(Excerpt from 10 Great Dates by Peter & Heather Larson and David & Claudia Arp. Used by permission of Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Copyright 2013. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.)
Closely related to acceptance is the core value of for-giveness. Without forgiveness we cannot build an inti-mate relationship with our partner or with God. We begin our spiritual pilgrimage through experiencing God’s for-giveness and acknowledging the sacrifice Jesus made for us by dying in our place on the cross. Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith, and in every healthy and growing marriage, couples willingly forgive each other. No one is perfect, and we often let each other down. Show us a marriage without forgiveness and we’ll show you a marriage with bitterness, disappointment, and unresolved conflict—a marriage void of spiritual intimacy.
Realizing that Christ has paid our debt and forgives us for our shortcomings should motivate us to do the same for our spouse. When a long-term marriage crumbles, it’s usually not the result of a major crisis or a one-time event. More likely it’s the result of little things that have built up over the years. We need to forgive each other daily. To let go and forgive injustices, hurts, and disap-pointments will help you build a healthy Christian mar-riage.
Peggy is married to Greg, who is not the easiest per-son to live with. He is domineering, negative, critical, hard-driving, and demanding. Most people would have given up long ago, but not Peggy. We asked her to tell us her secret. “I never put a limit on forgiveness,” she said. “I can’t control Greg, but I can control me. I had to stop asking myself, ‘What do I deserve?’ And instead ask, ‘What can I give?’ I’ve always tried to grab the best from the past and focus on the future. Because my marriage is so precious to me, I choose to give Greg a clean slate each morning. I just throw away the hurts from the previous day, forgive him, and start over.”
“And what about Greg?” we asked her.
“Over the years he has modified his behavior a little bit,” she said. “For instance, he is beginning to spend less time at work and more time with me!”
This type of grace flies in the face of what our world teaches today. But so does Christ’s teaching when asked by his disciples how many times we should forgive another who sins against us. Perhaps Peter thought he was estimating high when he suggested seven times, but Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22).
Clearing the Slate
Take a couple of moments and think about your rela-tionship with your spouse. Do you need to give your partner a clean slate? If forgiveness is so vital, how do we handle all the daily irritations and from time to time the larger issues that divide us? How can we really accept each other’s quirks and shortcomings? We suggest the following exercise. This is not a couple’s exercise or one that you should do on your date. If you need to forgive your spouse, take some time alone to go through the following steps:
1. Identify grievances. Okay, here’s the list you may have rattled off in your head, or to your spouse, a thousand times—you know, all those things you’d like to change about your spouse. Now write them down! You won’t show this list to your spouse (you’ll shred, burn, or bury it when you’re through), but you need to articulate to yourself once and for all that you’re letting go of these little grievances that have been such big irritations. Do it now!
2. Evaluate grievances. Now take this list and eva-luate:
Which issues can be easily forgiven and forgotten or accepted (like leaving unwashed dishes in the kitchen sink)?
Which issues need some special closure because they still cause you some pain (your partner’s re-fusal to take up your favorite activity)?
Which issues need to be discussed because you need to find a way to move forward together (like agreeing on how you’re going to manage your finances when one is a saver and the other a spender)?
Which issues will take a serious effort on your part, perhaps even professional intervention, to over-come (affairs, no lovemaking, abuse, destructive communication patterns)?
3. Decide to forgive. For each item on your list, ask yourself if you are willing to forgive your spouse and let go of this issue between you. Remember, forgiveness begins with a simple decision, a simple act of the will. We are to forgive as God has forgi-ven us. It is not dependent upon our spouse asking for our forgiveness or even acknowledging he or she has done anything wrong.
4. Let go. With your categorized list, decide on an ap-propriate send-off for the easily forgiven and ac-cepted irritations. Perhaps setting this list on fire and dropping it into the toilet will help you let go. For the very serious hurts and disappointments, we recommend seeking some professional help, espe-cially if there are times you have felt unsafe be-cause of someone’s temper or found their anger in-timidating. If you’ve already worked through your pain and disappointment, take pride in how far you’ve journeyed toward improving your relation-ship. Surviving marital strife with your relationship intact can only increase your potential for a loving, fulfilling marriage.
5. Change your responses. Now that you have forgi-ven your spouse, how will you respond to these issues in the future? The next time you sense irrita-tion rising, try to turn the situation around by re-placing your negative thoughts with something more positive.
Claudia Arp and David Arp, MSW, are founders of Mar-riage Alive International, a groundbreaking ministry ded-icated to providing resources and training to empower churches to help build better marriages. The Arps are authors of numerous books and video curricula, including the 10 Great Dates series and the Gold Medallion Award–winning The Second Half of Marriage. Frequent contributors to print and broadcast media, the Arps have appeared on the NBC Today Show, CBS This Morning, and Focus on the Family.Their work has been featured in publications such as USA Today, the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time magazine.
Peter J. Larson, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and former president of Life Innovations, the international headquarters for PREPARE/ENRICH. He is the coauthor of the PREPARE/ENRICH Customized Version and the Couple Checkup Inventory and book. Heather Larson, MS, has her master’s degree in psychology. She is the founder of Bridgewell Coaching and works as a Christian life coach. She and Peter regularly teach and speak together. They are the hosts of the 10 Great Dates Before You Say “I Do” DVD curriculum. The Larsons have been married for almost twenty years and have three children.