If you don't know how to do this, your marriage will suffer. Trust me.
Three years ago, I sent an e-mail to my husband Jack with a subject line that read: Are You Ike Turner Or Am I A Crazy Bitch? This wasn't an irreverent joke e-mail (we share a strange sense of humor) or one of those personality chain quizzes either.
The message inside was in response to a fight we'd had the night before — a fight so volcanic and ugly that, as I sat there typing at my desk, I felt as if I was going to throw up. It was the kind of fight that kills marriages.
The clash had been about our 18-month-old son and it lasted all of five minutes. But the next morning, I felt as though we were still raging at each other, still entrenched in battle. My husband's angry words and gestures boomed in my mind. He swore at me, and at one point he gave me the finger.
These were things he had never said or done before in our six-year relationship. At the time, we'd been married for three years. Seeing this side of him made me sick, uneasy and made me think, "Oh crap. I married a monster." (Hence, my Ike Turner reference.)
At the end of our screaming match, I told him that I hated him. And at that moment, I truly did.
Jack responded to my e-mail immediately. He said:
Agreed. Don't hate me. We have a very strong marriage because it is not only built on love, but also on mutual admiration (I hope). See you this evening.
Love? Admiration? Really?
That evening, Jack and I sat down in the living room to talk — me hugging my knees on the floor, him tense on a nearby chair. Through choking sobs, I explained how he had stunned and frightened me. His behavior kicked up memories of an abusive relationship that I had been in 10 years earlier during my mid-20s. My ex-boyfriend had been verbally and emotionally abusive, and ever since the collapse of that relationship, I was extremely sensitive to any kind of cruelness or contempt.
At the end of my crying jag, I looked at him for a response, some magical mix of words that would be a salve for my injury, making it all better.
He shook his head apologetically. "I'm sorry," he said.
That's it? I thought. Honestly, I expected him to get down on his knees and beg for forgiveness.
"OK," I said in a steely voice. "But it's not like I can just forget what happened. It's going to take time for me to move past it and get in a better place."
This happened three years ago, so there was plenty of time to heal and move on, right? Well, here's the thing: I haven't. A part of me is still pink and raw and wounded. For me, that blistering fight opened a chasm in my marriage, and ever since then I see my husband differently.
He doesn't feel like my best friend anymore. After all the time that's passed, I'm still harboring resentment. I'm still angry. Why can't I let it go? Why is it so hard for me to forgive him?
The easy answer would be that my husband is a total jerk, that when you boil him down to his essence, he's just a black lump of meanness. But that's not the case. When I married Jack, I married a wonderful guy. He was my most trusted ally, the one man who "got me" and loved me fully. I felt comfortable baring my soul to him, revealing all of my emotional weak spots.
This is partly why I'm struggling with forgiveness, according to Frank Fincham, Ph.D., a forgiveness researcher. "A hurt in marriage is particularly poignant, precisely because you've made yourself vulnerable," he says.
Oddly enough, vulnerability is the very thing that makes marriage so valuable.
"Marriage allows you to be yourself and not put up any more pretenses," Dr. Fincham says. In other words, you feel secure and have such faith in your husband that you expose all your tender parts. So when he slights you in some way — a hurtful comment, a selfish decision, an inconsiderate act — OUCH, can it sting.
Never did I think that Jack would be so nasty to me. Cursing at me? Jamming his middle finger in the air? Who was this person? It was like a kick in the face.
At the same time, I know I don't live in one of my son's fairy tales where happily married couples always play nice. The truth is, if your spouse hasn't already done or said something that hurt you, he will. That's just what happens in marriage.
"Think about it. Every couple comes from a different place and family, so there will be all sorts of dissimilarities," says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., author of Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship. "It's inevitable that from time to time you'll butt heads."
According to Dr. Luslin, 70 percent of disagreements that occur early on in relationships — money, sex, chores, children, whatever — resurface repeatedly over the course of marriage.
"One-third of couples will learn to adapt," he says. "They realize their partner selection was good enough that they can live with the difference." So, for example, your husband's habit of never finishing projects around the house is a source of contention, but eventually you get used to it without bitterness because his redeeming qualities are more significant.
What happens to the rest of couples who don't make peace with each other's shortcomings? They end up harboring grudges that fester over time. This means you simmer every time you notice the garage is still a mess, the gutters are still not on the house, the mailbox post is practically rotted through.
Really, you grumble to yourself, how incredibly lame is my husband? Before long, his deficiency eclipses everything else about him. I don't want to "adapt" to the problem that triggered our fight in the first place. At the time of our blowup, he was in a job he hated. I was the primary caregiver to our son, managing the house and juggling my writing career.
During this stressful stretch, whenever I needed to work on an assignment (after Jack arrived home from his job), he would balk at watching our son. He'd let out an exasperated sigh, slam my office door and begrudgingly take our child, who seemed nothing more than an inconvenience.
I'd sit in front of my computer seething with anger, unable to focus on my work. Jack's reaction also made me feel weirdly guilty, as if I was somehow falling short, incapable of doing everything: making money, breastfeeding our son, paying the bills, making sure we didn't run out of bread and milk. Meanwhile, Jack, exhausted from his boring day job, had a few cocktails, scanned Craigslist and then zoned out to Miles Davis.
Since our battle, I've talked to Jack about how we're both working parents; we need to help each other juggle our careers and our child. Now, when I need him to watch our son his response is better, but he still grits his teeth sometimes as if I'm asking a lot. This less-than-joyful response brings me back to our big fight, and soon I'm living it all over again and hating him. Again.
Holding onto resentment boosts levels of cortisol, the stress hormone linked to impaired immune function, depression and chronic disease. Studies have also found that it increases tension and raises blood pressure. No kidding! Whenever I fume about Jack's past offense, my stomach curls up tight like a pin cushion and I become short-tempered, irritated and bitchy.
When I reflect on the fight and turn it over in my mind, I think of the cruel words, the middle finger, the fact that Jack wasn't there for me (or our son) when we needed him to be. Jack, on the other hand, recalls how stressed and unhappy he was because of his job. He also remembers how stressed I was.
I was on a crazy deadline that day and as soon as Jack walked in the door from work, I frantically handed our son to him. He says that I told him to watch our boy rather than asking him. From there, the evening went down the toilet.
So is this it then? I just keep nursing my grudge, feeding it, watching it grow bigger than my son, my marriage, my life?
A grudge is a story you tell yourself to crust your heart, says Dr. Luskin. In essence, it's temporary protection. By fixating on Jack at his worst, I stop myself from letting my guard down and possibly getting hurt again.
I see this happening before my eyes. My resentment stands between me and Jack like a big, angry monster. It keeps me from ever getting close to him. There is no real intimacy in our marriage. In the three years since our fight, we've had sex five times, strong evidence that our relationship is ailing.
Dr. Luskin asks, "Do you want to get divorced?"
"No," I say.
"Then why are you resisting so much?" he asks. "From my point of view, if the other person is willing to apologize, you either accept that or you leave."
This makes me pause. If I don't want to get divorced, then what do I want? Jack did apologize. Jack has never sworn me at or flipped me off again. Jack is trying. He takes our son fishing and to the park and on walks in the woods. He tells him that he's a sweet, sweet boy who we love so very much.
The trick, it seems, is releasing my toxic grudge but not forgetting what happened. This makes me think of my abusive ex. It took time (and one year of therapy) but eventually, I forgave him. However, I've never forgotten what he said and did to me.
This is why, when Jack echoed my ex's behavior, I took such offense.
Research also shows that deeply committed couples have more motivation to forgive. You want to build your future together, not obliterate it. So in time, you forgive and you try again because you're in it for the long haul.
Suddenly, my bitterness seems futile. I'm committed to Jack. I'm committed to our marriage. How will we ever be a successful couple if I don't forgive him? I can't have it both ways.
Recently, Jack sent the following email to me:
Your anger and resentment is palpable. Maybe if you would talk to me about some of it, I could understand what the issues are other than the things that I do that displease you. We need to figure this out before it reaches some kind of terminal stage.
Next month, we start couple's therapy in hopes of repairing and reviving our marriage. In the meantime, I'm slowly finding my way toward forgiveness, and every day I feel the crust around my heart beginning to soften.