I recently interviewed six couples who had each been married for over 25 years. As I sat down with each partner, we began talking about their marriage. During our conversation we discussed the impact of their or their spouse’s retirement on their marriage, their level of satisfaction in marriage, and the presence of forgiveness in their marriage throughout the years. At the end of my first interview, a woman who had been married for 57 years was walking me to the front door. She stopped me to tell me that she was still thinking over the idea of forgiveness in her marriage, some 45 minutes after our interview ended. At that moment, I knew the question about forgiveness would become the most thought-provoking question I would ask in each interview.
Couples did self-select to participate in my interviews so we can assume none of the six couples were working through any deep hurts, such as infidelity, at the time. I was surprised with what I found out about forgiveness. In marriages that lasted over 25 years, a majority of the partners did not see forgiveness as a factor in the success of their marriage.
Eight partners, over 66% of my sample, reported that they had never really considered if forgiveness had a presence in their marriage. The remaining four partners did. One of the men answered very quickly and energetically stating, “Oh sure!” while others took more time and thought to arrive at their answer.
One of the women looked off in the other room towards where her spouse was reading as she took some time to develop her thoughts. She then turned back to me and said,
“I don’t think any relationship can go on for years without a certain level of forgiveness. . . I think that’s a huge part of a relationship. I guess I hadn’t thought about that before.”
I can only imagine the memories and experiences she was drawing upon as she considered forgiveness in her marriage. Her comment about “a certain level of forgiveness” really rings true. There are plenty of couples experiencing significant hurts in their marriage like infidelity, addiction, or abuse and those couples could probably identify forgiveness in their relationship very quickly.
But what about those couples who have been married 25 years and never had a significant hurt? Are their marriages succeeding because they’ve never had to experience forgiveness or do they forgive on such an unconscious level that they don’t even recognize it as “forgiveness”?
Beyond those significant hurts that require a highly conscious level of forgiveness, there are everyday lapses in thoughtfulness that require us to forgive our partners. Maybe your fiancé didn’t notice your new haircut, your spouse of 10 years forgot to bring the garbage can to the curb this week, or maybe it’s even your spouse of 50 years who washed your new white shirt with his red sweater because it was faster to do them at the same time. It’s how those small, daily lapses in thoughtfulness are addressed and resolved that contribute to the health of a marriage over time.