How can I get beyond my spouse's critical attitude and forget about the many cruel things she's said to me in the past? After several years of marriage, I've come to point where I just can't take it anymore. I don't believe in divorce, so we're sleeping in separate rooms and living separate lives under the same roof. Now she wants me to forgive her so that we can move forward in our marriage, but from my perspective it's not quite that easy. Her cutting words still burn in my memory, and I'm not ready to become vulnerable again. What should I do?
There may be a number of reasons you're having so much trouble letting go of the hurtful things your wife has said in the past. An anger cycle is set in motion when a perceived need doesn't get met. Your basic need for respect – one of a man's most deeply felt requirements in marriage – has been severely abused and neglected. Your wife's cutting comments have stirred a powerful emotional reaction within you. The Bible tells us that if this kind of anger isn't dealt with promptly (Ephesians 4:26) it can fester and develop into a deep-seated root of bitterness (Hebrews 12:15). Once established, this bitterness becomes self-nurturing and self-compounding.
The bad news here is that you're only hurting yourself. Nursing bitterness and holding a grudge is like trying to kill another person by drinking poison. If something doesn't change soon, you will end up destroying yourself as well as your marriage.
The good news is that it only takes one person to stop the cycle. In their book From Anger to Intimacy, Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham argue that real intimacy can be reestablished in cases like yours if both parties are willing to take responsibility for their personal feelings and behavior. You can't change your wife, but you can do something about your own reaction to her behavior.
Your case strikes us as being particularly hopeful. Why do we say this? Because your wife has asked you to forgive her. She's already taken a huge step in the direction of healing and reconciliation by humbling herself, admitting her faults and placing herself at your disposal. She's made a difficult and courageous attempt to initiate positive dialogue. The least you can do is follow suit by making the effort to respond appropriately. After all, Jesus told us that when someone who has offended us comes and requests forgiveness, we are obligated to grant it – not just seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21, 22).
Precisely how should you respond? We'd recommend that you be as specific and personal as possible. Instead of blaming and dealing in vague generalities (for example, "you always ____!" or "here we go again!") cite particulars and pinpoint actual incidents and events. Use "I" statements to keep the focus on your own feelings and reactions rather than your wife's actions – for instance, "I was terribly hurt when you said _____, but I'm willing to move beyond that if you'll work with me." Be as honest and straightforward as you can about the negative emotions that are keeping you and your wife apart. Don't lose heart if her first response isn't exactly what you were hoping for. Her reaction doesn't reflect whether or not you communicated appropriately. It's simply an indication of where she's at emotionally. You can move beyond this first step by asking her what she heard you say. Then clarify what you meant and invite her to express her own feelings in greater depth.
Counseling can be an important aid in your efforts to get to the heart of your mutual woundedness. A professional therapist will be able to assist you as you seek to identify destructive relational patterns and to avoid them in the future. Call us. Focus on the Family's Counseling department would be happy to provide you with a list of referrals to Christian counselors in your area. We're here to come alongside you in any way we can, and we'd sincerely like to help you put your marriage on a new footing.
Is Saying "I'm Sorry" Enough?: Dr. Gary Chapman explains what happens when the person apologizing is not speaking your "apology language."
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From Anger to Intimacy: How Forgiveness Can Transform Your Marriage
Hope Restored® marriage intensives
Communication and Conflict