It's not easy but it's worth it.
"Resentment," the late South African president Nelson Mandela once said, "is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies." Yet we all know how hard it can be to let go of past grievances. I have met couples who can't remember what they had for dinner last night but have miraculously instant recall when it comes to the last several times that they were angry with each other. No matter how legitimate the grievance, harboring resentments—or bringing them up again and again as fuel in arguments—does neither yourself nor your relationship any good. So what do you do when that old hurt keeps rearing its ugly head? How do you move past resentment?
For one, it is possible to forgive without forgetting. You may not have any control over what you remember, but you do have control over how you feel about it. Forgiveness is a conscious choice. If you are committed to the future of the relationship, you need to learn how to move past old issues once and for all or they can cast an ugly shadow over the relationship for many years to come.
Here are a few tools that can help you let go of past relationship resentments:
- Remember that you make mistakes, too. As painful as it is to remember the times your partner has hurt you, it might be even more painful to acknowledge our own shortcomings. This helps to explain why it is so tempting to direct our anger outward instead of taking a more honest assessment of our own actions. But it is a lot easier to forgive when you can admit that you, too, have been guilty of thoughtlessness, temper tantrums and other hurtful behaviors. It's called being human!
- Deal with hurt and anger right away, in the moment. When you are angry, say so—it may be that your partner had no idea that they had done anything that bothered you, or it could be the opposite: they were feeling angry themselves and acted out in turn. Either way, now is the time to talk it through. If the issue is serious and emotionally fraught or has been building up over time, you may even benefit from talking through your feelings with a couples counselor. But please, avoid sweeping it under the rug. That's an easy way for today's frustration to grow into tomorrow's resentment.
- Make a pact with your partner—and yourself—that when it comes to old wounds, you are done bringing them up every time a conversation gets heated. It happens all the time, and it is usually born out of defensiveness: your partner is frustrated because, say, he or she thinks you have overspent on holiday gifts, so rather than work through a new, uncomfortable subject such as this month's credit card bill, you reflexively direct attention back to another old, familiar argument. However, by focusing on the topic at hand instead, you have a much better chance of working toward a swift resolution rather than engaging in a drawn-out mudslinging contest.
- Rip up the scorecard. What is to be gained by keeping a tally of every mistake your partner has ever made, if he or she has already acknowledged them, apologized and tried to avoid repeating them? More importantly, relationships are not a competitive sport or a series of debates to be won. Treating them as such is a recipe for misery and relationship failure.
- Choose to forgive for the sake of your own emotional well-being. Anger can serve a positive purpose in the moment, alerting us when there is potential danger to ourselves or our loved ones and giving us the emotional fuel to react. Old anger, however, is counterproductive: it just drains our energy and takes up valuable space in our minds.
The next time you feel yourself dwelling on old wounds, remind yourself that you have a choice in whether or not to continue carrying that burden. If you choose to leave it behind, you will have new found freedom to focus on working with your partner on a healthier, happier, resentment-free relationship.
Sometimes it takes the insight of a professional in order to see things differently. A relationship counselor can work with you to help you let go of past resentments and work toward a better relationship. Please give the counselors at OC Relationship Center a call today at 949-220-3211, or book your appointment via our online calendar. We're here to help.
This article was originally published at Relationship Center of Orange County. Reprinted with permission from the author.