Without the cleansing power of forgiveness, at best marriage will be very hard duty. At worst it will be disaster. No matter how much two people try to love and please each other, they will fail. With failure comes hurt. And the only ultimate relief for hurt is the soothing salve of forgiveness.

One of the keys to maintaining an open, intimate, and happy marriage is to ask for and grant forgiveness quickly. And the ability to do that is tied to each individual’s relationship with God.

About the process of forgiveness, Jesus said, “For if you forgive men for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions” (Matthew 6:14–15). The instruction is clear: God insists that we are to be “forgivers,” and marriage—probably more than any other relationship—presents frequent opportunities to practice.

Forgiving means giving up resentment or the desire to punish another person. By an act of your will, you let the other person off the hook. And as a Christian you do not do this under duress, scratching and screaming in protest. Rather, you do it with a gentle spirit and love, as Paul urged: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32).

The real test of your ability to forgive comes on the battlefield when you and your spouse are ticked off and angry with each other. That is when you need the power of the Holy Spirit and must ask, God, You need to help me here. I need to move to forgiveness because You have commanded me to do so. I need You to empower me, to enable me to give up the desire to punish my spouse and to forgive.

It took practice early in our marriage, but we learned how to keep our relationship healthy most of the time by not burning excessive emotional energy on resentment. We grant forgiveness and ask for it freely—even when we don’t feel like it.

Why is asking for forgiveness difficult?

It is humbling to admit you’re wrong and to ask for forgiveness. But it’s a key action to defeating your pride. In the first years of our marriage, this was a struggle for me (Dennis). When I did admit I was wrong, I often said, “If I was wrong when I did this, I’m sorry.” I was deploying what might be called the “If Maneuver”—using that tiny word if to give myself an out, to avoid admitting my responsibility.

At one of our Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways, a husband and father of several boys boasted to me, “You know, I’ve been married 24 years, and I’ve never once apologized to my wife for anything I’ve done wrong.”

“Oh, really?” I said in a tone that urged him to tell me more.

“Yeah,” he said with obvious pride. “Every time we get into a squabble or any kind of disagreement, I just tell her, ‘I’m sorry you’re mad at me.’ I don’t admit anything. I just tell her it’s too bad she had to get so mad.”

Then with a smug grin, he admitted, “And all these years she’s never realized that I have never once apologized.”

I had the strongest urge to give the guy a piece of my mind. What a pitifully selfish attitude to bring into a love relationship!

Instead I tactfully attempted to explain that he was missing a blessing. He didn’t listen. He went away quite sure he was a very clever fellow. He didn’t realize that he was hurting not only his wife, but also himself and his children. Just think of what he was modeling for his sons.

Granting forgiveness is difficult, too

As difficult as it is to ask for forgiveness, it’s no walk in the park to grant forgiveness when you have been wronged.

I often advise married couples to take out a joint membership in the Seventy Times Seven Club. This club began when Peter asked Jesus how many times we must forgive one another. Peter wondered if seven times would be enough? Christ answered, “No—seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21–22). In other words, forgive an infinite number of times, not just when you feel like it.

You can tell whether you have forgiven your spouse by asking yourself one question: Have I given up my desire to punish my spouse? When you lay aside that desire and no longer seek revenge, you free your spouse and yourself from the bonds of your anger.

Forgiveness cannot be conditional. Once you forgive, that’s it. Feelings may still be raw, and it is not hypocritical to not feel like forgiving your spouse. If someone has hurt you, you can choose to forgive immediately but still be processing feelings of disappointment or rejection.

Forgiveness is a choice, an act of the will—not an emotion. It may take a while for your feelings to catch up with your will. But your will needs to respond to the scriptural mandate to forgive your spouse.

What about major wrongs?

No question—there are some hurts, such as adulterous affairs or a spouse’s addiction to pornography, that are extremely difficult to forgive and get over. There may always be some pain and distrust in the person’s heart that has been so deeply offended. But we are still commanded by God to move beyond the circumstances and forgive.

That does not let the other person off the hook for completing necessary restitution and demonstrating repentance. Some boundaries may need to be erected in the relationship to prevent the sinful behavior from happening again. An intervention by a pastor, counselor, or mature friend may be required to make the sting of pain from the sin felt so sharply that the offending spouse will finally realize that the behavior has to change. No one should be allowed to continue perpetrating serious harm on a mate.

Ultimately, though, forgiveness must rule. Anyone who says, “I cannot forgive you,” really means, “I choose not to forgive you.” If forgiveness seems impossible at that point, if prayer and reading the Scriptures do not seem to work, go to another person. Seek out a wise counselor—an elder at your church, a wise Bible teacher, a same-sex friend to confide in—and say, “Can you help me get beyond this?”

As Christians, we do not have the option of becoming embittered with our spouses. The result of obeying God and forgiving is not bondage, but freedom. Ruth Bell Graham said it well, “A good marriage is the union of two forgivers.”

Adapted by permission from Starting Your Marriage Right, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.