Happy Marriages Require Good Forgivers

Contributed By By Marianne Holman, Church News staff writer

  • 12 March 2013

Frank Fincham, director of Florida State University’s Family Institute, offered six suggestions for increasing your ability to forgive in your marriage during a Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture.  Photo by David Winters.

Article Highlights

  • Frank Fincham, director of Florida State University’s Family Institute, spoke at the Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture at BYU on February 21, 2013.
  • Forgiveness in marriage is ranked among the top five attributes in happy marriages.
  • Prayer, empathy, patience, agenda setting, sincere apologies, and humility can all help couples become more forgiving.

“That is a confusion that is rampant in our culture, that if I forgive I have to be reconciled to the person I’m forgiving. It is more like giving up the perceived right to get even. It’s like giving up the attitude ‘You owe me.’ ” —Dr. Frank Fincham, director of Florida State University’s Family Institute

PROVO, UTAH

“A happy marriage is a union of two good forgivers,” Frank Fincham, director of Florida State University’s Family Institute, said during the Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture held in the Gordon B. Hinckley Alumni and Visitors’ Center Assembly Hall on February 21 at Brigham Young University in Provo.

Author of more than 250 publications and identified as one of the top 25 psychologists in the world because of his well-cited research, Dr. Fincham holds a PhD in social psychology from Oxford University.

“Forgiveness is a process, not an event,” he said, adding, “Unforgiveness—or lack of forgiveness—is nothing short of life threatening. So if you want to live a long and fulfilling life, I would encourage you to find forgiveness as a way of life.”

Dr. Fincham titled his address “’Til Lack of Forgiveness Doth Us Part: Forgiveness in Marriage” and focused his message on the need for and process of forgiveness in marriage.

“People in happy marriages who have been married for a long time report that one of the most important factors that has allowed them to experience these long happy marriages is the ability to grant and receive forgiveness,” he said. “It is ranked one of the top five attributes of their marriage.”

He asked the audience, “What is forgiveness?”

“Forgiveness occurs as a response to a transgression that is either intentionally or negligently perpetrated,” he said. Oftentimes when someone has been wronged, their common response includes an immediate fear of being hurt again, anger, withdrawal, seeking revenge, or retaliation.

“We have to overcome our nature in expressing forgiveness,” Dr. Fincham said. “The response to a transgression is usually negative. So how one deals with this response is crucial.”

In an effort to further identify what forgiveness is, he shared some of the things forgiveness is not.

“When we forgive we do not forget—that is not part of forgiveness. … Forgetting is just a passive removal of the offense from your consciousness. Forgetting often doesn’t work because while you try to forget, it bothers you at some time that you least expect it, and you get destructive in your own behavior and thinking.”

Forgiveness does not include a lack of consequence for the perpetrator, he said. And forgiveness is not no longer feeling pain. He said that if a victim waits until the pain is gone before granting forgiveness, it might take a very long time to ever forgive a person.

“It is not about pretending that unacceptable behavior is, in fact, acceptable,” he said. “We don’t condone the wrong. The wrong is a wrong, and we forgive in full knowledge that we have been wronged and that we deserve better treatment. It is not about trust. Forgiving doesn’t mean trusting the person. It is not about reconciling with the person.

“That is a confusion that is rampant in our culture, that if I forgive I have to be reconciled to the person I’m forgiving,” he said. “It is more like giving up the perceived right to get even. It’s like giving up the attitude ‘You owe me.’”

Forgiveness is a response to being wronged that entails a change in which justified anger and resentment are freely given up, he said. To forgive often entails a struggle.

Rather than feeling bad and beginning to nurture a grudge, Dr. Fincham said there are more adaptive responses for individuals to deal with transgression while still having the right to feel resentful.

“Forgiveness involves working through, not avoiding, that emotional pain,” he said. “Being the victim of a transgression is painful, as we all know because we’ve all been victims.”

But despite the unavoidable emotional pain individuals will experience, forgiveness is still necessary for strong partnerships in marriage.

“It’s not something that just happens easily, because you have to overcome the negative feelings engendered by the transgression,” he said. “And it is not easily achieved. In forgiveness the transgressor receives an undeserved gift—that’s why we sometimes talk of forgiveness as being an altruistic act.”

He shared six ways in which individuals can become more forgiving, adding that it is possible to learn how to forgive.

Pray for the partner. Studies show that individuals who prayed—a specific kind of prayer focusing on the good things requested for the other person—for their partner saw results.

“Prayer brings you into the presence of a greater selfless love and leads to greater forgiveness,” he said.

Structured plan. “What might that structured plan be like?” he asked. “Be empathetic. See things through your partner’s eyes. Accept that your partner’s views and memory are most likely to differ from yours. They don’t have to agree with your view of events for you to forgive them. … See your partner for the whole person that they are. See the sin but love the sinner. There’s more to the offender than the offending behavior. Try to see that more. What they did to you is only one little part of who they are and how they have behaved.”

Be patient. “Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your partner. Human emotions are not things you can just switch on and off. And you, your feelings of hurt may linger longer than you would like. Be patient.”

Set an agenda. “Set an agenda to work on the issue in question with your partner,” he said. “Fully explore the pain and concerns related to this issue for both of you. There is no quick fix for serious offenses in a relationship. This phase takes a lot of time. You may have 5, 10, 15, 20 conversations about the event. The offended needs to explore the situation on his or her own as well as having many discussions with the offender over a period of time.”

Apologize and ask for forgiveness. “Be humble, admit your wrong, ask for forgiveness, and sincerely apologize … because asking for forgiveness demonstrates a willingness to take responsibility for your behavior,” he said. “More important, it validates the pain of the other person. This is a person you love; surely you want to validate their pain. This may occur many times and in many ways.”

Dr. Fincham also encouraged individuals to recall times that they were the offender seeking for forgiveness.

“There is nothing more humbling in my experience than to remember the times I’ve needed to be forgiven,” he said. “It makes my hurt and my unwillingness to forgive seem really, really small and petty of me. Being self-righteous hinders forgiveness. Being humble, remembering the many people who have forgiven you in your life, can help you forgive others.”

The annual lecture is held in honor of Sister Marjorie Pay Hinckley, wife of President Gordon B. Hinckley, and is sponsored by the Social Work and Social Sciences programs at BYU. In attendance at this year’s lecture were three of Sister Hinckley’s siblings, all five of the Hinckley children, and many grandchildren. 

Dr. Frank Fincham speaks at BYU for the Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture on February 21. Photo by Marianne Holman.