The 3 Relationship-Building Words That Are Even More Powerful Than ‘I Love You’

Marriage has taught me that I need to say (and hear) these words every single day.
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Marriage has taught me that I need to say (and hear) these words every single day.

What’s the key to a solid, successful marriage? Most young couples will say love; other folks might tell you it’s compromise. But in my five years of marriage, my husband and I have found that both of these things, love and compromise, flow from something even more powerful. Three words: "I forgive you."

My husband, Brian, and I first came discover the power of forgiveness during our first year of marriage as we saw how it opened the door to greater level of intimacy and trust.

While the first year was one of the easiest for us (so far), it was not without it’s hard moments. I would find myself at odds with my husband over my desire to host people in our home and his feeling of anxiety about how little time and money we had to do so. I often responded with hurt feelings and anger when Brian didn’t answer his phone even after I mentioned it was important to me or when he balked at some crazy, last minute plan I made without telling him. Eventually, after some soul searching and more than a few painfully honest conversations, we grew to understand that forgiveness, like love, has to be a daily thing—and that it takes a lot of practice.

Brian and I have spent the past five years learning to listen and apologize, even when it’s hard. It’s become a practice so common that it’s hard to remember a time in our relationship when forgiveness wasn’t a natural instinct. But it didn't happen overnight. Here's how we make it work.

Open Communication

Older couples used to always tell us that solid communication makes a good marriage great, so before we even walked down the aisle, Brian and I resolved to be open in our conversations with one another. Not that we wanted to be Lily and Marshall Eriksen from How I Met Your Mother, but anytime we knew something wasn’t being said, we made a point to ask, listen, and even push one another when it came to being honest.

For us, it wasn't so much a literal, "Please forgive me," but more of a willingness to ask "Why are we fighting about this?" and then listen to the other person explain why these particular issues were a challenge for us. It was, on many levels, an internal process that came about over the course of many inentional conversations about the things that matters most to us. This even included a conversation about our love languages. While Brian and I share the same ones, that doesn't mean we spoke them fluently when were first married.

Being straight about real and perceived slights allowed us to bring bigger issues to pass as well. This open communication allowed for forgiveness early and often, which paved the way to a deeper connection we wouldn’t have had otherwise. You see, Brian and I discovered that forgiveness was not something that should happen every once in a while, but rather everyday, whether it is asked for by your spouse or not.

Repeat Practice

When couples get married, they are often told about the importance of patience and unconditional love. We usually forget the part about asking for and granting forgiveness . . . every day . . . out loud.

Apologizing and accepting apologies is a vital two-way street that can make or break a marriage. My close friend Kerry and his wife of twenty-five years say: “Being quick to forgive is key. Most offenses committed in a marriage are not malicious, just ignorant or inconsiderate. See yourself as working together to resolve the incident, not trying to determine who is at fault and who should be blamed.”

It’s so easy to hold onto the little slights that slowly build walls between you and your spouse. Sure, you really were right about that sofa taking up too much space in the living room or the way you had the budget put together before your spouse jumped in and screwed it up. You were absolutely justified in screaming at him about his spending habits the same way he was justified in yelling at you for donating his shot glass collection without telling him. But the point is, we all have moments in our relationships where forgiveness is necessary, not only to stop the fighting, but also to heal the relationship.

Moving Forward

Zach Brittle illustrates the need for healing and reconciliation perfectly in recalling a fight with his wife and the words they used to help facilitate that healing. “It was just one of those days," Brittle says. "But those days can add up and start to feel overwhelming, so we decided to take it seriously, and we learned a new skill—or at least a new phrase: ‘I love you, and I like you.’ Give it a try. Don’t assume your partner knows. Say it a lot. It might not be as obvious, but it sure helps.”

Author Marianne Williamson explains in one of her popular lectures that forgiveness is hard, but without it, there is no room for the relationship to move forward. “Forgiveness is not always easy. At times, it feels more painful than the wound we suffered, to forgive the one that inflicted it. And yet, there is no peace without forgiveness.”

In my relationship with Brian, forgiveness and understanding not only deepend our marriage, but our friendship as well. Now rather than storming out of the room when a conversation gets tough, I've learned to stay and really hear what's being said. Brian is calmer and more methodical is his approach to things on which we disagree. It's taught us to be aware of one another's triggers and respect them, rather than pushing each other's buttons. Learning how to forgive has taught us how to work together as a team, sharing the stressors rather than pushing them off.

Some warn that love isn't enough to sustain a good relationship—and they're right. The three most powerful words in the English language are not “I love you” but rather “I forgive you.” They are the three words with the greatest ability to heal. The dictionary definition of forgiveness is “to give up resentment or claim of reprisal,” but in marriage, it’s much more than that. As Kerry explained to me “Recognize that pride stems from perceiving things as either right or wrong. Humble yourself and admit to your spouse the hurt received or given so that love and forgiveness can prevail.” Yes, love, compromise, and honesty are important to marriage, but without forgiveness, none of these are possible.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller