What Forgiveness Does NOT Do for your Marriage

Your spouse is messing up BAD. He/she is having an affair, getting drunk, hiding out-of-control spending, using pornography, or engaging in some other destructive behavior. Some of the tapes in your head, and perhaps Christian friends who know, may be saying, “Forgive them. Let the past be the past, and move on.” But there are some things forgiveness does not do for your marriage. There’s more that’s needed.

God can restore anyone and anything where He is given opportunity to do so, even a marriage affected by violence, addiction, porn use, or adultery. But that means both partners must give him that chance. And you don’t get to vote for your spouse.

Forgiveness sets you free. It’s been said that a good marriage is the union of two good forgivers. You will hurt your spouse. And your spouse will hurt you. Forgiveness is the only way true relationship becomes possible.

Forgiveness does not say what happened was OK. It’s a choice, it’s hard, and it’s a process.

But forgiveness is not enough. Forgiveness deals with the past. You let things go. You let God be responsible for any vengeance. It sets the slate clean.

But if that’s where things stop, the relationship will never be restored. You can be set free by choosing to forgive. But for the relationship to be restored, more is needed.

Reconciliation in the Present

Forgiveness is not all there is to our relationship with God. And it’s not all there is in your relationship with your spouse either. God forgives us freely. But in order to be reconciled with Him, it takes decision and action on our part. Paul appealed to his readers, “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (2 Corinthians 5:20) We have a part to play.

And for your marriage to be reconciled, it takes something from your spouse as well.

Reconciliation involves at least these few things:

  • Acknowledgement of wrong. Your spouse acknowledges their behavior was wrong, and hurtful. They stop making excuses.
  • Understanding. Your spouse understands, at least to some degree, the pain they caused you, and you understand something of their struggle.
  • Decision to Connect. This may be one of the toughest parts of reconciliation. As with forgiveness, it may be a decision both you and your spouse will both need to make repeatedly.
  • Invest in Relationship. You and your spouse do the things that make for connection; conversation, transparency, activities together, praying together, etc.

Forgiveness removes the chains holding you to the past. Reconciliation brings relationship again, and both of you must engage for this to happen. But there’s still another step.

Trust for the Future

Trust depends on a change in behavior. If your spouse is continuing in destructive behavior, trusting them again will only cause more hurt. Forgiveness does not equal trust. Forgiveness is freely given; trust must be earned.

And re-gaining trust takes time. Sometimes a very long time.

Before extending trust to a spouse who has harmed you, they must demonstrate that there is reason for you to believe the future will be different than the past. And that takes more than a promise!!

A few elements needed to re-build trust include:

  • Change in behavior. Not promising to quit porn; actually quitting it. Not apologizing for over-spending, but actually not doing it again. This does not mean perfection, but it does mean more than quitting for a couple weeks and then “slipping up” again.
  • Radical transparency. If your spouse has had affairs, this may mean you can check up on them to know where they are 24/7/365. If porn was the problem, you have every password, access to every account, etc. You can ask any question and get as detailed an answer as you wish. You can talk with his/her accountability partners, therapist, pastor, or anyone similar.
  • Pathway of growth. With past destructive behavior your spouse will not change simply by wanting to. They must enroll in some pathway of growth; serious long-term therapy, a recovery program, something with a proven track-record of success.

How long does it take to re-build trust? As long as it takes. In some cases that could be years.

And trust is restored slowly. You slowly begin to trust not the old person they were, but the new person you actually see that they are becoming.

A New Relationship

Sometimes people say, “I want things to go back to the way they were before.”

Really? You don’t want the kind of marriage you had in the past, where your relationship was destroyed by ongoing destructive behavior, where secrets were kept and your heart was broken. The only marriage worth fighting for is a different one, a new one where both of you are changing, being transformed in the way God desires.

That’s why forgiveness is not enough.

Yes, I wish for you the freedom of forgiveness!

And I also wish for you the new marriage that reconciliation and the long journey of rebuilding trust makes possible.

Your Turn: Have you tried to forgive your spouse, and felt stuck? Or is it that your spouse has not engaged in reconciliation and rebuilding trust? The difference is important. Where are you in the process? Leave a comment below.

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