“I don’t know how to stop being angry at him,” said Ellen during their sixth couple therapy session. “For the past seven or eight years, I’ve felt unimportant to him. He takes too long to do a chore and acts annoyed when I remind him. We’ve had sex less than once a year.”
I admire Ellen for owning up to how hard it is for her to let go of a long-lasting grudge. Like most couples under siege, she and her husband Phil waited over six years to seek professional help.
Ellen’s complaints include: “He doesn’t initiate sex, isn’t affectionate, and usually does nothing for my birthday, not even a card. Then once in a while, he gives me a costly gift, like a certificate for a $300.00 spa treatment.” She says she doesn’t want a divorce because of Cassie, their 3-year-old daughter.
Although this article focuses mostly on letting go of a grudge against a spouse, its suggestions also apply to relationships with significant others, family members, friends, coworkers, and others.
How Grudges Build
Ellen and Phil met while earning their PhDs in computer science and now are established in their careers. I’m impressed by their openness to ask for help and their ability to be vulnerable in therapy sessions. Each comes in ready to say what they’d like to address. Between sessions, they practice using positive communication skills I’ve taught them.
A brief conversation revealed how Ellen had built up a grudge against Phil. She would become upset with him about annoyances like those mentioned above but say nothing because she was afraid to offend him or rock the boat. Eventually, her resentment would spiral and she’d start a fight, for example by saying, “You’re a horrible husband.”
His response: “You’re a horrible person.”
How to Prevent a Grudge from Building
As Ellen and Phil’s story shows, the best way to prevent a grudge from building is to prevent yourself from forming one in the first place by:
- noticing when you’re feeling irritated by the person’s behavior, and then
- deciding whether it’s important enough to let the person know how you feel.
- If you’re not sure whether to let the person know your feelings, ask yourself how you think you’ll feel later if you don’t address your concern.
- If you think that your resentment will continue to fester if you don’t address the concern, tell the person how you feel and what you would like to happen, e.g., “I feel hurt when you don’t show affection. I’d like you to hug me once every morning and night. Other times are fine, too.”
Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
When should you say what bothered you? When is it better to accept an annoyance as too minor to bring up? If you’re not sure if it’s worth mentioning, you may decide to wait a bit and see if your irritation lessens to the point where you feel good enough about the big picture of your relationship to dismiss what bothered you and accept it as part of the package.
Speaking of packages, I get a kick out of a friend’s story. Sick of hearing her mother complain about her father, she said, “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you divorce him. Then you can marry someone else.”
Surprised by the idea, her mother said, “Why would I do that? He’s my package. Why should I trade him for someone else’s package?”
I don’t mean to imply that we should ignore unacceptable or abusive behaviors. It’s often possible to improve the “package” we have by taking steps similar to the ones listed above to that prevent us from forming. We can often encourage a relationship partner to behave differently by:
- Noticing how we feel.
- Expressing how we feel.
- Asking respectfully for what we want.
- Being prepared for how we’ll respond if we don’t get what we want.
Preventing Grudges from Snowballing
The best way to prevent a grudge from developing is not to grow one in the first place. An irritation can start small, then continue to get bigger like a snowball that keeps enlarging as it rolls, picking up more snow along the way. Something like this quickly happens when we misinterpret a partner’s behavior without checking with him or her to learn whether our assumption is correct. An example of a common untrue assumption made by spouses when disappointed by their mate is “He (or she) doesn’t love me.”
Ellen had interpreted Phil’s not initiating sex mean he didn’t love her. During a session, however, Phil acknowledged his reason as, “I’m afraid of disappointing her.”
Psychotherapist Kristin Barton Cuthriell, LCSW, MEd, and author of the book, The Snowball Effect: How to Build Positive Momentum in Your Life, writes: “Your thoughts have the power to build positive or negative momentum in your life. They will snowball in the direction you choose. They will lead you toward success or destruction.”
Many of us lack awareness; we’re not paying attention. Cuthriell elaborates: “We allow our thoughts to take us down a rabbit hole of worry, assumption, and fear.” But we can create positive momentum “by paying attention to our thoughts and asking ourselves, Is this what I want? If the answer is yes, there probably isn’t any reason to change. If the answer is no, it is time to make a shift.”
Cuthriell suggests shifting your thoughts to what you want to happen. “Thoughts of hope, a positive outcome, and gratitude can turn your momentum around.”
How to Let Go of a Grudge
Getting back to Ellen’s challenge, how can she get past holding a relationship threatening grudge toward her husband? How can she learn to appreciate him as an excellent partner with many good qualities, and who like virtually all of us, could benefit from improving in a couple of areas?
Therapy can help people to notice and express their thoughts, feelings, and needs in a safe environment. By doing this and hearing each other, spouses gain empathy for themselves and each other. They can increase awareness about how they may be unconsciously repeating their parents’ ways of relating that they witnessed as children, such as a tendency to blame, placate, or hold grudges.
Coming to therapy sessions is a start, but not enough. As needed, I tell some clients: “I’m like a drop in the bucket. You’ll need to put time and energy during the week into changing from behaving in ways that increase the emotional distance between the two of you into strengthening your connection by using the tools and skills we practice here.”
Okay, I’m more than a drop in the bucket. But unless people practice what they learn during our sessions, we can have an interesting time together, but they shouldn’t expect lasting changes.
Marriage Meetings Prevent Grudges
Uncommunicated expectations are preconceived resentments, states Medium.com writer Jennifer Haubrich. The easiest way to create irritation in your marriage, or in any relationship for that matter, is not to say “what you want, need, or expect, while still wanting, needing, and expecting your partner to provide it.”
Couples who hold marriage meetings, which are explained step by step in my book Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, prevent minor irritations from spiraling into grudges. The meetings encourage the expression of heartfelt appreciation for each other, teamwork around chores, romance, and communicating constructively about challenges. Difficulties often occur around money, chores, parenting, in-laws, or sex.
By starting the meeting with appreciation, couples typically feel warmer toward each other and energized to hold the other parts of the meeting constructively. Like most couples who see me for therapy, Ellen and Phil found it helpful for me to coach them through a couple of marriage meetings before they’d be ready to hold them on their own.
When Ellen complained that Phil took too long to follow through on handling a chore, I showed her how to gain his cooperation by changing her complaint into the request: “I’d like you to follow through promptly when you agree to do something.” During their next marriage meeting, Ellen told Phil that she appreciated him for buying the needed dishwasher promptly.
His wife’s spoken appreciation was a reward for Phil. Because rewarded behaviors are likely to be repeated, Phil will probably keep following through on chores more promptly, especially if Ellen remembers to tell him regularly how much she values him for being so conscientious. Consequently, Ellen’s grudge is likely to lose traction.
As partners become more comfortable saying what they want and need from each other and receive positive responses, trust and intimacy will grow, both inside and outside of the bedroom.
Haubrich offers more examples of how spouses can express their wants and needs directly and without demanding:
- “I need you to understand how much stress I am under.”
- “I want us to have a date night out of the house this week.”
- “I need to just sit on the couch this afternoon and not talk to anyone.”
“And yes, communicating what you want in bed helps too,” she adds.
Asking for what we want doesn’t mean that we’ll always get it. The other person may or may not be comfortable about doing what we ask for, and vice versa. Yet by expressing ourselves positively about concerns that aren’t deal-breakers, we can expect to enjoy a sense of rapport with others and gain self-understanding and empathy for people to whom we relate. So there will be no room for a grudge and much room for forgiveness and acceptance.