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How Important is Forgiveness in Marriage?

William Carlos Williams’ 1934 twelve line poem “This is Just to Say” has stuck with me for years. I first read it when I was in my twenties. Back then, I thought it was amusing.

Now, many years later and married, it has renewed meaning for me. I still think it’s funny, but I also think it’s a lovely example of the small things that make a marriage work. Like leaving notes for your spouse.

And it reminds me of the big things that make a marriage work.

Like forgiveness.

The Poem

I don’t know for certain, but I imagine Williams left a note similar to the poem for his still sleeping wife on his way out to work. He was a physician by day. This particular morning, he must have gotten up earlier than her. His note tells her that he ate and really enjoyed the last of the plums. But he knew she was saving them for breakfast so near the end of the note he writes “Forgive me.” image_for_this_is_just_to_say_363x500

This is a wonderful lesson for married people. While eating the last of the plums is a pretty minor offense, anyone who’s been married can tell you that minor offenses, multiplied over time, can culminate into major problems – if the offender never acknowledges or apologizes for the offense.

Asking forgiveness for the smallest infractions means you’re more likely to ask forgiveness for the big things too. Since none of us is perfect, we are going to mess up in our marriage – most often it’ll be small things (like eating all the plums), but at some point or another, you might mess up big time.

Oops, I Messed Up

If you ever do mess up big time in your marriage, if you’re in the habit of asking your spouse to forgive you for the minor offenses, chances are you’ve helped to build a solid foundation of love and respect while creating a safe place for the two of you to thrive.

If you mess up in a major way and your spouse has a hard time getting past it, going to him or her often, meekly and beseechingly, goes a long way to recovering that safe place you once enjoyed.

But asking forgiveness often and earnestly can be hard. It takes humility.

Humility or Humiliation?

If we feel humility is beneath us, then we probably think too highly of ourselves. I used to feel that way. It was really hard for me to apologize or admit to others I’d done wrong. I thought displaying humility equaled inferiority. This was a clear sign of insecurity. While it’s definitely a work in progress, I think (I hope) I’m getting better at it.

I got married relatively late (at 38) and had never lived with a significant other. I spent my adulthood living where I wanted, moving when I wanted, traveling where I wanted and I never had to consult anyone on anything. I also never had to compromise.

So sharing my life with someone, even the love of my life, was anything but easy at first. I made mistakes. I blundered. I said and did dumb and thoughtless things sometimes (not realizing in the moment they were dumb and thoughtless). And I had to learn to apologize. To ask forgiveness. To be humble.

When you ask someone for forgiveness, you humble yourself. Although some seem to think so, humility and humiliation are not the same. Humbling yourself is a show of strength, not weakness.

Humility is healthy.

Laugh It Off

If your spouse committed an offense and asks forgiveness, and it’s not something as serious as adultery or habitual lying, consider, is it something that you can laugh about together? At the very end of “This is Just to Say,” speaking of the plums, Williams writes,

they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I love that! He just asked his wife to forgive him but he can’t resist saying how much he enjoyed the last of the plums, basically telling her she missed out.

His wife could be angry. Or she could be pleased he enjoyed the plums so much.

And she can smile that he thought about her on his way out to work, enough to leave her a little note, which is something she can save and look back on in years to come. She can also smile about his funny way of telling her. He could have let her discover the missing plums on her own and left her to stew about it all day. But the note most likely diffused her anger.

If you’ve committed some offense that upset your spouse, think of a creative and loving way to let him or her know you’re sorry and to ask forgiveness.

Can You Be the Forgiving One?

What if it’s your spouse who does or says something hurtful or offensive and then asks your forgiveness? How you handle this moment is as important as how you handle seeking forgiveness yourself.

Graciousness is key.

For instance, you could rub your spouse’s nose in the fact that he or she hurt you. After all, you have the moral high ground now. But that won’t foster love and will make it harder to recover your safe space.

When you’re calm enough and your anger dissipates, how about graciously accepting his or her apology? Maybe even thanking them for apologizing?

And then move on.

Let It Go

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Whether going to our mate to ask forgiveness or graciously forgiving, our intentions might be the best but our emotions can still get in the way.

If we have to ask forgiveness, we might feel ashamed of whatever it is we said or did. Shame is a hindrance.

If we need to grant forgiveness, anger can get in the way. When we let anger get out of control, and play the offense over and over again in our mind, we start to feel self-righteous.

So why should we make the effort to get past our overactive emotions?

According to the article “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness” on the Mayo Clinic website, “forgiveness can lead you down the path of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

Asking for forgiveness and granting it is the best thing we can do for ourselves and our marriage.

Literature Cited: This is Just to Say
Author: William Carlos Williams
Year Published: 1934

photo credit: G.C pics via photopin

What do you think? Is forgiveness important to a happy marriage? Do you find it easy or hard to ask for forgiveness?

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4 comments on “How Important is Forgiveness in Marriage?

  1. Brian Suman
    February 26, 2014

    I enjoyed reading your blog and I hope it is ok that I added the link to our site. Blessings! http://becameone.com/articles/

  2. LisaW
    February 26, 2014

    Hi Jo! I am so loving your blog! Your post is so insightful. Forgiveness in a marriage is essential for its very survival. I ought to know living with my current situation. I always had to be right and win every argument at all costs. I didn’t even realize how much I had until I lost it. Sorry as Elton John said in song seems to be the hardest word but saying it often when wrong and accepting it when you have been wrong can even resurrect a marriage that seemed dead.

    • Johanna Chambers
      February 26, 2014

      Hi Lisa, thank you so much for your kind words and for reading my blog! And thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings on this subject. it’s a tough one to open up about. You mentioned that saying sorry “can even resurrect a marriage that seemed dead” – that’s so well put and speaks to the healing power of the simple act of apologizing.

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This entry was posted on February 26, 2014 by in Classic Literature, Literature, Marriage, Poetry and tagged , , , , .
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