Arguments, tensions, and clashes are inevitable within a marriage. But Christian tradition offers a priceless treasure: forgiveness. God who is merciful invites us to forgive our neighbors, and in a marriage, our first neighbor is our spouse. “Let not the sun go down on your anger,” urges St. Paul (Eph, 4-26). With this in mind, we’re often advised in marriage preparation courses, for example, not to go to sleep angry.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible. Forgiveness is a process that, depending on the depth of the wound, can be long and painful. Even when forgiveness isn’t given immediately, the mere desire to forgive is a good thing.
The starting point lies, in the words of St. Ignatius of Loyola, in “the desire for the desire to forgive.” Ceasing hostilities, continuing to say good morning to one another, and desiring to continue on the road together, already mean we’re on the path to forgiveness. Making peace doesn’t necessarily mean forgetting past suffering or injustice, but rather enabling a relationship to get back on track and move forward.
Forgiveness is a path of life. Refusing to forgive leads to resentment, anger, and even hatred. What’s more, forgiving has countless benefits, which are shared at least four ways. Fr. Patrick Langue, a Jesuit priest serving the diocese of Versailles, France, identifies four people or groups of people who benefit from forgiveness.
1FORGIVENESS IS GOOD FOR THE GIVER
Forgiveness is ultimately a way of taking care of ourselves. In fact, according to some studies, forgiveness has a positive impact on our health. Remaining in conflict maintains inner tensions, and our body suffers as a result.
“Not to forgive is to hurt yourself,” says Fr. Langue. “Instead of healing the harm done to us by our spouse, we perpetuate it, scratch at the wound and infect it.” For him, “It’s up to us to limit the evil done, to reduce it, to annihilate it. It frees us from pain.”
2FORGIVENESS IS GOOD FOR THE OTHER SPOUSE
Forgiveness begets forgiveness. There’s something contagious about forgiveness. Who hasn’t experienced this reciprocity? Sometimes it’s enough to humbly and sincerely ask forgiveness of our spouse for them to realize their share of responsibility and ask forgiveness as well. “The forgiveness I offer enables them to ask forgiveness of me. They’ll be able to free themself from evil, and their desire to do good will grow,” Fr. Langue points out. “It’s one of the strongest ways of telling them that I love them.”
3FORGIVENESS IS GOOD FOR THE COUPLE
“Forgiveness is a grace for the couple,” says the Jesuit priest. “Every act of forgiveness is a treasure for the conjugal ‘we,’” because forgiveness enables the marriage to last. Forgiveness is perhaps the most important element in guaranteeing that love endures. “Only forgiveness can prevent love from fading like colors that fade in the sun,” and “only forgiveness can ensure a future for those united by the sacrament of marriage,” says Fr. Langue.
4FORGIVENESS IS GOOD FOR THE CHILDREN
Forgiveness between a father and mother is a wonderful gift for their children. First, it sets an example. It demonstrates that, yes, forgiveness is possible, and no, it’s not a sign of weakness; quite the contrary. Additionally, peace is restored to the couple and therefore to the whole family, and the children feel all the better for it. “Forgiveness expressed between parents nourishes their (children’s) inner peace, exorcizes their anxieties, firmly establishes their hope in the durability of the family, and teaches them to forgive.”
“If you want to be happy for just one day, take revenge; if you want to be happy always, forgive,” famous French preacher Fr. Lacordaire used to say. But happiness is not won once and for all. As human beings are imperfect by nature, we will no doubt need to forgive many times during the course of our married life.
The good news is that the more our heart is trained to forgive, the easier it is to do so. This calls for another form of vigilance: never to abuse our spouse’s forgiveness, which, for Fr. Langue, is tantamount to a “desecration of love.”