When Mercy is Hard to Do

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Our last column (Bringing Mercy to Marriage) generated some interesting comments from readers on our blog so we thought we’d expand on the topic – what it is, what it isn’t and how to be merciful when your spouse is seriously flawed.

All of us are prone to selfishness. The task of Christian maturity requires us to confront and tame our selfish tendencies in order for us to be free to truly love unconditionally. We maintain that without a willingness to forgive, to bring mercy into any marriage, then there is simply no future for it. As our colleague Christopher West noted:

“The number one ingredient of a successful marriage is mercy – large doses of it! Two broken people trying to love one another until death is a recipe for disaster without mercy.”

Every-day offences and deficits in our character make it necessary for every couple to practice mercy as a regular, even daily habit. When we fail to do this, minor upsets accumulate into, overwhelming piles of resentment and shame that seem to be insurmountable.

A number of readers raised the challenges of marital mercy; for example, how being merciful may enable the manipulative and selfish behaviour of a ‘narcissistic spouse’ and so further damage the mental health of the merciful spouse. There are a couple of important points to keep in mind in situations like this.

Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation

The process of mercy for a couple necessarily involves forgiveness. Personally, and professionally, we’ve witnessed how transformative forgiveness can be for the forgiving partner – it opens the door to healing and resolves inner turmoil with near instantaneous effect.

But forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation. Reconciliation requires a restoration of relationship and sometimes this is not wise or even possible. It may be that the offending person is dead, incapacitated or emotionally too immature to accept their fault and participate in the relationship as a peer.

Some time ago our friend was reeling yet again from a vicious verbal attack on her husband by her sister. It was all a misunderstanding on the sister’s part, but she was adamant that she wanted nothing to do with him ever again.

Both our friend and her husband were angry about the sister’s behaviour but also longing to patch things up. If it had been the first time, they could be reasonably encouraged to do this. But this was an entrenched pattern and it was clear that the sister was sufficiently emotionally immature to be essentially incapable of confronting her own weakness and truly dreadful behaviour.

Instead, they chose to forgive, but not to trust nor expect reciprocal affection. They maturely accepted that a genuine peer relationship was simply not possible. While hard to do, they were able to be merciful without subjecting themselves to ongoing harm.

Yes, it did take a little time to process this but once they did, it freed them to leave the door open for the sister to re-engage with them if she chose, without them standing at the door waiting for her to show up. They were able to get on with life without feeling bitter. Although they still felt sad for their sister, whose impulsive and snarky behaviour continued to rob her of peace, their own peace was intact.

It also gave them a kind of immunisation against the sister’s attacks. They could be loving and gracious towards her, but as they no longer expected her to be loving and generous towards them, they were less vulnerable to being wounded.

In other words, their love for their sister was entirely benevolent. They held hope for a deeper relationship but had no expectations. It was a unilateral love – freely given, generous, gratuitous, much like the love a (well adjusted) parent might have for a child.

Benevolent Love

This kind of benevolent love is not the ideal for marriage. In marriage, we are called to intimate, reciprocal love. A love that both gives and receives from the other. A love that willingly and joyfully seeks to meet the emotional, sexual and intellectual needs of the other.

Sometimes, however, intimate love like this is not possible for a couple. Perhaps illness or stress makes it unrealistic at this time or perhaps a more permanent psychological or emotional condition renders them unlikely to ever be able to maturely meet their spouse’s legitimate needs.

Every married person will wrestle with the frustration of a spouse who fails to meet their expectations at some stage in their marriage. Many times it’s simply due to our differences as men and women and we need to examine whether our expectations of the other are realistic, reasonable and appropriate (more on this at another time!)

Yet sometimes it may be due to a critical flaw in the other’s character or psychological capacity. In the case of someone with a genuine Narcissistic Personality Disorder this is likely a permanent limitation. This is also true of any number of other psychological, mental and intellectual disabilities.

The challenge for spouses in these situations is to reach deep into their interior reserves to bring benevolent love to their marriage. To love the other without expectation that their spouse will meet their needs for intimacy and peer friendship, and perhaps a number of other needs as well.

Does this mean that couples should never separate? That battered spouses should put up with ongoing abuse? Absolutely not! In some cases, a spouse must separate and put in place appropriate safeguards to limit the abusing spouse. But that doesn’t release them from the obligation of benevolent love. Benevolent love demands that, together or separated, we always seek our spouse’s good.

Mercy makes us stronger

It’s important to remember that it is not our mercy that makes us vulnerable to being hurt by our spouse, it is our (often inappropriate) expectations of them. When we love with a benevolent love, we can be generous without putting our interior well-being at risk. We can love without conditions.

Is this hard? Oh yes! But it is necessary and indeed possible when we focus on deepening our faith.

Whether its mercy or unconditional love, you can’t give what you haven’t received. Pope Francis notes that showing mercy to others “assumes that we ourselves have had the experience of being forgiven by God, justified by his grace and not by our own merits… [that we] have known a love that is prior to any of our own efforts, a love that constantly opens doors, promotes and encourages. If we accept that God’s love is unconditional, …then we will become capable of showing boundless love [to others]” (Joy of Love 108).”

The way of mercy is not only the way of holiness, it is also the way of ‘wholeness’. Forgive, not because your spouse deserves it, forgive them because it makes you free: free to love, free to be in relationship with a limited person without being chewed up in the process.

Francine & Byron Pirola

Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children. Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links. For Media Enquiries Please Contact us here

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  1. Mel on May 23, 2023 at 2:46 am

    Contrary to the belief that forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation, these two concepts are intrinsically linked and share a deep interconnection. Forgiveness serves as a crucial stepping stone towards reconciliation, acting as a catalyst for repairing damaged relationships. When one forgives, they release their resentment and negative emotions, creating a fertile ground for reconciliation to take root.

    Forgiveness opens the door to communication and understanding, allowing individuals to engage in honest dialogue and address the underlying issues that caused the rift. It provides an opportunity for the wrongdoer to acknowledge their actions, express remorse, and seek redemption. By embracing forgiveness, both parties can embark on a journey of healing and transformation, mending the broken bonds and restoring trust.

    Reconciliation, in turn, reinforces forgiveness by solidifying the renewed connection between individuals. It goes beyond the mere act of forgiving and encompasses the active rebuilding of relationships, often involving compromise, empathy, and compromise from both parties. Through reconciliation, individuals can work together to create a stronger, more resilient bond, shaped by understanding, growth, and shared experiences.

    I’d like to talk more about this in private, if you’re willing.

    • Francine & Byron Pirola on May 23, 2023 at 10:23 am

      Agreed Mel! We’ve written elsewhere about reconciliation and how forgiveness is essential to that process but we’re happy to correspond privately. I’ll reach out by email. Thanks for posting.

  2. Conchita on May 10, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    Ok thanks, but often we see around that the difficulty in the couple does not necessarily come from one person in the couple loving a person who is psychologically hurt, but. It very often comes from the difficulty of loving someone who hurts in an abusive manner not because of a diagnosed mental illness (whatever that means in any case…) but because of his or her expectations and his or her ability to confront them, to the point that there is psychological danger on the person receiving the ill treatment. I am sure you have seen this.
    It seems to me that you could think further on what you say is the need for some to separate. Is there not another way forward you have wirnessed in your experience with couples and in your dealings with psychologists? Like someone listening to the abused party and give plenty of support?
    Thin line that needs attention.

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