I have a terrible memory. Recently I was talking with an old college friend, and we were laughing about memories we shared as roommates. In the middle of telling a story, she said “Wait, I can’t remember if this happened to me or you. Whose story is this?” We both looked at each other with blank faces realizing we couldn’t remember the major details! It doesn’t stop there; I’m bad at remembering birthdays of my closest friends, that secret ingredient to that delicious recipe, or even emails I’m supposed to respond to! However, when it comes to anything negative my husband has said to me, I remember every single word. Every word.
After a long day, my husband made a comment to me criticizing a decision I made, and his words were hurtful. Like an elephant that never forgets, I opened up that little lock box in my memory and shoved that one in as fast as I could. I was stunned by what he said, and I wasn’t going to forget it. Quickly, the event turned into a “frustrated filter” through which I began to view everything.
In the days following that conversation, I starting hearing everything my husband said differently. When he complimented me about how hard I was working, his words went through my “frustrated filter” so that all I heard was criticism. When he picked up my dishes or ran an errand, I translated his actions through my “frustrated filter” and thought he must not think I can handle all I have going. After a few weeks of this, you can guess that I was pretty distant from my husband. Each time he tried to grow closer to me, I felt myself building a wall to protect myself from anything hurtful he would say. When he kissed me goodbye one morning, I actually stuck my tongue out at him after he turned around. My bitterness was turning me into a moody teenager!
This all came crashing down when my husband sat me down one night and said, “I feel like I can’t do anything right and that you don’t want to be around me. What can I do to serve you and love you better?” Ouch. Pretty humbling, isn’t it? The only thing I could squeak out of my mouth was, “I’m really bitter toward you.” It was embarrassing to admit out loud, but I shared with him the comment he made to me so many weeks ago, and how I had convinced myself that nothing he was doing was genuine. My bitterness turned me from his biggest cheerleader to a major skeptic.
For some reason, I liked holding onto my anger toward my husband. I felt like I was teaching him a lesson, and maybe staying mad at him would “guilt” him into using nicer words toward me in the future. However, I learned that staying bitter didn’t draw us closer or turn him into a “better” version, but instead it pulled us further apart, built a wall between us, and turned me into a very ungrateful wife.
Actually learning to let go of that bitterness wasn’t easy. Here are a few things I did to help me let it go.
1. Say It Out Loud and Write It Down
Sometimes I literally look in the mirror and say out loud the thoughts that are in my head—then I realize how irrational they are. “I’m ignoring my husband because two nights ago he made a comment about that decision I made,” or “I didn’t even stand up to hug Caleb because I’m trying to teach him a lesson.” I also love journaling, and when I write the story out on paper, it again reminds me that the situation isn’t as bad as I’m making it. When left inside my head, the thoughts build on each other. Like a football team getting ready to go up against their biggest rival, I pump up my emotions and thoughts and let them grow bigger and stronger. I say things to myself like, “He deserves this, Hannah! Show him how mad you are!” The second I step out of my situation and hear myself say my thoughts out loud or read my words in my journal, the bitterness somehow loses its power.
2. Tell Him It Hurt You
Can you believe my husband had no idea he had hurt me? Really, no idea. I was walking around carrying this bitterness trying to teach Caleb a lesson, but he thought I was just in a bad mood for no reason!
When you feel overwhelmed with bitterness, does the other person even know he or she was involved in the way you feel? I was recently reading Matthew 18 about conflict in the church and was reminded of such a simple concept that is important in my relationships, and specifically in my marriage. Verse 15 says, “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses, you have won that person back.” I can think of times when I have expressed my hurt to my husband, and I could see how sad it made him. When my husband understands the pain and truly expresses how sorry he is, my bitterness melts away.
Not ready to have that conversation yet? I always love starting with telling God how hurt I feel. I admit my pain, express my anger, and ask God to give me eyes of love and understanding toward my husband. In a quiet and still place, I have been so encouraged as the Lord points me to the Psalms, shows me things about my husband that I adore and reminds me that when I sin and make ugly decisions, the Lord is never bitter with me.
3. Ask for Help
Sometimes the first two ideas aren’t beneficial because the pain is deep and has built over many offenses. Maybe your husband knows he hurt you but isn’t sorry, and the feelings of resentment and bitterness are too strong to fix with just a cute journal entry. This is where sitting down with a pastor or scheduling time with a counselor can be a great first step. I have a friend walking through this now as her bitterness toward her husband has grown over ten years and has overtaken all of her thoughts and emotions toward her spouse. “I hate going to counseling, and I love it at the same time,” she told me. “My counselor is helping me change the way I see my spouse. I was too far gone to do that alone.”
Recently I had to do an exercise where I wrote down words that I want people to use as they describe me. I wrote down words like joyful, encouraging, passionate, and warm. As I look over that list of words, I don’t think anyone would want words like bitter or angery to define them, yet bitterness creeps in without us even realizing it. Thankfully God (and my husband) confronted me in my bitterness before I did too much damage to my marriage. How about you? Are you willing to call your irritation and that cold shoulder what it really is?