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Is forgiveness possible within the couple relationship?

June 25, 2019 - Marie-Rose Tannous, a professor at Saint Paul University’s School of Counselling, Psychotherapy and Spirituality, speaks about forgiveness within the couple relationship in an article that will be published in fall 2019 in the newspaper Le Droit.

Is forgiveness a kind of denial?
It is very common to confuse denial and forgiveness, or overlooking something and forgiveness. As a result, denying the offence, trivializing it, repressing it or trying to forget it turns forgiveness into a synonym for denial. Yet forgiving requires a good memory, capable of naming and describing the offence and expressing in words the emotions that are caused by the harm done. Forgiveness is not in any way a trivialization of the harm committed or a justification of it.

What is forgiveness?
Forgiveness is the healing journey undertaken by the person who has been hurt as well as the person who has committed the offence. Healing is a path of liberation from the burden of the injury that has been suffered or caused. This injury gives rise to a range of emotions, such as anger, resentment, hatred, guilt and the desire for revenge. Some wounds affect the self-image of the person who has been harmed as well as that of the person who caused the harm. It is therefore a question of low self-esteem, disillusionment and emotional destabilization, especially if the person who committed the offence was a trusted attachment figure for the one who has been hurt. Forgiveness becomes a liberating process that allows people to name the injury, and therefore not to deny or justify it. Forgiving is the desire not to stay stuck in the role of victim or offender. Forgiveness is proof that human beings are not their injury or their wrongdoing, and that they are able to grow through their difficulties. It is therefore important not to impose forgiveness or to speed up the process, but to respect each partner’s personal journey. For a religious believer, forgiveness is grace. In the Christian tradition, a believer sees themselves as a child of God, forgiven and redeemed by God. Forgiveness is a gift that is received, but cannot be imposed.

Are people able to forgive a betrayal within the couple relationship?
It is important to agree on the definition of betrayal. Would it be infidelity? Does this mean the obligation to be sexually monogamous with one’s partner?

For many partners, deceit is not limited to a genital sexual relationship, kisses, touching, and so on. It has to do with limits established within the couple that are violated. For others, it involves emotions or thoughts, such as fantasizing about another person, writing to them, expressing feelings to them or wanting to be with that person. Despite the range of definitions, infidelity remains an emotional wound (Salomon, 2003). It is a betrayal of the trust placed in a person.

Betrayal involves grieving the promise a person has made to their partner. At first this grief, like other types of grief, may be experienced as an emotional shock, or even as trauma.

Is it even possible to forgive and get back up again after such a shock?
It is hard to answer that question while the wound is still fresh. Some couples decide to separate. They may react very strongly and cannot imagine a way out of the betrayal. Offering or asking for forgiveness seems premature. The bond has been severed, the love has suffered harm, and trust is broken. However, many couples think that infidelity reveals an existing dysfunction in the relationship that needs to be addressed. These couples decide to commit to repairing their relationship. They understand the magnitude of the situation and face it head on (Salomon, 2003). It is somewhat bold to say that betrayal in this way serves as a springboard and can lead to change, but for some couples, that is the case. This approach relies on forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness places love at the heart of the relationship. Isn’t the couple itself the place of healing and forgiveness?

Marie-Rose Tannous has two master’s degrees – one in theology and one in counselling and psychotherapy – as well as a doctorate in theology. She is a part-time professor at Saint Paul University and a couples and family therapist accredited by the College of Registered Psychotherapists of Ontario.

Salomon, P. (2003). Bienheureuse infidélité, Albin Michel.


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