Question: “I can’t seem to let go of bitterness regarding my spouse. How do I move beyond my lack of relational skills to keep my heart open and not carry offense?”
Often (especially women) we keep a list with little “tick marks” of disappointments in our relationships. We have been taught not to be “nagging or difficult” so we save up our frustrations. Once the barrel of irritations fills up, we explode. We bring out all of the hurts we have been harboring for days, weeks, even possibly months. Suddenly, almost before we know it, we have hurled our pain and injustices all over our victim like slime.
Their response can only be to react in defense or to shrug their shoulders and walk away, unaware of the emotional time bomb that previously lay dormant below the surface. Not only do they not know how to respond, but they also make inner vows not to lay their heart out before you again. You cannot be trusted. So now, the relational stalemate begins and more offense, except this time, hurt and betrayal by both parties. Bitterness won.
First of all, just know that you are not alone. Unfortunately, we aren’t taught how to “fight fair.” Even though scripture teaches us clearly “not to let the sun go down on our anger” (Ephesians 4:26). We aren’t sure what that looks like.
I have learned that no matter what the circumstance, I cannot allow seeds of bitterness to take root in my heart. I used to “save up” until I realized my reactional pounce left my spouse hurt and guarded to the next eruption. If you can imagine, it’s like walking around a field of emotional time bombs resting beneath the surface. We finally learned that no matter what the circumstance, we have to talk about it before we go to bed, even if it’s just to agree to disagree.
My spouse is a processor. He wants to talk about and process through everything, from relationships to home projects. It is a blessing and a curse. I, on the other hand, am a reflector. I need time to reflect on processes. If I am hurt, I need to pull away and gather myself and my thoughts.
Early in our marriage, I used to create an opportunity for time away by screaming out of the driveway in my car. Luckily, my “processing spouse” taught me that this made him feel abandoned and alone. I didn’t know what the answer was, but I knew I just needed time to ponder and reflect on not only the circumstance but also how I was feeling about the circumstance. Most importantly, I needed to tame my tongue of all the things I had been feeling and stuffing for so long. I had to figure out a way to deal with hurts as soon as they happened and not to store them up until I erupted.
I would often find myself playing out shoulda, coulda, wouldas instead of focusing on the solution. I would sequester myself and listen to the negativity in my head until I was seething all over again. It became a vicious cycle. And with each circle I became more and more bitter. Before long, the small misunderstanding became an avalanche of premeditated hurt. All the while, my spouse was absolutely clueless of what I was conjuring up in my head.
When we finally came to an impasse, we sought out a few simple solutions based on scripture:
1. Do not harbor bitterness (Hebrews 12:15).
2. Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26).
3. Do not let the enemy gain a foothold (Ephesians 4:27).
In simple terms, we decided to talk the minute questions occur. We decided to decide that we are on the same team. It’s obvious there is an enemy out there who desires to kill, steal, and destroy (John 10:10). If we aren’t on his team, we have to be on the opposing team.
If there is a misunderstanding, the minute it occurs, we have to rally our troops to respond – not react.
Over time, if we keep our accounts of offense short, there is no room for misunderstandings or for the enemy to plant seeds of doubt and mistrust in our heads. And if there are no seeds in our head, there is nothing offensive to slide down into our mouth to “chew on.” If we have no offense to chew on, we then can choose to walk in peace.
Most importantly, once married, we become one. Discontent divides. Division destroys. Marriages can’t survive in either of those two options. If we agree on the same rules, we win. And if the rules are vetted in scripture, it’s truth. In truth, the enemy has no power. No room for bitterness there. No bitterness, no hard hearts.
If we keep our hearts open and walk in truth, there are no landmines, no slime, no verbal assaults. Just an opportunity to learn, love, and grow in relationships, planted firmly in the promise of what marriage is supposed to be as it was created by God: Good!