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Marital Hatred: How Forgiveness Fits In

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Life is an adventure in forgiveness. American author, Norman Cousins I can't remember what started the conversation as John and I were hiking a few days ago. The term "marital hatred" came up. Terrence Real, the relationship therapist, is where I first heard of it.

Real doesn't explain it. He says that when he mentions "marital hatred" everyone seems to nod and know what it means.

John and I were speculating about how marital hatred might develop. Perhaps we get enmeshed in each other, forget that we are separate individuals with unique personalities and ways of seeing the world. I have also read research (don't ask me where) that said the only person we have less compassion for than ourselves is our spouse. If our enmeshment theory holds any water, maybe it's that we start seeing the other as an extension of ourselves. We hate ourselves. We hate the other who is now a part of us.

Or perhaps it could be that we are shocked by our differences when we find them. Again forgetting that the other is not the same as we are. Instead of being endlessly curious and delighted, we start a campaign to straighten out the other person to fit into our mold of the way a mate should be. That could lead to some marital hatred.

We also discussed that in a marriage, there's a lot of negotiating - compromises to be made. We hired an architect when we were building our house based on his ability to help us negotiate our different needs, desires, visions for our house. Sometimes, left to our own devices, however, we may feel that we have given away too much and not gotten enough for ourselves. That could cause marital hatred.

Just last night we had dinner out. I wanted to order only one dish to share between us because I wasn't very hungry. John wanted to get two different dishes.

Believe it or not, that caused a moment of decided frustration. John said, "sometimes I would like to get MY way." Now this caused a jolt to my reality in that it seems to me he pretty much always gets his way. That could cause some marital hatred. (I'm glad to report this is now becoming a little bit of fun as we each are saying, "sometimes I would like to get MY way.")

And there are bigger issues. Like betrayal. Infidelity. That could cause some marital hatred for sure.

Let me skip here back to 2006. The year my father died. A few days after his service my mother and I were going through sympathy cards she had received.

“Here’s one from someone I don’t know,” I mentioned to my mom.

There was silence for a moment and then Mom quietly said, “That’s the hot dog lady.”

I couldn’t believe it. “The hot dog lady?!” I practically screamed.

Mom nodded. Then the story tumbled out.

Mom had invited “the hot dog lady” to come visit Dad a few days before he had died. Mom and I both called this woman “the hot dog lady” as a way of trying to diminish her. We pretty much hated her because many years ago my father had found her quite attractive and neglected his wedding vows in the process.

It was incredible to me that my mom would have reached out to the hot dog lady and invited her into our house to visit with my dad at the end of his days. I was completely stunned. It was mostly, according to her, about forgiveness.

At its most basic level, forgiveness is when you’ve given up your understandable hatred and your normal desire for revenge. It’s natural for us to want to hurt somebody back if they’ve hurt us. According to researchers, this instinctive urge for revenge bubbles up for both men and women, people of all ethnicities, and all religions - despite the universal religious call for forgiveness.

Why would we even want to try to curb our vindictive urge? The general idea of formal retribution probably originated with the Code of Hammurabi which was aimed at creating more well-being, law, and justice in ancient Mesopotamia close to 4,000 years ago. What’s so bad about people knowing that if you harm them, they’ll harm you back? Seems fair.

Why do we even talk about forgiveness?

As it turns out, forgiveness, according to researchers, is also natural. Just as we have an urge to get even, we also have an urge to forgive.

Sure, it’s easier to forgive if someone says that they are sorry and shows remorse. It’s easier if we have had a long history of connection and are entwined in mutual goals. It’s easier if the offender had no intention to hurt. It’s also easier if we are older. It’s easier if we do not re-play the injury over and over and if we tend toward being an emotionally stable person.

Forgiveness is easier for us if we agree with these statements:

· When someone hurts my feelings, I manage to get over it fairly quickly.

· Seeking revenge doesn’t help people solve their problems.

· I am not the type of person to harm someone simply because he or she harmed me.

It’s also easier if we consider that when we forgive, we are not denying or minimizing our pain. We are not saying it’s okay or excusing what the offender did. We may decide to end the relationship, but we give up the urge to harm or wish harm upon the person who has hurt us.

Forgiveness is, according to some practitioners like the physicians at the Mayo clinic, also good for our health – for our immune system and cardiovascular system because vindictiveness keeps our fight or flight response activated. Religious folks say we feel lighter, more at ease, when we give up the burden of hate. And then there are people who believe that in a world where an eye-for-an-eye is the moral code, we end up with a bunch of blind people, that is to say, many hurt people and an ever-escalating society of violence.

There are caveats to forgiveness though, particularly for people who are in abusive relationships. Researchers say that spouses who are quick to forgive, are abused more often. Clearly, we need to stay away from people who keep harming us.

But let’s say that you, that I, have decided on our own, like my mom, that we are ready to forgive. We can’t always snap our fingers and make it instantly happen. Here are six ideas from forgiveness expert Dr. Robert Enright that may help.

· Acknowledge your emotions – hurt, angry, ashamed, embarrassed.

· Explain to yourself why you have made the decision to forgive (your reasons can be as practical as wanting to be free of anger so that you can better focus at work)

· Consider the vulnerabilities and limitations of the person who harmed you.

· Reflect on how good it feels to let go of hate.

· Find meaning in the suffering you experienced and overcame.

· Make a commitment to not pass along the pain you have endured; offer the world goodwill instead.

When I asked my mother what she was thinking that would cause her to invite the hot dog lady over, she simply shrugged and said, “it was time.”

I looked again at the card the hot dog lady had sent. It was a touching card, clearly aimed at trying to alleviate my mother’s suffering.

Ten years later as we talked about this incident within the overall narrative of my parents’ strong marriage. Mom gave me permission to share the story if I thought it would be useful. “Be sure,” she added “to say that I wasn’t perfect either.”

Remembering that most of us, like Mom (and Dad) are not perfect. The marriages and relationships we form will not be perfect. We will hurt others and they will hurt us. We may experience marital hatred. There is probably no getting around it. We will need to learn when and how to forgive in order to be happy and healthy.

As I have quizzed my older friends, ones married even longer than John and me, they typically tell me that a good marriage is an adventure in forgiveness. Something to hold on to as we look toward our 50th anniversary. (BTW, I was reading some marital advice this a.m. As I got to the end I realized the author was a youngster and not even married. I am thinking we need to pay attention to the person dishing out marital advice. I'm going with the old folks. )

How might we understand that moments of marital hatred are probably pretty normal - sometimes there may be bigger issues and serious marital hatred; and that in strong marriages, the couple becomes better at accepting imperfections and learn how to forgive each other?


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