When It's Time to Forgive

Forgiveness often requires more than saying sorry.

Posted Dec 08, 2016

A husband and wife came to see me for marriage counseling. Their children were grown and on their own. The couple had a critical decision to make—whether to remain married. Over the years she had grown more distant. He still loved her and wanted to save the marriage. She still loved him but nothing she had ever done stopped her from growing colder. They had tried individual counseling and couple’s therapy, to no avail.

The husband desperately wanted to make the marriage work; she agreed to one last effort but was skeptical. She loved him, she said, but something had gone cold in her that couldn’t be rekindled.

She explained that the rift began soon after they were wed. Eager to know themselves better, they had gone to a human potential center, one that promoted an openness to all possibilities. During their time there, he had sex with another woman. They both accepted the center’s philosophy that a life without boundaries was a good thing. But, they learned, theory and practice don’t always coincide.

While attended the center fully aware of its attitude to extramarital relations, she was wounded by her husband’s actions. She hadn’t believed he would be interested in another woman. When it turned out she was wrong, she felt deeply threatened.

Over the years she expressed her feelings to him. He didn’t try to defend himself or rationalize his behavior. He regretted what he had done. He was foolish and naïve, but that was no excuse. Since then, he said, he had been faithful to her. She believed him.

Her husband begged for forgiveness many times. She believed that he was totally sincere and wanted to forgive him. But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

What’s worse, she said, as a Christian, it was her duty to forgive him. Now she felt inadequate in her religious duty.

The husband was at a loss and near ready to concede defeat.

I pointed out to them that while I understood why she thought she needed to forgive him (even if he didn’t ask for it), I pointed out that forgiveness could be understood differently. In Judaism, I said, the wrong-doers must do more than ask to be forgiven—they must also do something to make up for the damage they have caused. There needed to be some form of recompense.

“What would that be?” he asked.

“That's for you to figure out,” I said. “But she needs something tangible from you, something more than words.”

They missed their next appointment with me. A failure, I thought. Another divorce. But I was wrong. I received a phone call from the husband. He said that he heard what I had said and took my direction. I didn’t ask what he done for his wife. But he ended the conversion by saying that a miracle had occurred: she forgave him and he felt as though the woman whom he almost lost had returned.

Forgiveness, while valuable, can’t be applied indiscriminately.