Dear Crucial Skills,
I was recently involved in a crucial conversation with my husband and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get rid of the anger and hurt I’m feeling. I have re-read parts of your book, and everything you say is reasonable, but I am still stuck. I know it may be silly, but I don’t see a path to resolution. How can I get over the hurt and anger I’m feeling towards my husband?
Over But Not Forgotten
Dear Not Forgotten,
Let me begin with a confession. I carried similar resentment toward a friend for a few years because I felt he had wronged me. When I spoke to him about it, he admitted he was wrong—which felt good to me, but I still felt badly about the harm he did me and when I saw him socially, I felt lingering hostility. I didn’t like looking him in the eye and felt critical of anything he said. When others would praise him, I felt irritated—like they didn’t understand who he really was.
Now I know your relationship with your husband is far closer and more consequential, but I hope this example suffices to teach a principle that has profoundly affected my life. Learning it has literally enhanced the quality of my relationships with most everyone I know and love, and has brought me greater peace than I ever had before.
If you’ll be patient, I’ll work up to this principle after sharing two other issues to consider in helping you feel resolved about this problem.
Did you raise the right issue? Often you can feel unresolved at the end of a crucial conversation if you didn’t get the right issue on the table. For example, you may have talked about your husband’s decision to make a risky loan to his brother without your consent. He may have apologized and you may have walked away unresolved because the real issue is you no longer trust him. That’s because it’s not the first time he violated promises he made about involving you in decision making. At this point, even his profuse apology does not restore trust. The real discussion should have been about the trust issue—and what provisions you would make to ensure such transgressions of trust would not happen again; or what changes you would make as he demonstrated over some reasonable period of time that he was worthy of your full trust.
Do you believe in the solution? Perhaps you discussed the right issue, but walked away realizing you committed to a solution you don’t believe will work. For example, if your husband simply promises to do better, and previous promises were broken, you probably fell short of a solution you can feel good about—which may make you feel less capable of forgiving and moving on.
Now, before I move to the big idea, I need to add an aside. Since I don’t know the details of what he did, I want to be exceedingly careful to point out that if your solution leaves you vulnerable to psychological or physical injury, the problem is not that you’re not forgiving him, it’s that you need a more aggressive solution—like reconsidering the entire relationship. In cases like this, the first order of business is probably not moving on, it’s moving out.
Is the real problem my inability to love flawed people? Okay, please forgive me for reiterating that last point one more time: If his weakness involves habits that lead to significant psychological suffering or any degree of physical harm then forgiveness is not the immediate issue—safety is. Do what you need to do to ensure your present and future safety now, and then worry about moving on psychologically.
But if his weakness—while not malignant—is still hurtful and you’re having a hard time feeling tenderness and forgiveness toward him, I’ll offer what to me is the central challenge of my life. I believe that the measure of my soul is my capacity to love imperfect people. I also have found that my inability to accept others’ weaknesses is usually caused by my unwillingness to acknowledge my own.
Let me give an example. I spoke with a woman years ago who had just held a crucial conversation with a colleague who had a disgusting habit. While she would talk with him, his eyes would drift up and down along her body in a way she found offensive. She held the conversation in a remarkably candid but also incredibly graceful way. I was stunned at her reserve and kindness with someone I thought was a complete lout. I asked her how she managed to suppress her disgust for him and she looked at me a bit askance. She said, “I guess it was easy because I didn’t feel disgust for him.”
“What?! After what he was doing? He deserved your derision—if not more!”
She then taught me something I have never forgotten. “Before I spoke with him I asked myself, ‘In what way am I just like him?’ It didn’t take long before I thought of a couple of ways that I had behaved inappropriately when I thought I could get away with it. As soon as I accepted that I was kind of like him, I felt more forgiving of his weakness. I wasn’t going to put up with it, but at least I could see that he was a human not a villain—a human kind of like me.”
I was blown away by this idea. And I have found that, when I embrace it, I find an increased capacity to love the imperfect people in my life.
I recently used this idea with the friend against whom I had harbored resentment. I found it repulsive to stop and think about weaknesses I had that were similar to his. I did not want to be like him. I did not want to acknowledge I was. But as I relaxed into the idea, the insight came immediately. I recognized, in fact, that some of the resentment I felt was probably self-disgust at my own deficiencies and that I was aiming that disgust at the wrong person.
He still has the weakness I was hurt by. And I love him. I see him as a reasonable, rational, decent person—at least in every sense in which I deserve that same description.
I sincerely hope at least one of these ideas helps you restore some of the intimacy you clearly want.