We recently wrote on the importance of apologising, and how a large part of a genuine apology is not expecting forgiveness in return. While that holds true, learning forgiveness is an essential component of a healthy and loving marriage—or any relationship for that matter. In marriage, though, a lack of forgiveness can have devastating effects.

Many elderly couples, when asked the secret to their long union say they attribute the strength of their relationship to never going to bed angry with one another. Solid advice. I mean, let’s think about it. When we’re angry, and I mean truly angry, with someone over their actions or something they said, that pain festers and grows if left unaddressed. So, does that mean these older couples spent sleepless nights talking, or yelling until dawn? No. What they did is much simpler, but much more difficult. They forgave each other.

Learning to forgive—and actually practising forgiveness—is deeply human. A search for “How to forgive someone who hurt you” yields over 54 million results. Everyone is wondering why to forgive, when to forgive, and more importantly, how to forgive.

Why We Should Forgive

Pain has a way of hiding in the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and then bubbling to the surface in ways we least expect it to. We may think that our inability to forgive is like a form of revenge on our partner—they hurt us, and now we’ll hurt them. In reality, holding onto pain and anger just becomes a huge mass of negativity that eats away at our emotional, mental, and physical health. Our inability to forgive is hurting us far more than it’s hurting our partner.

Defining Forgiveness

I think what keeps most people from forgiving is the misconception that it makes them appear weak. This could not be less accurate, but what’s more, it points to a bigger problem: the belief that forgiving someone is letting them get away with bad behaviour.

Forgiveness is a choice that lets us wash ourselves clean of pain and negativity. Forgiveness isn’t for anyone but ourselves, to protect ourselves and our health. It isn’t a miraculous change. No, it’s more beautiful than that. Forgiveness is a state of mind that enables us to diffuse tension and see life with a loving perspective.

Forgiveness in Marriage

So, if forgiveness isn’t for our partners, why is it so important in a marriage? In short, that mass of negativity discussed earlier will grow in size and scope. Eventually, it will become a wrecking ball and a marriage will be crippled under its weight. Our emotions, if left unchecked, lead to resentment and hate, which are such strong emotions they often overpower our ability to feel happiness and love.

Forgive and Be Free

Like any new endeavour, it’s best to start small when it comes to forgiveness. A traumatic event, or one that left a large scar, is unlikely to be forgiven in a day. That’s okay. It takes time. What we can do is start with lesser pains that haunt us, like slights or rude comments. As you adapt to the process of forgiving, you can begin the work on larger offences.

Forgiveness is akin to apologising in that it’s easiest to do when approached in steps. The following steps can be taken in order or rearranged in a way that makes sense to you.

Step 1: Make the Decision to Forgive

If you’ve come to understand how negatively an inability to forgive is affecting you, you’re ready to begin the process—and that’s what it is: a process. Envision your life and relationship without pain and commit that vision to memory. Let it act as a guide and a motivator. That way, even if you can’t quite understand how forgiveness is possible, you know what beauty lies ahead if you do. Just this step can have a huge impact on letting go of resentment and pain.

Step 2: One Thing at a Time

Much like starting small and working your way up to the ability to forgive big misdemeanours, you should only focus on one specific incident or event to forgive at a time. If you’ve been married for a long time and are having trouble focusing on one thing at a time, it can be helpful to write a list of forgiveness goals and start there.

Step 3: Accept the Pain

Whether or not you decided to write out a list of forgiveness goals, this process can dredge up a lot of negative emotions and past pains. I suggest you feel it. Let it hit you and acknowledge that it’s there. Only when you confront your pain can you begin to make amends with it. This step is so incredibly powerful because, once mastered, it signals to your brain and heart that you are capable of feeling pain and can still find the strength to forgive. There’s nothing quite like it.

Step 4: Search for the Silver Lining

In many cases, the best way to forgive or move past negativity and pain is to look for what good came from it. I know that sounds crazy, but try it. Think of one moment in your life when you went through something painful. I bet that a lesson or growth came out of it. When you can identify the lessons learned or the positives that occurred as a by-product from a painful situation, you are allowing yourself to re-learn how to deal with pain in the first place. A rainbow always follows a storm, right?

Step 5: Practice Empathy

When we experience a negative event, we bring a lot to the table, such as past trauma, insecurities, and personal opinions. Take a step back and be a bit objective. Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes. Once there, you may just find that your spouse brought their own baggage to the table during this particular situation. Knowing that can help you understand why they said or did what they did and give you an idea on how to move forward.

Step 6: Be Compassionate

The final act of forgiveness is seeing your someone as human—flawed, emotional, nuanced. Think: if they could have handled the situation differently, would they have? The answer is probably yes. If a conversation about the incident needs to occur, looking at them with compassion allows you to enter it from a more rational, loving, and accepting position, not to mention calmer.

Final Thoughts

Forgiveness seems a bit like an enigma. We know the word. We use it in everyday sentences, read about it in books, and see it enacted beautifully on our screens. In real life, it seems like we’re always grasping for it but are never quite able to feel it in our palms. I believe it’s because the way we’ve been looking at it is all wrong. Forgiveness is personal, and it’s not supposed to feel just one way. When we begin to accept that forgiveness is simply letting go of pain, it seems a bit more tangible.