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Following on from the two articles in the May edition of the Hallam News, Charles and Jane Perryman, who lead the Marriage Preparation Course in the Diocese, present another thought provoking article on the reality of living out a committed married life.

When “I’m sorry” is not enough!

The 2010 film “Blue Valentine” tells the story of the disintegration of the marriage of Cindy and Dean.  Dean is a young high school dropout, working for a New York City moving company.  Cindy is a pre-med student living with her unhappy parents and caring for her grandmother in Pennsylvania.  Cindy and Dean meet at Cindy’s grandmother’s nursing home while Dean is delivering a new resident’s furniture.  They rush into marriage after discovering that Cindy is pregnant, although Dean is not the father.

Five years later they are living in rural Pennsylvania when the marriage finally comes to an end, when after another big fight Dean walks out on Cindy.

Throughout the film the background music consists of a popular 1940’s song which contains the lines; “you always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all”.  Here are Dean and Cindy desperately trying to love one another but constantly ending up wounding each other deeply.  Their tragedy is not so much that they hurt each other but it lies in the fact that they are never able to heal the hurts.

All of us who are married know that the words of the song ring true.  In spite of the fact that we love our partners very much, yet from time to time we do indeed hurt one another.  How on earth does this happen?  And, more importantly, what should we do about it when we have caused pain?

Thanks be to God, that it is rare that couples who are trying hard to love one another deliberately set out to hurt the other.  Mostly it is through forgetfulness or carelessness, or not thinking before speaking.

Such as when Jim came home and was casually explaining that he had agreed to work the following Saturday in order to get a major project out on time when Jennifer exploded, “But you knew that we are meant to be seeing Pete and Sue on Saturday”.  Jim was mortified!  How could he have forgotten that they were due at Pete and Sue’s for a lunchtime barbeque?

In many of his homilies and addresses about marriage, Pope Francis has stressed the importance of saying “I’m sorry” as an essential element in sustaining marriage and family life.  We think that “I’m sorry” is fine for the minor everyday misunderstandings which ordinarily occur between couples.  There are situations when “I’m sorry” is not enough.

When we say “I’m sorry” in effect we are fixing our own feelings.  Sometimes we feel a bit foolish and we want to make it OK for ourselves.  For the minor incidents that will usually be perfectly acceptable to our spouse.  We have acknowledged that we have got it   wrong and the damage is put right.  Sometimes matters are more serious as in Jim and Jennifer’s case.

What should Jim do now?  It wasn’t that he meant to hurt Jennifer; it was just at the moment that he was discussing how to get the project out, that was where his whole mind was focused.  Now Jennifer would have to go alone and he would come when he could get away.  And Jennifer was really upset.  Just to say that he was sorry would not do.  He has a choice to make.  He could provide all the real, logical reasons why he had forgotten but they would not deal with the pain that had been caused.  Rather than trying to defend his position Jim needs to accept that he has caused really serious hurt for Jennifer and to seek her forgiveness.

So he says, “Jen I am really sorry that I didn’t think about what we had planned for Saturday and I know that this has really upset you and it is all my fault.  I have messed the day up for you and us and for Pete and Sue.  I know I don’t deserve it but will you forgive me?”

Now Jennifer has a choice to make.  Jim has put himself into her hands.  She knows the pressure Jim has been under over the project but, nevertheless, the hurt is still raw for her.  What should help Jennifer is that Jim has not sought to hide things or to defend.  She should realise that Jim will be hurting too because he knows that their relationship has been damaged.  To forgive is a verb, a ”doing” word, a choice to be made maybe in spite of how we might feel.

When Jennifer can say, “Yes I will forgive you even though I am still hurting,” she is not just putting the relationship back to where it was.  She moves it onto a much stronger place.  Forgiveness builds trust.  It builds confidence that together we can grow.  Jim and Jennifer are in a sacred space.

All this forgiving is seriously scary stuff.  When we turn to God and ask for forgiveness when we are conscious of our sin, whether this is in the Sacrament of Reconciliation or privately, we can be absolutely certain that God will forgive us.  Jesus has guaranteed that.  Jim has no such guarantee.  Jennifer might say, “No I can’t forgive you now.”  If Jim and Jennifer have practiced forgiveness in the course of their lives together then Jim will be able to reflect on Jennifer’s generosity to him and of his generosity to her and draw strength from their past.

It is often said that when there has been upset we should forgive and forget.  We think that this is bad advice.  Forgiveness is a solemn promise that we will never, ever use this incident as a weapon against the offender again.  We should remember it, however, first of all so that we don’t get into that situation again and secondly as a reminder of strength of the bond between us.

Over the years that we have been working with married and engaged couples, we have come to believe that forgiveness is one of the two greatest marital virtues that couples need to practice in their lives.  Without forgiveness, hurts fester into resentment and eat away at the security that enables couples to grow.  We will be writing about the second great marital virtue next time.