Managing Feelings — 12 June 2005
The unhealthy pleasure of keeping a grudge

Repairing painful feelings between partners should be a welcomed process. It is sad to see some individuals who relish having been wronged more than they do restoring peace.

Ideally, when one partner feels wronged by the other, the healing process is as follows: a discussion occurs, an apology is given, a promise is made to avoid the hurtful behavior in the future, the apology is accepted, and the partners regain their comfort with each other.

If the apology is not accepted, the wronged party continues to feel victimized and angry. One reason for maintaining the hurt is that the injured partner does not find the apology to be sincere. Another reason may be that the regret is frequent, but the pattern has continued to occur, or that one is not yet ready to forgive because the wounds are too fresh. These common reasons are logical and can be addressed and resolved with further respectful communication.

And then there are those who feel more empowered being wronged than being forgiving. Why would an individual prefer to continue harboring bad feelings about a mate, despite the other’s stated sincere regret and a promise to change? What may prevent an individual from welcoming the opportunity to resume a happy connection?

The partner, whose deeply felt apology is rejected, often feels very discouraged, disrespected and bewildered. S/he may ask: “What else can I do to get my mate to forgive me and reinstate the good feelings between us?” Obviously, the hurt person is now exercising immense power over the partner by being able to unilaterally turn the relationship on or off, reduce or increase the mate’s suffering and determine the emotional atmosphere within the marriage for a time to come.

The question the non-forgiving partner must ask him/herself is: “Why am I rejecting my partner’s apology?” Since every behavior serves us in some way, it is important to question oneself: “In what way is my non-forgiving attitude helpful to me?”

An honest answer may be that the suffering of the offended is now being returned to the offender. Some say, “I want him to feel how badly he made me feel.” These individuals may erroneously believe that through inflicting upon others the pain they feel, they will be better understood and their suffering will subside.

Another answer is that by keeping the grudge, the offended party maintains the power of superiority and the pleading attention of the mate. The power of superiority is based upon the misconception that the offended is above offending the mate in this way. It is a short hold on being “better than” the partner’s moral turpitude.

The temporary power is also in the humbled and excessively accommodating behavior of the offending partner, which may feel pleasing to the offended mate.

These answers, though honest, are not helpful to the relationship.

In healthy relating, both partners are aware that the tables will turn later. Sooner or later the offended person may err as well and be at the mercy of the partner’s forgiveness. Establishing a non-forgiving style by one partner may create a begrudgeful atmosphere. This will only cascade the partners into collecting many “unforgivable” acts as ammunition against each other and the inevitable deterioration of their love and intimacy.

No matter how satisfying it may feel at the moment to withhold forgiveness, it only feeds the lowest, insecure side of our personality and is unbecoming to a mature and loving adult. Gaining momentary pleasure at another’s pain is immoral and destructive.

Apologies should be accepted and the offender should be assumed to be sincere and regretful, to allow growth and self-accountability within the relationship. Power OVER a partner is unhealthy. There is greater power in forgiving and trusting the repenting spouse. It helps the offending mate live up to the promise to avoid the hurtful behavior in the future, out of consideration and love for the partner. Helping another person be loving is truly powerful and decent.

In listening to couples deal with behaviors that have not been fully excused, I am struck by the damage created by the accumulated resentments. Both mates are hostages to painful feelings. The offending mate lives with regret, sorrow, grief, and a dismay about being seen as damaged and unforgiven, while the offended mate is plagued with doubts about the character of the offender and his own lovability.

Accepting the apology paves the way to recovery for both partners. People tend to live up to the positive expectations placed upon them. It may even be more so after a mild or grave offense. The offender is determined to prove his or her trustworthiness and kind nature, if only given the time and opportunity to do so.

If you are the recipient of an apology, please consider:

• Your partner is in enough pain and guilt about hurting you.
• The action taken or not taken or the words spoken or omitted had to do with your mate’s own issues and were not intended to hurt you.
• Seeing the error of his/her ways is a humbling experience that leads to the instinctive desire for repair. Allow your partner to recover her self-regard by proving her fine character and love for you.
• As hurt as you feel, prolonging your mate’s suffering by withholding forgiveness is unkind.
• Feeling powerful and superior about having been wronged is temporary, incorrect and unhealthy.
• Creating a system of mutual non-forgiveness is destructive to your marriage.
• Modeling forgiveness and ascribing the best intentions and character to your partner enhances both of you, hastens comfort between you and strengthens your love and intimacy.

June 12, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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