“If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it”- C.S Lewis, Essay on Forgiveness.
I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “You just won’t forgive me! Why won’t you just forgive me? We aren’t moving on or healing because you won’t let it go!”
Truth is, your spouse’s forgiveness isn’t the linchpin of reconciliation. Your changed behavior is. And your changed behavior doesn’t depend on whether or not you’ve been forgiven.
Most the time when I have a client who is asking their spouse for forgiveness, they are really asking for their behavior to be excused. They have not recognized the depths of their harm in such a way they are internally motivated to turn from repeating that harm. They got caught, and to get the world back to working for them, they ask to be excused.
Changed Behavior is Key
The problem in counseling this couple is that being excused for their harm to the other does not repair the relationship. It does not make recompense or restitution. In other words, it does not fix what they broke. If they stop at asking for forgiveness, with no plan to “go and sin no more,” they have, in effect, stopped the healing process and turned it into a move to get on with life as usual. It reveals a stubborn attitude of entitlement: I deserve your forgiveness. You don’t deserve changed behavior until you forgive me.
It becomes another perfect example of blameshifting. In essence, he or she is saying, “I can’t turn from my harm and do good because you won’t forgive me.” Or, “You are stopping me from treating you with kindness and respect because of your unforgiveness!”
Can you hear the crazy-making in that?
Moving Away From Excuses
Being excused for harm does not bring about change. If, like the Lewis quote above, you are acting on the premise that your actions need forgiveness (hence the demand to forgive), then you recognize there was no excuse for them. There is no excuse for causing harm in a marriage. None. So, when you’re sitting at a crossroad taking a hard look at your marriage, forced to reckon with your behavior, excuses are not going to help anything. If you are serious about changing your marriage, you have to change the things you are making excuses for.
Yes, forgiveness must be a part of the process for reconciliation to have a chance. But, it is not the linchpin of successful restoration. Repentance of the harm, which includes making recompense AND eliminating that behavior, is.
If you want reconciliation in your marriage, your goal should be to make it easy for your spouse to forgive you by eliminating the harmful patterns in your relationship. Real love and relating well entails an invitation to be in relationship, never demanded or coerced. Turn your behavior into an invitation, and your spouse will be much more likely to forgive, and you might stand a fighting chance of rebuilding trust again.
Coping with the Demand of Forgiveness
I do realize those of you reading this post are most likely not demanding forgiveness, but are experiencing having it demanded of you. Are you wondering how to respond? Here are some ways to think about it:
- Don’t take on the weight of the blame. “We are not here because I haven’t forgiven you. We are here because you have done something destructive to our relationship that must be changed.”
- Forgiveness does not equal reconciled relationship. “My forgiveness does not change your behavior, and without a change in your behavior, our relationship cannot be restored.”
- Forgiveness does not mean you stay engaged in a toxic relationship. “You can keep demanding I ‘forgive’ and use that as another excuse to continue your harmful ways, or you can focus on changing your destructive behavior and make it easy for me to forgive.”
- Don’t tolerate the continued bad behavior you are being expected to forgive. “Go, and sin no more,” is how Jesus framed repentance. When someone keeps doing things to break the relationship, it needs to stay broken until THEY seek to fix what they broke. This has nothing to do with whether or not you forgive.
- Changed behavior is what makes restitution, not forgiveness. Watch for this! Let the behavioral change (or lack thereof) inform your next steps either to re-engage or further disengage from this relationship.
Forgiveness is a beautiful element of restoration that reflects a core element of God’s grace. But, restoration hinges on repentance and turning from the old behavior. Keeping this in mind can help you be more intentional in giving your relationship room to heal and grow, use better boundaries to keep it from further harm, and eliminate the blameshifting that stalls progress.
Do you need help with navigating the process of forgiveness? We can help! Call us today at 206.219.0145 or contact us here.