Forgiving Other Generations May Be Necessary In Order to Forgive Our Partner

In his excellent piece, “The Process of Forgiveness in Marriage and the Family,” psychologist Dr. Paul W.Coleman offers an  important insight:

“Often, a spouse may have to forgive a parent or grandparent before he or she can fully forgive his or her partner.  As a rule of thumb,the longer a marriage problem has existed despite repeated efforts to resolve it, the more likely it reflects unresolved hurts from one’s childhood.  Betrayal, abuse, deceit, unreliability, neglect, and criticism are common experiences for many children, who then grow up and reexperience those hurts from their spouse.  And even in loving, nondysfunctional families, a child may experience  pain associated with low income,  the death of a loved one, or the chronic illness/disability of a family member, all of which may predispose the individual to certain hurts later on.  For example, many children must “grow up too soon” and take on added responsibilities for the family when one member is chronically ill.  Such a child my grow up to be a responsible adult who nonetheless assumes too many burdens, is a “people pleaser” or  perfectionist, and may feel easily hurt or resentful when he or she perceives others as taking advantage of him or her or being inconsiderate.”

He emphasizes the importance therapeutically of helping someone  realize when their anger at a spouse is made more intense by unresolved anger toward a parent.  This doesn’t mean that a person’s anger at his or her spouse is unjustified or illegitimate.  But the clarity is very  helpful in taking positive steps toward healing.  In my experience, this is sensitive, careful, discerning work that enables us to tend to long-standing wounds and remove obstacles to relational well-being.

In Matthew 19:1-10, when Jesus answers the Pharisees’ question about divorce by emphasizing the depth and substance of covenant, he appropriates the language of Genesis, that a person must leave their father and mother to be joined with their partner.  Dr. Coleman’s insight can lead to relevant translation of the passage.


Paul W. Coleman, “The Process of Forgiveness in Marriage and the Family,” in Enright and North.  Exploring Forgiveness. University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1998, pp. 85-86.