Today, I will be talking about How to Let Go of the Bitterness in Your Marriage. Think of it as a purge of those accumulated resentments you’ve been holding on to.
I’ll tell you what brought this topic to my mind this week. We are moving to a new home we just built. You know how it is after years and years, you accumulate so much stuff, and you don’t even realize it. It just sits taking up space and is of no value to you on the daily. You don’t need it and getting rid of it lightens your load, right? Well, that got me pondering the junk we accumulate in the marriage-the resentments that lead us to bitterness. It is like a bunch of useless junk that has to be moved from place to place when it could really be gotten rid of.
All bitterness starts as hurt. There is a sense of injustice or feelings of being treated with malicious intent even when the intent may not be malicious. Sometimes people act in thoughtless ways. The pain can turn cause frustration. Frustration can turn into resentment, and holding on to that resentment results in bitterness.
Bitterness comes when you hold onto hurt and refuse to forgive the person who hurt you. Most of the time, this comes from ongoing actions or one big event, and it builds up over time. Each offense takes residence in the heart, and at some point, there is no more room left. That’s when bitterness is manifested and causes the most damage.
And you know what holding on to bitterness does? It causes us to hold it over our spouse and behave badly, either covertly or overtly. Covertly, we may put distance emotionally or physically between us. We may choose the silent treatment and decide to live a separate life.
Overtly, we may use biting remarks, dirty looks, and sarcasm. We might do things we know irritate them. We justify our bad behavior based on what has been done to us. A tit for tat, so to speak. Ultimately you live in a place of contempt for your spouse.
Bitterness doesn’t just damage the marriage. It harms the bitter person. Holding onto it can cause you to view your marriage with cynicism. It can cause you to feel angry all the time-intolerant-short tempered, not just with your spouse but those around you as well. It is corrosive. Have you ever enjoyed being around someone bitter? Not a fun person to engage with, right?
My experience with bitterness
My husband and I had accumulated a lot of bitterness, and it came to a head in our midlife years-kind of like how we are now uncovering all the junk we’ve accumulated over our lifetime together. Our perceptions of injustices were dealt with irritating behavior, the silent treatment, or going our separate ways ignoring each other. When it all came to a head, it was time to get down to the root of it.
Let me tell you one of mine and how it played out in my marriage. When my daughter was a toddler, she got the stomach virus and was throwing up all night. Halfway through the night, I, too, began throwing up. I would take care of her, then take care of myself. It was grueling. Now in the morning, my husband knew how our night had gone, but he got ready for work and left us all alone. First, I felt pain, then anger, resentment, and because I never sat down and shared my pain and what was behind, it only reacted in my emotion. I held on to that resentment until my daughter was an adult. Whether true or false, my perception was that my husband didn’t care about us as much as work.
That was the message I played in my head for years based on that one incident. Even when I had evidence to the contrary, that message was so engrained because of my bitterness. I couldn’t let it go. So, I held that in my heart and let it put a wedge in our relationship. Seem extreme? I think so, but that is how bitterness becomes a corrosive thread.
When I told my husband about the bitterness, I held about that incident and heard his perspective. It changed things for me. My husband shared that he didn’t know anything to do for us. He didn’t understand how sick I was. He thought it was essential to be at the appointment to make the sale and provide for our family. He apologized. You know, it was then that I could see my part in the situation. I never said I’m so sick. I don’t think I can take care of Rachel and myself without help today. Can you cancel your appointment? I had a part in the situation too.
Had we known the skills I know now, the bitterness would not have taken hold, but we didn’t, so we had to start where we were, 20 years into the marriage.
My husband had bitterness about my relationship with my mom. I was terrible about turning to my mom for everything instead of giving my husband a chance to be my #1. I put her needs before his all the time. I had a very codependent relationship with my mom that also put a wedge in my marriage. So, you see, I had also caused pain to my husband, which resulted in bitterness because we never openly shared our pain.
If you and your husband hold bitterness, it is usually the result of two things. There has not been a concerted effort to deal with the issues, or you have dealt with them, and things haven’t changed, so the bitterness grows.
So here’s what I suggest:
First, for issues either of you is holding on to, you need to communicate about them and do so now. Purge the junk you’ve accumulated in your marriage and start fresh. Share the incident from your perspective. When this happened, I felt this way. Do so with respect and kindness, not from a place of anger. Allow your spouse to share their perspective on the situation and accept their reality even if it is different from yours. Each person has their own view of events, and they are their reality whether you like it or not. You have to accept the reality of your spouse whether it makes sense to you or not.
Ask your spouse if there are issues they are holding on to that they would like to share. Be open and curious. You may already know some of them, yet you guys haven’t had the conversation.
Now, if they become defensive when you share your feelings, don’t be put off. And try not to be defensive as well. Defensiveness can be the first response, but often I find that we have a better understanding of how we have affected another person with time to process. It just takes time.
Choose Forgiveness No Matter What
Second, decide that once you share your feelings, no matter your partner’s response, choose forgiveness. I know you might be thinking, how can I forgive them when they can’t even acknowledge my feelings and apologize or even change? I get it! It’s frustrating when you do talk about your feelings, and nothing changes. The reality is it happens, but you can’t control that. You have to forgive for yourself and accept those things you cannot change, or you do damage to yourself.
Forgiveness is about setting yourself free, not the other person. A recent study from Concordia University has found constant bitterness can make a person ill. Researchers say that holding on to bitterness can affect metabolism, immune response, or organ function and lead to physical disease. Psychologists have observed that personality traits such as anger, hostility, or optimism are linked to longevity and physical illness and can impact the development and course of cardiovascular disease. Our bodies keep the score, ladies. Why hold on to something you have no control over? Step out of the storm and get yourself to a place of safety, and that place is forgiveness.
Prevent future bitterness
Third, to prevent future events from causing bitterness, talk about them as they arise and don’t hold on to them. The longer you sit in the resentment, bitterness will ensue. Take each issue as it comes.
You know, in marriage, we will be hurt, disappointed, annoyed, and even betrayed in one way or another. We are all imperfect beings. You cannot live with anyone for any extended period of time without this happening.
It’s time to take action to rid yourself of bitterness—open lines of communication. Share and listen, then choose to let go no matter the outcome.
Mahatma Gandhi says it best: The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.