Why is Forgiveness in Marriage So Hard?

Revised 1/1/20

Is there an attachment science of forgiveness in marriage? What is forgiveness in marriage? Is it possible…or even desirable to grant forgiveness or forgive and forget?

In this post, I’m going to discuss the essential axis of intimacy trust, and betrayal. The success or failure of intimate relationships depends on these factors. There are many varieties of deception. Forgiveness is the mitigating force.

“There are lots of ways to betray somebody. For example, just lying is a betrayal. Not being transparent – being hidden – is a way of betraying.”  Dr. John Gottman

Contrary to popular belief, forgiveness is not necessarily a predictable or natural process. It’s helpful to think about forgiveness as either “positive” or “negative.”

In real forgiveness, the hurt partner, with the offending partner’s aid, endures and eventually overcomes the initial shock of betrayal.

They work with their offending partner toward a greater mutual understanding and empathy.

This deep unpacking of the circumstances surrounding the betrayal helps to reduce anxiety and repair the marital bond. Active affair recovery is a classic example of “positive” forgiveness.

On the other hand, researchers Finch, Hall, and Beach (2006) have described a process they call “negative forgiveness.” Negative forgiveness in marriage is merely paying lip-service to the notion of forgiveness.

In negative forgiveness, the memory of the spouse’s offense is wielded as a blunt instrument, present and available for immediate use when convenience beckons…during an unrelated marital conflict. Gottman describes one kind of negative forgiveness as inconsolability.

Positive and Negative Forgiveness…What’s the Difference?

Why is there such a difference between positive and negative forgiveness in marriage?

Researchers Gordon and Baucom (1998) tell us that when a behavior is serious enough to warrant forgiveness in marriage (let’s call this behavior a “betrayal” as a shorthand), it becomes a profound violation of relational norms and expectations.

Because of the unexpected experience of betrayal, the hurt partner’s world is in utter disarray.

forgiveness-in-marriage“How could you do this to me?” is the mantra of the betrayed, hurt partner.

Attachment science tells us that all partners have internal working models that have been carefully constructed with their spouse interaction by interaction over time.

When betrayal is revealed, the internal working model of the hurt partner is under siege. This becomes an emotionally traumatic experience.

Continuum of Responsibility

There is a continuum of responsibility in these internal working models. Some hurt partners firmly believe that their betraying partner is uniquely and singularly responsible for the betrayal.

Forgiveness is utterly off the table because they can never be trusted again. Sometimes this rigidity is culture-bound. The hurt partner’s family-of-origin usually sheds light on this firm and unyielding stance.

For these hurt partners, forgiveness in marriage is neither possible or desirable. They have decided that their offending spouse is bad to the bone.

“Betrayal is the secret that lies at the heart of every failing relationship – it is there even if the couple is unaware of it.” Dr. John Gottman

The Science of Forgiveness

One thing we don’t have is a shortage of is clinical research declaring the benefits of real forgiveness. Real forgiveness is a path to growth in a relationship.

We find that couples who can achieve and sustain a positive forgiveness experience more significant marital satisfaction, better conflict resolution, greater intimacy, and, perhaps most importantly…greater mutual empathy (McCullough et al.,1998; Fincham & Beach, 2002; Fincham, Beach & Davila, 2007; Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro & Hannon, 2002; Gordon, Baucom & Snyder, 2005; Mikulincer, Shaver, & Slav, 2006 and Worthington (2005).

Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a clinical psychologist, wrote what is perhaps the definitive evidence-based book on the subject, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation.

Hurt partners find it impossible to forgive when they have mental real estate generously taken up by one or more of the “three N’s,”; narcissism, neuroticism, and negative emotions.

Hurt partners can reach empathy for their betraying partner by humbly acknowledging their own distinct contributions to the relationship’s breakdown. Once this is achieved, they can more readily reach a state of positive forgiveness in marriage (Gurman, 2008).

The Importance of Attachment Styles

Attachment styles are critical here. Hurt partners with a secure attachment style can eventually enter a more profound dialogue with their partner. They are capable of achieving higher levels of compassion and empathy than hurt partners with a dismissive-avoidant attachment style.

These hurt partners are far less able to forgive because their internal working model requires them to maintain their fragile self-esteem by keeping their partner in the perpetual dog-house (Kachadourian, Fincham & Davila, 2004).

Hurt partners with an anxious attachment will tend to ruminate excessively. Peluso (2007) has shown that persistent rumination interferes with forgiveness in marriage. The reason why anxious attachment interferes with forgiveness in marriage is because the degree of separation anxiety in these hurt partners can be profound, as is their inner struggle with bouts of rumination.

The separation anxiety thwarts the processing and resolution of anger, resulting in a seemingly perpetual state of fear. I’m not saying that these hurt partners with anxious attachment aren’t capable of forgiveness in marriage.

What I am saying is that for hurt partners with anxious attachment, whatever degree of forgiveness in their marriage that they can attain is often fraught with ambivalence, insecurity, and anxiety (Gillath, Mikulincer, Birnbaum, & Shaver, 2008).

Forgiveness in Marriage…the Boon in the Betrayal

I like to look at forgiveness as a tool for deeper intimacy. Any discovered or disclosed betrayal results in an emotional uncoupling. At the nadir of the betrayal, neither spouse feels seen, heard, or understood by their partner. They emotionally uncouple. And they each suffer in their separation.

But if and when the desire to forgive emerges from the fog of violated expectations, it can offer a chance for deeper and more profound intimacy. Forgiveness is a mutual process. The offending partner rebuilds trust with transparency and shares the pain of the broken trust with their hurt partner.

At the risk of sounding overly simplistic, the hurt partner tells the offending partner what they need to rebuild trust…and the offending partner gives it to them.

These are twin-tasks for reconnection.

Positive forgiveness in marriage can lead to eventually becoming “stronger in the broken places.” But how do we approach the notion of forgiveness in marriage with hurting couples in science-based couples therapy?

Researchers Feeney and Monin (2008) describe the 5 tasks required to experience positive forgiveness and heal from the attachment injury of betrayal.

The 5 Essential Tasks of Positive Forgiveness in Marriage

  • Self-Regulation. The hurt partner must not only be able to self-regulate, but they must also desire to do so. Intense emotions can be managed, and the management of emotions must be privileged along with developing understanding and empathy for the offending partner.forgiveness in marriage
  • Understand Your Offending Partner. Understanding your offending partner does not absolve them of responsibility. But if you’re going to ask “how could you do this to me?” sincerely, you have to stick around in a self-regulated state to fully hear the answer. Your partner may have a point of view that may be profoundly different from your own. Resolving your feelings with the facts of the situation may be a painful and challenging process. The goal is to acknowledge the different wants and needs that you both have. Some of these wants and needs may have been ignored or marginalized for years.
  • Fearless and Relentless Self-Examination. How did the two of you drift apart? What specific patterns of interaction set you up for this betrayal? Was there a trigger, or series of triggers, that brought out the worst in your partner? Did you have some role in the unraveling of your intimate bond? Taking responsibility for your contribution does not lessen the burden of responsibility for the offending partner. But it can lead to a deeper and richer unpacking of the question “what happened to us?”
  • Check for Ghosts in the Room. Are there stories of people from your past that are shaping how you see this betrayal? Who are the people from your past who are silently whispering to you? What are the perceptions, expectations, beliefs, and values that are quietly shaping your suffering and anguish over this issue?
  • What Do You Both Want Instead? Hurt partners who can enter positive forgiveness use the betrayal as a springboard to deeper intimacy. That means emotional space must be created to allow something new to be born. How can this crisis not go to waste? Can your suffering have meaning?

Forgiveness in Marriage Means that You Care to Repair

Superficial, negative forgiveness will keep the offending partner in a perpetual “one-down” position. It may take a while, but eventually, they will wriggle free, and your marriage will most likely end.

Authentic, positive forgiveness involves the two of you sharing a narrative of connection, disconnection, and re-connection.

You have to dare to care… to repair. It takes courage and vulnerability. But perhaps the most significant difficulty is for the hurt partner to become curious about what happened in a less self-focused, and a more balanced and more empathetic view of the offending partner.

The result of positive forgiveness is the realization of four new skill sets;

Forgiveness in Marriage Means Achieving a Balance and Repairing Quickly

Spouses with a secure attachment will have the most comfortable experience in couples therapy, finding and maintaining this balance. They will also have an easier time with periods of conflict and discord and will be more readily able to make repair attempts when needed.

Partners who demonstrate a pattern of anxious attachment will privilege harmony and connection over all things.

Because they can’t easily tolerate periods of conflict, they will tend to protest more often than repair, exhausting themselves and their partner.

Perhaps most challenging of all is spouses who tend toward an avoidant attachment style. Research tells us that men are often socialized with this style of attachment. It is mostly the reverse of the anxious attachment style.

While the anxious attachment style pursues harmony, often over understanding, the avoidant attachment style leans toward distancing behavior. They not only tolerate moments of disconnection, they often seek to create them as a way of calming themselves down.

The “guy code” encourages men to be uncomfortable expressing attachment needs, and sees these needs as a source of weakness. They also are uncomfortable when their partners communicate those needs as well.

Attachment styles are the roadmap to forgiveness in marriage, and attachment science continues to inform the best practices and interventions used in science-based couples therapy.

The good news is that attachment styles are malleable. They only feel like they are written in concrete.

Couples that can enter positive forgiveness “grow themselves up” in the process.

Achieving Forgiveness in Marriage

forgiveness in marriageCouples that attain forgiveness in marriage see when they are out of step with one another. They can tolerate the reality of desiring different things and can work together to restore a healthy balance.

They finally come to realize that conflict is an unavoidable part of intimacy. It’s not perceived as a threat but as an opportunity to understand one’s partner at a deeper level.

Positive forgiveness is a source of intimacy and relational strength. But it’s a stubborn and pervasive cultural belief that if you forgive your spouse, you’re somehow condoning their behavior.

Forgiveness in marriage is a significant indication that you are still capable of goodwill toward your partner. Research indicates that forgiving your spouse is an essential pathway to personal growth and healing (Worthington, 2005).

Forgiveness is a dynamic process. It means bestowing a future free of anger and resentment on yourself, your spouse, and perhaps most importantly, your children, who may be a captive audience to your bitterness and resentment.

Do You Want to Achieve Forgiveness in Marriage?



As you can see, researchers are keenly interested in forgiveness.

Feeney, B. C., & Monin, J. K. (2008). An attachment-theoretical perspective on divorce. In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications (p. 934–957). The Guilford Press.

Fincham FD, Hall J, Beach SRH. Forgiveness in marriage: Current status and future directions. Family Relations. 2006;55:415–427. []

Fincham, F. D., Stanley, S., & Beach, S. R. H. (2007). Transformative processes in marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 69, 275–292.

Finkel, E. J., Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., & Hannon, P. A. (2002). Dealing with betrayal in close relationships: Does commitment promote forgiveness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 956–974. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.82.6.956

Gordon, K. C., Baucom, D. H., & Snyder, D. K. (2000). The use of forgiveness in marital therapy. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (p. 203–227). Guilford Press.

Gottman JM, Krokoff LJ. Marital interaction and satisfaction: A longitudinal view. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. 1989;57:47–52. [PubMed[]

Gottman JM, Levenson RW. Rebound from marital conflict and divorce prediction. Family Process. 1999;38:287–292. [PubMed[]

Kachadourian, L.K., Fincham, F., & Davila, J. ( 2004). The tendency to forgive in dating and married couples: The role of attachment and relationship satisfaction. Personal Relationships, 11, 373393.
Google Scholar | Crossref | IS

McCullough, M. E., Rachal, K. C., Sandage, S. J., Worthington, E. L., Jr., Brown, S. W., & Hight, T. L. (1998). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships: II. Theoretical elaboration and measurement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(6), 1586–1603.

Mikulincer, M., Shaver, P. R., & Slav, K. (2006). Attachment, Mental Representations of Others, and Gratitude and Forgiveness in Romantic Relationships. In M. Mikulincer & G. S. Goodman (Eds.), Dynamics of romantic love: Attachment, caregiving, and sex (p. 190–215). The Guilford Press.

E.L.Worthington, M Scherer., Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilience: Theory, review, and hypotheses Psychology & Health 19 (3), 385-405

Worthington, E. L., Jr. (Ed.). (2005). Handbook of forgiveness. New York: Brunner-Routledge. Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Worthington, E. L., Jr., & Wade, N. G. (1999). The psychology of unforgiveness and forgiveness and implications for clinical practice. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 18, 385–418.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}