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When It’s Time to Say ‘I’m Sorry’ to Your Spouse

We should always be ready to forgive, but ultimate forgiveness requires repentance on the part of the offender

This excerpt on building up Catholic families is taken from Fr. Sebastian Walshe’s new book, Always a Catholicavailable now at the Catholic Answers Shop.

Many marriages face difficult times, and many families suffer from one of any number of wounds. What can be done to heal them?

The first thing that must be laid down and accepted if the wounds within a family are to be healed is the indispensable need for conversion: ongoing, permanent conversion. Unless the persons within a family are willing to admit their moral faults and to make a firm purpose of amendment, there will be no possibility of healing. In every marriage, the words “I love you” must sooner or later be followed by the words “I’m sorry.” Often these become the most important words in a marriage!

Sometimes it happens that some members of a family are willing and able to convert but others are not. In such cases, full communion cannot be restored, and the persons who are willing to convert and do penance must turn to the Lord as their source of comfort and communion. Although it is painful to live in such circumstances, no one can be truly harmed by the moral fault of another. As Plato convincingly argued, only our own moral fault causes us true harm. No evil done to you can make you a bad person; only the evil that you yourself commit can do that.

Spouses must also adopt an attitude of mercy over and above a demand for justice. From the time we are children, we must learn that the family is a place where we find mercy before justice, where each member does his duty regardless of whether others are fulfilling theirs. Small children give little or nothing but receive everything from their parents and siblings. There is no justice here! Spouses, too, must remember that their vows were not conditional. They do not promise to be faithful and to love only if the other is faithful and loves. Nor should spouses “keep score”—that is, constantly keep track of the good they have done for their spouse and demand a like return. Nothing destroys a family like the demand for strict justice.

Sometimes it is asked whether we should forgive a family member if he refuses to ask forgiveness or even fails to acknowledge that he has sinned. We should always be ready to forgive, but ultimate forgiveness itself—entering into communion once again with the offending person—is something that requires repentance on the part of the offender. In fact, typically, it would not be good for the one who has sinned to be treated as if he had not sinned, since this would result in his failing to convert, which would contribute to his moral harm.

St. Augustine teaches: “If you are ready to forgive, you have already forgiven. Hold yourself to this that you pray: pray for him that he may ask pardon from you, because you know that it is harmful to him if he does not ask, [so] pray for him that he does ask.” Sometimes, however, you can prudently judge that offering forgiveness in words or other signs to someone who has not yet acknowledged his guilt is likely to move him to contrition and repentance. In such a case it can be right to offer words and other signs of forgiveness even if the other does not ask for forgiveness.

Very often I have seen cases where two spouses are bitterly upset with one another, and each complains that the reason for bitterness is that the other does not love him enough. The most important thing for each of them is being loved by the other, and yet they hate each other—a great irony. For whatever reason, neither is capable of showing love to the other in a way that the other can experience. But the root problem is that they want to be loved more than to love, and this is the secret of misery. For healing to take place, each family member must commit to loving without expecting love in return. Being loved does not make someone a good person, but loving others does make someone a good person. Yet in order to have the strength to begin to love without expecting love in return, we need to experience being loved by God. When his love pours into our hearts, then we will have a sufficient supply to give to others. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

That being said, it typically happens three or four times over the course of a marriage that the needs of the spouses change so dramatically that they can no longer experience being loved in the same way as before. The wife who at first needed romantic attentiveness now needs someone who will listen and help her with the burdens of raising kids. The husband who at first needed physical affirmation now needs emotional affirmation, and so on. So it is not enough to resolve to love your spouse. You must love your spouse in a way that he can experience being loved by you. Loving someone in a way he can’t experience is just as useless as not loving him at all.

Another step that can be taken to heal corruptions in family life is to draw close to a flourishing Christian family. Just as damaged cells in a body are healed through contact with healthy cells, so also are damaged families healed by contact with healthy families. This is perhaps the most effective way to overcome corruptions in family communion. For example, in a family where no father is present, the children who are missing their father can see the healthy interaction of a father with his children in a flourishing family. This at once enkindles in the children a desire for a healthy relationship with a father and convinces them of the goodness of having such a healthy relationship. Often, in such cases, the father or mother in a healthy family takes on the role of spiritual father or mother for those who lack healthy relationships with their parents. Many a soul has learned how to live a fruitful and faith-filled family life through friendship with a flourishing Christian family.

Another effective way of healing a defective family is by contact with a healthy religious community. Such an affiliation can greatly supplement the assistance that comes from friendship with a healthy family, since it strengthens the focus on living a truly supernatural life. Spending time together with a religious community at its public hours of prayer, attending conferences by knowledgeable priests and religious, and introducing similar practices into one’s home (such as praying the Divine Office together) are great sources of strength and spiritual healing. In some cases, it can be beneficial to seek spiritual guidance on a regular basis from a prudent priest or religious.

All of these practices re-orient the soul toward the things of heaven, and allow you to see your trials and troubles from the trusting perspective of God’s providence. In short, we can say that communion begets communion. Those who come into contact with the goodness and beauty of true communion are drawn into that goodness and enabled to share in it themselves.

Finally, in order to heal corruptions within the family, it is essential to practice devotion to the Holy Family, as well as to each of its individual members. Devotion to the Sacred Heart in all of its approved forms will be a great consolation and an assurance of divine love for those who suffer from rejection within their own families. Especially to be recommended is devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary through the common recitation of the rosary. May the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which was so loved by Jesus and St. Joseph, be a source of unity and healing in all families who are in need of a mother’s tender care and love.

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