a despair, but a marriage in which you have even deeper respect, more tender affection and an even greater appreciation of your spouse than you did when you first got married.