Recent studies have shown that forgiveness is an essential component of successful romantic relationships. In fact, the capacity to seek and grant forgiveness is one of the most significant factors contributing to marital satisfaction and a lifetime of love.

Forgiving yourself and others is about being willing to acknowledge that you are capable of being wounded. It also means that you are willing to step out from the role of victim and take charge of your life.

Couples who practice forgiveness can rid themselves of the toxic hurt and shame that holds them back from feeling connected to each other. In The Science of Trust, Dr. John Gottman explains that emotional attunement is a skill that allows couples to fully process and move on from negative emotional events, and ultimately create a stronger bond.

Resentment Leads to Emotional and Sexual Distance

Abby has felt resentment and anger towards her husband Rob ever since she found out he has been communicating with his ex-girlfriend Samantha through text messages and emails. Rob has apologized and accepted responsibility for his actions, but Abby is unwilling to forgive him.

Over the last two months, Abby has shut down sexually and emotionally. She’s been giving Rob the silent treatment and has told him repeatedly that she’s unsure about his commitment to their marriage.

Abby puts it like this: “Rob says they’re just friends but I don’t buy it. I just can’t seem to get over my feelings of resentment toward him. During our marriage, we’ve gotten over many hurdles, including adjusting to crazy work schedules and trouble with in-laws. But this issue is too big.”

The problem with holding on to resentment toward your partner is that it often leads to withdrawal and a lack of vulnerability. Over time, this can erode trust. In Abby’s case, she has been bottling up feelings of anger and resentment for some time and she’s lost trust in Rob’s intentions.

In an effort to protect herself, Abby is unwilling to engage in what Dr. John Gottman refers to as repair attempts with Rob. This couple is stuck in a negative pattern of interaction and Abby is not acting with goodwill toward Rob – an essential element of a successful marriage.

Abby continues: “I can’t get over the fact that Rob has been communicating with Stephanie behind my back. It’s such a betrayal. I found out about it by reading a text message and recognized her name immediately. Even though I knew they were still friends, it hurts that he was hiding being in touch since she moved back home.”

Is it possible for Abby to rebuild trust in Rob after feeling betrayed? Gradually, Rob must be willing to put his relationship with Abby first and demonstrate trustworthiness through his words and actions. Abby would be wise to extend trust to Rob and not automatically assume the worst. In time, she may rebuild trust by taking responsibility for her own reactions and changing her mistrustful mindset.

For instance, if Abby is thinking like a forgiving person, she might adopt a perspective that assumes it’s possible that Rob simply made an error in judgment by not telling her about his contact with his ex. Or, it’s possible he believed he couldn’t be completely open and honest with Abby because she expressed jealousy in the past (about his ex) and he feared losing her.

Truth be told, many mistakes are not intentional, so it’s best not to make them into something they’re not. Listen to your partner’s side of the story, and avoid blaming or criticizing them when you confront them with your concerns.

If their negative pattern doesn’t change, Abby and Rob might begin to feel critical and contemptuous of each other – two of the major warning signs that their marriage is doomed to fail, according to Dr. Gottman.

Why is Forgiveness Important?

Often people equate forgiveness with weakness, and it is widely believed that if you forgive someone, you’re condoning or excusing their behavior. However, in marriage, forgiveness is a strength because it shows you are capable of goodwill toward your partner. Studies indicate that forgiving someone is one way of letting go so that you can heal and move on with your life.

Forgiveness is about giving yourself, your children, and your partner the kind of future you and they deserve – unhampered by hurt and anger. It is about choosing to live a life wherein others don’t have power over you and you’re not dominated by unresolved bitterness and resentment.

It’s important to consider that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Author Deborah Moskovitch reiterates that forgiveness is not letting someone off the hook. She writes, “Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting what happened, or condoning your ex-spouse’s actions, giving up claims to a fair settlement or reconciliation. While forgiveness may help others, it first and foremost can help you.”

Here are seven ways forgiveness can transform your marriage.

1. Write down three ways negative emotions have impacted (or are still impacting) your marriage.
Be aware of negative emotions that you have not yet processed. Talking to a close friend or therapist can help facilitate this.

2. Find a way to dislodge yourself from negative emotions.
Examples include therapy, yoga, improving your physical health, and practicing expressing thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when people sweep things under the rug, so avoid burying negative feelings.

3. Take small steps to repair and let go of grudges.
According to Dr. Gottman, the number one thing that prevents couples from building trust and emotional attunement is the inability to bounce back from a conflict in a healthy way. The number one solution to this problem is to get really good at repair. He tells Business Insider that you’ve got to get back on track after a disagreement if you don’t want issues to fester.

4. Accept responsibility for your part in the interaction.
One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Drs. Julie and John Gottman explain that, “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings, promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.

5. Don’t let wounds fester.
Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding on to hurt feelings. Processing what happened will allow you to let resentments go so you can move on to a healthier relationship. Keep the big picture in mind.

6. Accept that people do the best they can.
This does not mean that you condone the hurtful actions of others. You simply come to a more realistic view of your past. As you take stock, you will realize that all people operate out of the same basic drives, including self-interest.

7. Think like a forgiving person.
Practice forgiveness by actively thinking like a forgiving person. Avoid holding grudges and declare you are free to stop playing the role of victim. After all, we are all imperfect and deserve compassion.

Practicing forgiveness will allow you to turn the corner from feeling like a victim to becoming a more empowered person. Experts believe that forgiveness can allow you to break the cycle of pain and move on to a healthier life. Keep in mind that forgiveness takes time and has a lot to do with letting go of those things you have no control over.

More in Marriage
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW

Terry Gaspard MSW, LICSW is a therapist, author, and college instructor. Two of Terry’s research studies have been published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage. Her popular book Daughters of Divorce won the 2016 “Best Book” Award in the self-help: relationships category and a silver medal for Independent Publishers in the category of self-help. She is also a contributor to The Huffington Post, The Good Men Project, and DivorcedMoms.com. Follow Terry at her website,

  • JCT

    Very disappointing ‘blame the victim’ piece. TGI says that an emotional affair is one of the most damaging things one can do to a marriage, and as presented, the husband may have been guilty or headed in that direction. Contacting an ex without prior knowledge or consent of the spouse is an act of betrayal. The burden is on the husband, not the wife, to atone and make things right.

    • Terry Gaspard

      JCT- My blog encourages partners to engage in repair attempts and highlights the importance of Abby letting go of her resentment in order to rebuild trust in her husband, Rob. She perceives her husband’s actions as betrayal because she doesn’t believe he has her best interests at heart. That does not mean he has betrayed her or is at fault. I don’t say or believe that an emotional affair is the most damaging thing one can do to a marriage. Best Regards, Terry

      • JCT

        “Almost all betrayals begin with emotional infidelity. Even if the
        betrayal never moves beyond the emotional betrayal to a physical
        relationship, the offense can be just as devastating and recovery can be
        just as difficult.” From https://www.gottman.com/blog/askgottman-affairs-answers/.

        • Terry Gaspard

          JCT- Thanks for this link to a great and informative article about this topic. I appreciate your feedback and interest in communicating your point of view. I’m also glad that you are receptive to mine. Here is a link to an article I wrote on the topic: https://www.gottman.com/blog/learning-to-love-again-after-an-affair/
          Happy New Year! Terry

    • In any relationship, it takes two to make it work. Rob was communicating with his ex behind Abby’s back, and the secrecy triggered Abby’s distrust. I understand why she’d feel betrayed. As Terry outlined so beautifully, how someone deals with that hurt and distrust is what makes or breaks a relationship.

      I believe that blame is not healthy for either partner. In a good marriage, trust can be rebuilt. As Terry outlines, it takes courage to come forth and offer to repair a relationship. I believe that when you hold the relationship as sacred, you are willing to do whatever it takes to repair it.

      In some cases, trust cannot be rebuilt, but in this case, I don’t see why they couldn’t have come up with a new agreement about not communicating in secrecy with exes. I would have welcomed back a partner who loved me enough to work on himself and the relationship.

      • JCT

        “Rob says they’re just friends but I just don’t buy it.’ If he’s serious about repair, he’ll stop any contact with the ex at a minimum. I recommend ‘Not Just Friends’ by the late Shirley Glass.

        • Terry Gaspard

          Thanks for your support Sandy and the reference for the Shirley Glass book!
          Happy New Year!
          Terry

    • Jackie Pilossoph

      Anyone who has been a victim of cheating in the past would be sensitive to her using this example for forgiveness, because it is incredibly painful to be cheated on and/or to find out your spouse is having contact with an ex-girlfriend. And, yes, the person who betrayed has an obligation to make things right. All that said, I have written countless articles about the importance of forgiveness, because forgiveness is almost a panacea for peace and happiness, both in relationships and within. This article is spot on in that regard. I also love her practical suggestions for forgiveness!

      • JCT

        Forgiveness can’t begin with this couple until Rob disconnects with the ex, is completely transparent, and follows the 3 A’s of infidelity repair (Gottman). He needs to work to earn back her trust. It’s not clear from the article if Rob took any of those steps. If/when he does, then Abby can begin to do what’s best for her, which may include steps to forgiveness. I do like that the steps are spelled out in the article.

      • Terry Gaspard

        Hi Jackie, I appreciate you intelligent feedback and observations. I agree that the person who betrayed has an obligation to make things right!
        Regards,
        Terry

  • Rosalind Sedacca

    As Terry says, forgiveness is a gift we gift ourselves, not our partner. It helps us release the pain and disengage emotionally so we can be clear and mindful in taking action. Terry’s focus is not on ‘blaming the victim.’ It is on empowering yourself to make more conscious decisions coming from strength, not the weakness of a victim mentality. Whether It is crucial to understand that forgiveness is not condoning, approving or accepting your partner’s behavior. It is unhooking yourself so you can let go of the emotional charge giving you heightened perception, awareness and insight about how to handle the situation in the best way for you and your relationship.

    • JCT

      For those of you who haven’t experienced the betrayal of an online affair, I hope you never have to live through that nightmare. It’s a unique betrayal because it’s not a ‘typical’ affair with clear lines to be crossed.

      • Terry Gaspard

        Excellent points about online affairs.Rosalind! I agree that getting out the victim mentality is crucial for recovery and making decisions based on your strengths!
        Regards,
        Terry

    • JCT

      I’d like to know what you mean by ‘victim mentality’. The wife in this case seemed to be responding in a very normal way and was standing up for herself.

      • Rosalind Sedacca

        No one is faulting the wife for her feelings and the pain she’s experiencing. What we are suggesting is that remaining in that mindset keeps us stuck in the pain. Nothing changes for us. Only we can decide to move ahead and change our perspective about how we let life experiences affect us. That takes shifting out of seeing ourselves as helpless victims and moving to a sense of power in our lives. Forgiving is the key to cutting the cord that binds us to the pain. It releases old perceptions giving us the opportunity to view the experience differently, from a place of power over our feelings. It is helpful to reach out to a coach or therapist for support through this process. But it’s worth it as it can transform your life to a place of inner strength and higher self-esteem. So this is not about blame. It’s about support in reaching new strength when coping with life challenges.

  • Kristin Davin

    Enjoyed the blog Terry. It’s a reminder of many of the things that are talked about, suggested, and addressed when working with a couple who has experienced betrayal. Forgiveness can be a tricky thing for people because as you stated, people often ‘wed’ forgiveness with condoning – which we know is far from the truth. I have worked with many couples who have experienced betrayal on many different levels. Its a difficult process. Both people have to take a look at themselves as well as the relationship especially the person who has betrayed their partner or spouse as that was a decision made by one. It’s a hard place to be for many couples and the therapist because there is so much hurt and sadness experienced by both parties. However, relationships definitely recover with effort, intention, and both people showing up. The article is a reminder of what people can do to get their relationship back on track and learn to create a new path in their relationship should they choose to.

    • Terry Gaspard

      Hi Kristin, I agree that relationships can recover from betrayal if your points are attained even though it takes a lot of effort, Dr. Gottman’s 3 A’s of repair that I write about in in my Gottman blog “Learning to Love Again After Betrayal” are critical to recovery as well. Continue your great couples work – it’s much needed. Here’s the link:https://www.gottman.com/blog/learning-to-love-again-after-an-affair/ Happy New Year! Terry