If premarital preparation is the grease that helps a couple glide from honeymoon to marriage, forgiveness is the glue that holds the bond together through the long years to follow.
Dale and Sue Paulin count themselves among those who found out that second part the hard way.
“You think back to when you first met and shared each other’s dreams,” Sue says. “How do we go from that beautiful place to the misery of barely being able to stand each other?”
As a last resort to save their seemingly doomed marriage, the Paulins attended Retrouvaille, a Catholic program that helps troubled marriages begin to function on surer footing. The Wisconsin couple had a lot of issues to address — infidelity, alcohol addiction, a long history of fighting and mutual disrespect. Their two grown children refused any contact with them because, as Sue says, “they grew up in a war zone.”
“I had two feelings, okay and not okay,” says Dale. “I threatened her with divorce numerous times as a way of controlling and manipulating her to appreciate all the hard work I do.”
Both of them were abused as children, so their marriage lacked a strong foundation right out of the gate. The couple had no idea how to forgive their own families, let alone each other.
“I never understood what forgiveness meant,” says Sue. “Forgiveness was permission to let the other person do whatever to me, because I couldn’t understand how God could allow these things to happen in my life.”
The act of forgiveness is essential to our faith, especially in marriage, but the necessity of Christians to forgive is not an excuse for others to hurt us, explains Father Albert Cutié (pronounced koo-tee-AY). The priest is president and general director of Pax Catholic Communications, a media organization for the Archdiocese of Miami, and author of Real Life, Real Love: Seven Paths to a Strong and Lasting Relationship (2006, Berkley).
The habit of Christian forgiveness, he says, starts with the practice of empathy and compassion.
“Compassion comes from the Latin word for ‘to suffer with,’ or to try to get in the other person’s shoes,” adds Father Cutié. “That’s where forgiveness comes in. When you can be compassionate and you can understand the other person’s perspective, you’re much more ready to forgive.”
Forgiveness also has to do with the will and how you perceive yourself, he points out. If you understand your own weaknesses and limitations, you’re able to understand other people’s weaknesses and forgive them.
The Paulins learned these lessons and more on their Retrouvaille weekend. Sue came into the weekend believing she was the only injured party — a victim of Dale’s infidelity and alcoholism.
“Forgiveness wasn’t something that I thought was about me. I was the one who needed to forgive,” she recalls. “As I started looking at my own behaviors and actions, and as Dale shared his feelings, I realized how much hurt I had caused. I needed his forgiveness, too.”
The couple also learned how to forgive the “little slights” before they grow into bigger resentments and hurts. “If I’m reacting to things out of proportion to the actual issue, and internally I’m wanting to blow up,” says Sue, “it’s not about the dishes in the sink.”
Conflict resolution is something couples must work on until death do them part, says Kimberly Hahn, author of Life-Giving Love: Embracing God’s Beautiful Design for Marriage and wife of popular professor, author and speaker Scott Hahn.
“The more you grow in your relationship with Christ, the more you can resolve conflicts quickly,” she adds. “As you deepen your trust in each other, you move more quickly to being deferential and don’t move as quickly into a defensive mode.”
In her book, Hahn reminds couples that forgiveness is not a feeling but an act of the will. She explains that it’s possible, and even common, for an individual who believes himself or herself to be “a forgiving person” to fail to actually forgive specific people for specific offenses.
“Unlike God, we do not forget easily, even when we have forgiven truly,” she writes. “Even mulling over past events, actions or words that we have already forgiven is actually sinful.”
Bob and Margy Kloska of South Bend, Ind., recall how their first years of marriage were the worst, and forgiveness was sometimes a daily challenge. Marriage is a “school of holiness,” says Bob, but not until you’re married and have children do you even realize how self-centered you are and what sacrificial love is. Now 10 years into the marriage, he can see things a little more clearly.
“I married my wife because I loved her. I love my wife now because I married her,” says Bob. “It’s my duty and obligation to love her, and to not always look to her faults, but to find what is good about her and cherish it.”
Margy says that, without their faith and relationship with God, the road would be a lot more rocky. Forgiveness of a spouse, she points out in so many words, goes hand in hand with love of God. For one thing, it helps you avoid sins of pride. For another: “If God in his infinite mercy can forgive me for all the things I have done, who am I to not forgive my husband for forgetting to pick up his socks?”Sacramental Strength
Crisis can strike a marriage at any time, as Father Cutié has found. He has counseled many couples who have been married 20 or 25 years who are suddenly struggling with issues that never came up before. This is partly a function of the stages of human development, he notes. Men and women age differently and will change emotionally or experience a mid-life crisis, and all of these developments affect the marriage.
The priest suggests more frequent reception of the sacrament of reconciliation — monthly if possible, particularly when a marriage is being strained by hurtful words and disrespectful actions.
“Confession helps you see your difficulties from God’s perspective and gives you the grace needed to cope with them,” he says. “It also helps you see what you are responsible for, where you are falling short as a married woman or a married man.”
Couples have to be willing to persevere through the rough times, he says, because forgiveness, compassion and mutual respect all take time to work out. Unfortunately, he adds, modern society prizes quick and easy answers to all of life’s problems.
Hence the prevalence of no-fault-divorce laws, which Register columnist Mark Shea has called “a creation straight from the pit of hell and the heart of Satan.”
“So many people are jumping to divorce because they’re not willing to struggle. When the struggle begins, they want out,” says Father Cutié. “But if you jump ship, you won’t experience the fullness of what a good relationship can be.”
The Paulins, who are in their early 50s now, hope their greatest difficulties are behind them and the best of their relationship is still to come. The two volunteer as community coordinators for the Lake Shore Retrouvaille program in the Dioceses of Green Bay and Milwaukee, Wis. They’ve seen marriages like theirs take miraculous turns.
Says Dale Paulin: “First marriages have a 50-50 chance. Second marriages have a 60% divorce rate. Your best chance to be in a happy marriage is to stay in the one you’re in now and learn how to meet each other’s needs. If you don’t have forgiveness, you don’t have a chance.”
Barb Ernster writes from