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Section 14
Forgiveness in Married Couples

Question 14 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed four topics relevant to helping couples enhance and protect sensuality and sexuality in their marriages. The four topics are roadblocks to sexuality, lack of interest in sex, communicating desires, and making sensuality a priority.

In this section, we will discuss three key topics concerning the process of forgiveness in couples. These three key topics concerning the process of forgiveness are defining forgiveness, taking responsibility, and regaining trust. We will also discuss a five-step communication strategy for framing a forgiveness discussion.

Greg and Natalie had been married for nine years, and had two daughters, ages 7 and 5. Greg’s job was time-consuming and required him to be out of the house a great deal, but Natalie began to notice that his time away from home had increased dramatically. Natalie stated, "I started becoming suspicious. We hardly had any alone time anymore, and it had been ages since we had talked. I felt like I didn’t know Greg anymore. Then it hit me that he might be having an affair. So one night, I borrowed my friend’s car and followed him when he said he was going to work.  He went to some woman’s apartment instead. He kept denying it for two whole days. Finally he admitted he had been sleeping with this woman from work for six months, and asked me to forgive him. I told him to get the hell out!!"

Greg was insistent in expressing his desire to work through the consequences of his infidelity with Natalie. Greg immediately cut off all contact with the woman he had been seeing, and apologized to his wife. Natalie stated, "After a few days, I agreed that he could come back to the house, mostly for the sake of our kids. But I told him I just couldn’t have things be the same, and he agreed to come to counseling with me."
Defining Forgiveness
Natalie stated, "I don’t see how we can have a marriage if I can’t forgive Greg. But I can’t see how to forgive him, either. He’s done something very terrible to me, our family, and our marriage, even if he is sorry and realizes what he’s done." I explained to Natalie that a first key topic concerning the process of forgiveness is defining forgiveness.

I stated, "Something you may want to consider about forgiveness is that by forgiving Greg, you are not saying that he did not do anything wrong, or that he is not responsible. It also does not mean that you have to forget about the hurt that Greg’s affair has caused you. What forgiveness does mean is that even though you are hurting, you have chosen not to punish Greg, but instead to work on the consequences of his actions together."

Natalie stated, "I’m worried because I still feel a lot of pain. I mean, if I still hurt, doesn’t that mean I can’t really forgive Greg?" I explained to Natalie that it is normal to experience grief, even if you have chosen to forgive someone. Clearly, although Natalie may choose to work through her desire to hurt Greg back, she will be left with a deep wound and a need to grieve. Does your Natalie need to be reminded that he or she can work towards forgiveness and reconciliation, and still allow him or herself to grieve?

Taking Responsibility
A second key topic concerning the process of forgiveness is taking responsibility. As you can see, Greg fully accepted responsibility for his affair, and demonstrated this by making a sincere apology to Natalie and changing his behavior. Natalie stated, "If Greg hadn’t shown me that he understood that he was wrong, I don’t think I could even think about trying to make our marriage work from here.

Forgive, maybe, but not try to restore our relationship! At first I was worried he would blame me for the affair. I mean, we’ve been so distant lately. I don’t think either one of us put what we should into the marriage. But now, I’m going to take responsibility with Greg for making this work."

Regaining Trust
In addition to defining forgiveness and taking responsibility, a third key topic in the process of forgiveness is regaining trust. I explained to Greg and Natalie that regaining trust occurs slowly, and over time. I stated to Greg, "The best way to help Natalie regain trust in you is to be patient, and show her your dedication to her through your actions, without her needing to prod you. If Natalie sees you making a serious effort to change, it may help her learn to have trust in you, and your commitment, again."

I stated to Natalie, "You can also help Greg recover trust by showing him that you have decided to forgive him. Although you are hurt and grieving, you can demonstrate that you are not going to hold the affair over his head for the rest of your life together. This may help Greg trust that you really want to move forward together with him."

Five-Step Communication Technique
One of my colleagues uses a five step communication strategy for helping couples frame a forgiveness discussion. He feels that this technique is useful for helping couples change negative patterns in their relationships.

Step One: is for the couple to set a meeting to discuss issues relating to forgiveness.

Step Two: is for the couple to fully explore their pain and concerns related to the issue. For example, Greg and Natalie used the Speaker-Listener technique to discuss Greg’s affair in a structured manner, and were able to validate each other’s feelings. As you know, this kind of open, validating talk is usually only possible when both partners are motivated to hear each other and respect their partner’s views.

Step Three: is for the offender to ask for forgiveness. I encourage couples using this technique to remember that forgiveness is a separate issue from the experience that caused the pain.

Step Four: is for the offended to agree to forgive. Natalie expresses openly her decision to forgive Greg for his affair, and by doing so demonstrated her commitment to move the affair into the past. After setting a meeting, discussing the issue, asking for forgiveness, and agreeing to forgive.

Step Five: is for the offender to make a positive commitment to change his or her behavior. For Greg, this meant demonstrating his commitment to Natalie by always returning home from work at an agreed time, and spending quality time alone with Natalie on the weekends.

Would this technique for framing a forgiveness discussion help your Greg and Natalie?

In this section, we have discussed three key topics concerning the process of forgiveness in couples recovering from infidelity. These three key topics concerning the process of forgiveness are defining forgiveness, taking responsibility, and regaining trust. We have also discussed a five-step technique for framing a forgiveness discussion.

- Greenberg, L., Warwar, S. Malcolm, W. (Jan 2010). Emotion-Focused Couples Therapy and the Facilitation of Forgiveness. Journal of Marital & Family Therapy, 36(1) 28.

- Markman, H. J., Stanley, S. M., & Blumberg, S. L. (2001). Fighting for Your Marriage. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

The Effectiveness of Emotionally Focused Therapy on Enhancing Marital
Adjustment and Quality of Life among Infertile Couples with Marital Conflicts

- Najafi M., Soleimani, A. A., Ahmadi, K. H., Javidi, N., & Hoseini, K. E. (2015). The Effectiveness of Emotionally Focused Therapy on Enhancing Marital Adjustment and Quality of Life Among Infertile Couples with Marital Conflicts. Int J Fertil Steril, 9(2): 238-246.

- Whisman, M. A. (2016). Discovery of a Partner Affair and Major Depressive Episode in a Probability Sample of Married or Cohabiting Adults. Fam Process, 55(4). 713-723.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Fincham, F. D., May, R. W., & Sanchez-Gonzalez, M. A. (2015). Forgiveness and cardiovascular functioning in married couples. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 4(1), 39–48. 

Heintzelman, A., Murdock, N. L., Krycak, R. C., & Seay, L. (2014). Recovery from infidelity: Differentiation of self, trauma, forgiveness, and posttraumatic growth among couples in continuing relationships. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 3(1), 13–29.

Miller, K., & Kelly, A. (2020). Is self-compassion contagious? An examination of whether hearing a display of self-compassion impacts self-compassion in the listener. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 52(2), 159–170.

Riekkola, J., Rutberg, S., Lilja, M., & Isaksson, G. (2019). Strategies of older couples to sustain togetherness. Journal of Aging Studies, 48, 60–66.

Robison, M. K., Miller, A. L., & Unsworth, N. (2018). Individual differences in working memory capacity and filtering. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 44(7), 1038–1053.

Worthington, E. L., Jr., Berry, J. W., Hook, J. N., Davis, D. E., Scherer, M., Griffin, B. J., Wade, N. G., Yarhouse, M., Ripley, J. S., Miller, A. J., Sharp, C. B., Canter, D. E., & Campana, K. L. (2015). Forgiveness-reconciliation and communication-conflict-resolution interventions versus retested controls in early married couples. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62(1), 14–27.

What are three key topics concerning the process of forgiveness? To select and enter your answer go to

Section 15
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