Even for serious wrongs like infidelity, hanging on to anger hurts you, too

By Barb DePree, M.D. for Next Avenue


By the time we reach midlife, we’ve experienced all kinds of things in our relationships, some good, some bad. It’s great to think back on the positive experiences once in a while, maybe even re-live them from time to time.

For the negative experiences, that’s not such a good idea.

And the more serious the situation, the harder it is to not think about it. Maybe you’ve had to deal with an infidelity or some other kind of betrayal by your partner. If so, its lingering effects may very well be interfering with your ability to fully embrace your partner in a healthy — and even in a literal — way.

Holding on to hurt

If you’re harboring resentment or anger over some past wrong, you need to address it. As psychotherapist and relationship coach Mary Jo Rapini says, “When your relationship struggles with resentment, it can feel like you are sleeping with the enemy. The resentment is felt deeply by one of the partners, and although it is rarely discussed openly, the tension can be felt by anyone close to the couple.”

Let me be clear that I’m not talking about ignoring or deferring your feelings about a current situation in which you are being harmed or threatened. Rather, this is about that old wound that is getting in the way for you and your partner.

So how do you let go of it? That process is what we usually call forgiveness. Fred Luskin, a psychologist affiliated with Stanford University, has made the study of forgiveness his life’s work; he’s written several books on it. The first, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, is based on the successful workshops he conducts using a step-by-step process to teach people how to forgive.

His second book, Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship, was written specifically for husbands and wives, and came about, he explains, because so many of his workshop participants were women trying to forgive current or ex-husbands.

Causing harm to ourselves

Luskin has done studies showing that harboring feelings of resentment and anger is not good for us physically or emotionally. It means we’re in a constant state of stress and negativity. In lectures, he often quotes Nelson Mandela: “Harboring resentment is like drinking poison to kill your enemy.” In other words, it’s doing a lot more harm to you than it is to the person who hurt you.

His methods of letting go of anger are similar to stress management and include mind-over-matter techniques like visualization and focusing on positive thoughts rather than negative ones.

In a 2010 article, University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good newsletter editor Jason Marsh cited another suggestion of Luskin’s: “Give up expecting things from your life or from other people that they do not choose to give you. Remind yourself that you can hope for health, love, friendship, and prosperity, and work hard to get them. However, these are ‘unenforceable rules:’ You will suffer when you demand that these things occur, since you do not have the power to make them happen.”

Tell them how you feel

Rapini, too, advises readers who are angry to “make a peace with your past. If it’s possible in your circumstances, tell whoever hurt you how you feel about what happened.” She also says that “letting go of your ego and learning to forgive your partner for their flaws and weaknesses — as well as forgiving yourself for holding on to that anger — are two of the biggest obstacles to overcome when working through resentment.”

Learning to forgive may not be easy, but it’s worth a try. In fact, it can be a life-changing experience. Because it’s never too late to take action. And you’ll feel much better when you do.

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