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Forgiving in Relationships: Five Steps to REACH Forgiveness

Updated: Aug 15, 2022

You can create a relationship where forgiveness is frequent and common.

Video of Dr. Everett Worthington, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Virginia Commonwealth University. Creator of the Hope Focused approach to couple counseling explains forgiveness through a Templeton Foundation video project.

How can you forgive in your marriage or relationship?

Do you have barriers to forgiveness?

1. Many times people misunderstand what forgiveness is about. We define forgiveness as

Focusing on the other person, forgiveness is replacing unforgiving negative emotions with more positive forgiving emotions. Forgiveness is NOT

  • forgetting it ever happened

  • minimizing the hurt that occurred

  • apologizing

  • reconciliation, or restoring the relationship to a previous place

  • looking for a quick fix

2. Another barrier to forgiveness can be the severity of the offense. Some offenses in a relationship are 10 cent offenses like forgetting to take out the trash, or not asking how your day went. Other offenses are $10,000 offenses like causing bankruptcy, or being unfaithful. Recognizing the severity of the offense can help you decide how much time and help you might need to reach forgiveness. Frequency of offense can also be important. Frequent 10 cent offenses, such that a partner rarely asks how your day was, can add up to a feeling of larger offense.

3. A third barrier to forgiveness can be time. Research indicates that forgiveness is more probable as time passes. So while an offense that occurred an hour ago may be quite difficult to forgive, an offense that occurred weeks or months ago would usually be easier. The issue of timing comes with a "catch" however. Living with unforgiveness is difficult on the relationship and each person. Unforgiveness is related to health problems, psychological problems, and relationship problems. So while forgiveness takes time, there is a price to living too long with unforgiveness.

Five Steps to REACH Forgiveness from Everett Worthington

REACH for forgiveness
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R: Recall the hurt

It is important to recall the hurt clearly and define it. Each partner on their own may need to stop and explore what happened, what was hurtful, and how much it hurt. This step is easier if the hurt was a specific time and place. If you have a long pattern of ongoing hurts, then you can work towards forgiveness but it will be more difficult.

E: Empathize with your Partner

Empathy is being able to understand from your partner's point of view. Put yourself in your partner's chair and explain the offense from your partner's point of view. Tell the imaginary you sitting across the room what is needed to help understand the offense. The goal is to increase your compassion and love for your partner by taking their perspective.

A: Altruistic Gift

Remember when you have wronged someone and needed to be given the gift of forgiveness. What a relief it was. Offer that gift to your partner, motivated by your care and common humanity. We all fall short sometimes and the gift of forgiveness is an important one to give.

C: Commit to your Forgiveness

While you may not have fully worked through all the emotions relevant to the hurt, you can decide to forgive and make a commitment to work towards full emotional forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a commitment not to seek revenge, and not try and "even the scales" of justice. In a loving relationship, the offender should also work towards restitution and repair. But even if she or he is not ready, you can make a commitment not to seek revenge. You might say, or write a note, that says 'Today, I choose to forgive for..."

H: Hold onto Forgiveness

After your commitment to forgive, there is often still work to do to stay in the forgiveness zone. Life comes with future hurts, vulnerabilities and misunderstandings. Re-reading your forgiveness note can help. Remember your personal character of being a forgiving person can help.

Note: If you are in a relationship with severe, ongoing, unrepentant offenses then forgiveness may not be the focus of your relationship repair. Seek professional help for this situation as it can be difficult to discern when forgiveness may be a way of avoiding ongoing problems and trying to cover them over. Forgiveness doesn't require partners to be perfect, but severe ongoing offenses need change first, like violence, infidelity, or taking advantage of a partner. Those offenses are not good for the relationship, or either partner, to engage in. All relationships need repair and forgiveness and we hope and pray that is part of your future.


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