What if I’m holding a grudge in my marriage?
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Dave and Ann WilsonDave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus churc...more
Is your marriage moving towards oneness or isolation? Dave and Ann Wilson discuss habits for a great marriage, and what to do when you’re holding a grudge.
What if I’m holding a grudge in my marriage?
Dave: Today, let’s talk about this little thing that can happen in a marriage—but really, any relationship—that if you don’t pay attention to it, you can find yourself isolated.
Ann: I’m totally intrigued.
Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I mean, it happens in every relationship. We’ll apply it to marriage, obviously; it’s like when your spouse says something or does something that offends you/that hurts you.
Ann: —which everyone of us has experienced; yes.
Dave: You did it to me today.
Ann: Oh, no! [Laughter]
Dave: I mean, I did it to you today. It happens; it can be a daily thing. It’s this little offense. If you don’t deal with it, it can become bitterness; you can become hurt; you can like want to pay them back for how they said or did something.
Ann: Are we talking about revenge and bitterness?
Dave: Yes; I mean, I think it’s really bitterness. I heard—well, actually, I said this once in a sermon—
Ann: Well, hey!
Dave: There you go; I can quote me, as a preacher: “Offense is an event—it happens—you’re going to be offended. Offended is a choice.”
Ann: This topic of bitterness is big; because if we let an offense go—I’ve done it myself if anyone has heard our ten-year anniversary [story]—I became so bitter that, I feel like after a while, I lost all of my feelings; because I never dealt with my bitterness.
Dave: It happens in every relationship. It’s happened in ours over and over. It’s never not going to happen—it’s going to keep happening; there’s going to be things that we do or say—every relationship has gone through that. There are parents, who have felt that with their kids—and kids—I felt that about my parents.
Ann: Me too.
Dave: You did, too; I mean, we all have.
It’s interesting—if you look at this word, “bitterness,”—here’s a definition: “Anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly; resentment.” That, right there, could describe a lot of marriages; because you feel like you’ve been treated unfairly and you’re resentful.
Ann: Oh, yes; and “I don’t deserve it,” “I don’t deserve the way I’m being treated.”
Dave: Yes; and so you carry that, even to—I even looked up, in the dictionary, “revenge”: “The act of inflicting hurt or harm on someone for an injury or wrong suffered at their hand.”
Ann: See—I think of revenge—I think of a movie. Do you think that happens in marriage?—that we want revenge?
Dave: Yes; I think that’s what we’re talking about: you get hurt—again, you’re offended—you might not even identify it in the moment because, often, offenses are very slight/are very minor. But over time, it seems to grow—that comment/that action that hurt you—sort of grows. Here’s the thing: you’re carrying around baggage in your marriage, in your family—
Ann: —with your friends.
Dave: —that could be related to something done to you or said to you this week—but it could be ten, fifteen, thirty years ago—and you’re carrying around/you have a root of bitterness—that’s a New Testament term—Paul wrote about: “Don’t let a root of bitterness get a hold of your heart.” It’s real—it’s like a root—it’s deep.
And then, revenge is like: “I just want payback. I want them to hurt like I’ve been hurt.” So we do things, say things, or else we just cut off the relationship. You can’t really do that in marriage—but you can—because you’re living together and you’re married, but you’re isolated.
Ann: You put up a wall.
Dave: Yes; we say at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway: “Every marriage is moving toward oneness or drifting toward isolation.” Bitterness—if you don’t deal with this—what we’re talking about today—it has to be dealt with. If you don’t deal with it, you are going to drift toward isolation. If you don’t move toward oneness—you have to intentionally do things to move toward oneness—you will drift toward isolation. Bitterness is, often, the root.
Ann: And if you don’t deal with your bitterness—I mean, this sounds crazy—but your bitterness will deal with you in some way. I’m even thinking: physically. People, who are bitter, it’s like they shrivel up; their soul is malnourished. God doesn’t want us to remain bitter.
Dave: That’s one of the reasons our interview with Stephen Viars—the pastor and therapist who wrote about overcoming bitterness—we got more comments on that show. I thought, “Why is that?”—because people are carrying bitterness. The question is: “What do we do with it?”
Here’s the thing—we’ve said this over and over—marriage is awesome; isn’t it?
Ann: —so fun; yes!
Dave: I mean, it’s awesome. But there are people listening, going, “No, no, no; it isn’t”; because marriage is also really, really hard. It’s both/and; right? At the same time it’s wonderful, and we celebrate it—and there are moments, where it’s like extasy; I couldn’t be happier—and there are a lot of moments, where I’m hurt; it’s hard; parenting is hard.
Ann: —we’re tired.
Dave: Relationships at the workplace are hard; relationships at church are hard—I mean, relationships are wonderful; they’re [also] agony—they’re both! [Laughter] You have to be able to say both. The reason they get hard is bitterness.
We joked about this before: but when a couple gets married, if we could see what’s happening in that church on their wedding day—you’ve got this groom; you’ve got this bride—you don’t see it; because you can’t see it, physically—but if you could pull back the curtain, you could see luggage at the feet of both of them, because they’re carrying baggage. A lot of that is bitterness they’re bringing into the relationship.
Think about this: many people have heard us tell the story—we’re not going to get into it—of one of our first fights in our marriage, months after we were married—so happy. I start to walk out of the room, because we’re in a fight and I don’t realize I’m doing what I’ve always done—but I withdraw—so I start to walk out of the room. You yell—
Ann: —“Come back here and fight me like a man, you chicken!”
Dave: Yes; you do it pretty good. [Laughter]
I turned around, and I curse at you; and I leave. People have heard that story—it’s in our Vertical Marriage small group video; it’s in the book—but here’s the thing: I did not know—
Ann: Thank you for not cursing at me any longer.
Dave: I don’t think ever cursed since.
Ann: You haven’t.
Dave: Yes, 41 years. It’s funny—when we tell that story—people think, “Gee whiz; Dave must be a cussing man.” No; it’s just one time in our marriage.
But anyway, here’s what I didn’t know—and I don’t think a lot of us know—when we get married, we carry baggage.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Dave: What I carried into our marriage was bitterness toward my dad, that I had never dealt with. What I did in that moment—which now, is a funny story and a chapter title of a chapter in our book—what I did in that moment was I copied what I saw my dad do, not even knowing—in fact, I remember going to college, thinking, “I will never become like my dad,”—and there I was—Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments—[paraphrased] “The sins of the father will visit into the legacy.” I was copying that [dad’s behavior].
It's like: “Okay; I have never dealt with this bitterness that, now, is coming out in our marriage toward my spouse.” I think a lot of us—if we could take that extension cord back, that’s connected to us, back to where that bitterness comes from, we would have a different marriage/a better marriage; because you’ve got to deal with that. That’s why we’re talking about that today: “You’ve got to know how to understand how to deal with this bitterness.”
Ann: I’m a visual person, so when you were saying that, I had this picture of people: “Oh, that was in my past,”—but I have this picture of us, as people, leaking—like there are holes in us. Somewhere, somehow, that bitterness leaks out; and it’s usually onto the people that we love and cherish.
Dave: Yes; I didn’t even know I was doing it, and I would have promised you I would not do that.
A couple of thoughts—let’s talk about this—when you think about marriage and relationships, here’s what I want to say: “God has a really, really, really, really good plan—
Ann: Is it really good?
Dave: —it’s really good—for relationships: for marriage, for family, for the church.” I think we need to start there as a foundational truth: “God’s plan—for your marriage, for your family, for your relationships at church and even in your neighborhood—His plan is really good”; alright? That’s the mission of relationships from God’s perspective.
Here’s what I want to lay out: God’s plan, God’s strategy, and God’s tactic. Okay, His plan is really good. Here is what His plan is—write this down; this is good preaching, I hope—His plan is what I would call revelation. Does that make any sense?—what?
Ann: Yes; I don’t know.
Dave: You don’t know. [Laughter] You just acted like you knew.
Ann: I just/I’m such a good wife.
Dave: I mean, I think when you pull back, and you say: “Okay, what does God want to do through your marriage?” “What does God want to do through relationships in the church?” “What’s God want to do between Christians, who love Him and love each other?” He wants to reveal Himself to the world through our relationships.
Ann: Oh; I knew that.
Dave: That’s what revelation means. It’s this big spiritual term; but it basically means: “God wants to reveal to your neighbors who He is and what His character is like by how a husband and wife, who claim to be Christ-followers, treat one another.” That’s scary.
Ann: Some people were totally convicted right now.
Dave: Yes; I mean, it’s like it’s bigger than just: “I want to be happy,”—I mean, God wants your marriage to work, and He wants you to thrive in it and flourish in it—but it’s bigger than that. You pull back and say, “What does God really want to do?” He actually wants to reveal Himself to the world through the way Christians treat one another and treat people, who don’t believe.
Ann: Let me add this, too: it’s not that you’re doing it perfectly—
Ann: —they don’t want to see a perfect couple—they want to see an authentic couple, who is following Jesus. They might fail and fall, but God picks them back up and He gives—it’s Holy Spirit power—that even in our brokenness, we still run toward each other and we run toward God.
Dave: Yes; that’s His strategy. Remember, I said there’s a plan; what’s His strategy?—you just articulated it—it’s unity. In marriage, it would be oneness.
“How is God going to reveal Himself to the world?”—unity in the body of Christ, unity between a husband and a wife, unity between parents and their kids. Again, like you just said, it’s not going to be perfect. We’re not going to do this perfectly; we’re going to fall short, over and over again; but the world is watching. I mean, the world—those who do not believe; those who aren’t going to church—they’re watching Christians and they’re looking for unity.
When I say that, what do you think/like, “Wow; how are we doing?”
Ann: I know, I look at the divorce rate, and it makes me sad; because sometimes, you don’t see a huge difference in the church.
Dave: There is actually a huge difference.
Ann: But the world would see that, statistically. You’re saying there’s a huge difference in those, who really are walking with Jesus, in prayer, like it makes a huge difference.
Dave: Yes; I mean, the divorce rate is 27 percent lower for followers of Christ, who are involved in their church, involved in different areas of their life—which means they don’t just show up—they really are involved.
I think the world’s watching the unity of the church, not just marriage. How are we getting along with each other?
Ann: Oh, absolutely.
Dave: So if His plan is to reveal Himself through unity—His tactic—how does He do that?—is forgiveness. We need to be able to forgive when we’re offended.
It’s interesting—when you go to what I call the Lord’s prayer/John 17—most people think the Lord’s prayer [is]: “Our Father, who are in heaven…” Obviously, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, that’s what He said. But there’s this long prayer that Jesus prayed in the Gospel of John—
Ann: I love this prayer.
Dave: —Chapter 17—it’s actually called the “high priestly prayer.” You really get the sense of the heart of God, revealed through Jesus’ prayer about unity.
Ann: Do you want me to read it?! I can read it.
Dave: Go ahead.
Ann: Okay; [speaking quietly] Dave knows that I like to read out loud.
Dave: [Speaking quietly] She likes to read out loud.
Ann: Jesus is saying this, and He is praying this. He says:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those, who believe in Me through their message,—
Dave: By the way, did you catch that? Who are those “who believe in Me through their message”?—you and me. He’s literally thinking thousands of years ahead. He’s praying, not just for the disciples, but us.
Ann: And then He says:
—that all of them may be one,—
—Father, just as You are in Me and I am in You. May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.
Dave: So you see it?—there it is: “…so that”—that’s a purpose statement—[paraphrase] “May they also be in Us so that the world may believe that I am real,”—“that You sent Me.” He’s saying that, if they’re unified, the world will believe. He’s praying for unity.
I have given them the glory that You gave Me so that they may be one as We are One. I in them, and You in Me, so that they may be brought to complete unity.
And then He says:
Then the world will know that You sent Me and I have loved them even as You have loved Me.
Wow; that’s good.
Dave: Jesus’ heart is like: “Man, if the world’s going to see Me, it’s going to be through the unity of followers of Me.” Again, as I say that, I’m like, “So how are we doing as a church?”
I remember a few years ago when things were happening in our country—and there’s all kind of division about riots; it’s the beginning of the pandemic; race stuff was all over—
Dave: —there was division everywhere.
Dave: I remember—and I shouldn’t have done this—but I remember I’m on Facebook, and I’m looking at some post about division—we go in the comment section, and all these people—I mean, there’s 300/400 comments. They’re attacking one another, back and forth. Again, I should have just closed my computer and said, “I’m not even going to read this. This is just division; it’s attacking.” It was sarcastic; it was very hurtful. I found myself reading—15 minutes; you know, I can’t stop—it’s like watching a car wreck. You’re like—
Ann: It’s a trap!
Dave: Then, toward the end, these two people are just going after each other; it’s very hurtful and very demeaning of one another. I remember thinking, “Man, these people/this is viscous; this is so wrong.” I wanted to jump in; but I’m like, “I’m not jumping in this thing.”
And then I looked at: “Who are these people?” I realized I knew both of them; they’re both Christ-followers. I just thought, “Oh, my goodness; the world is watching us. They’re watching us talk to one another,”—and it was full of division; it was destroying one another.
Ann: I mean, name calling and things that we would say, “You never do that as a follower of Christ.”
Dave: The world is watching; and Jesus prayed [paraphrase], “I pray that you be unified. I pray that you be one so that the world would believe that God sent Jesus.” I thought, “The world is walking away from this.”
You what is at the root of that whole thing?—bitterness.
Ann: I was going to say, “Satan,”—which is—
Dave: Well, I mean, that’s a good transition; because if God has a really, really, really good plan for your marriage and relationships, here’s the flipside of that: Satan has a really, really, really, really bad plan. I’m, obviously, exaggerating the really.
Ann: Really? Are you really?
Dave: You get it? Yes, it’s true: he has a really, really bad plan. We often think Satan’s not real; the devil’s just a made-up concept. Here’s the thing: “If you believe in Jesus, you have to believe in Satan; because Jesus talked about him and dealt with him, in real time, in the New Testament. It’s like: “He’s real.”
If God has a plan for your marriage, which is oneness—trust me—Satan has a plan for your marriage, as well, and for the church—it’s the opposite of oneness; it’s the opposite of unity/it’s disunity.
Ann: I’m thinking of Jesus’ last few verses in that Scripture that I read in John 17, when He says: “I in them and You in Me so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and I have loved them even as You have loved Me.” That’s the picture; that’s exactly what God/what Jesus is longing for. You’re saying, “Satan will do everything in his power to not let that happen.”
Dave: Oh, yes; and Jesus told us that—John 10:10—He refers to Satan as the thief; He says, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy,”—that’s his plan.
[Jesus speaking] “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full,”—which involves unity. If God’s plan is revelation: to reveal Himself; and His strategy is unity or oneness; and His tactic is forgiveness, which we’re going to talk about, probably tomorrow. Satan has a different plan; his plan is destruction—He just told us/Jesus said, “…steal, kill, and destroy.” His strategy to destroy unity is division. And guess what his tactic is: offense.
Remember we talked at the beginning?—we talked about a little offense. Satan will use a little action—it could be big—but it could, often, be a little offense, that seems minor at the moment, but grows in our bitter spirit/a root of bitterness gets hold of our heart. It can just destroy/divide a unified church, a unified marriage, a unified family—it can be split apart/destroyed through division—and it often starts with a comment or an action that is very hurtful.
Ann: What a sobering thought, when you think, “I’m just having this fight with”—a friend, or my husband, or my kids—but underneath that, the big picture is: “Satan is like, ‘Yes, yes’”; because his tactic is division.
Dave: We’re not saying, “Every time something happens in your life, ‘The devil made me do it.’”
Ann: No; right; exactly.
Dave: But I often think we underestimate the reality of evil has a source, and his name is Satan. He would love to destroy your marriage, your relationship with your kids; he would love to divide this church. Again, it often starts—
Ann: —our country.
Dave: —with—yes—it starts with an offense, which is an event; but to hold onto that, and be offended, is a choice that we make.
Ann: So what is/why does this matter? What do we do?
Dave: I mean, here’s the thing: you mentioned, earlier, the ten-year anniversary. You were bitter; what did you do with that?
Ann: Yes, so bitter because of these little things; it had come to the point, where I had no feelings left. I think that can happen, a lot, in marriage. I took it to Jesus. What we did—and a lot of people have heard that—I repented because I really was not forgiving you. The reason I was not forgiving you is because I felt like: “You’re not changing; I told you what I was feeling, and you’re not doing anything about it.”
Dave: You didn’t repent immediately; you carried that for—
Ann: —yes, months/months—not years—but months. That had shut down my heart and I really felt like, “I don’t know if I want to be in this anymore.”
Dave: I think most of us don’t go to repent/we don’t go to God. I was thinking, “What do most, even Christians in the church, do with an offense?” Here’s what we do: we hold onto it; we tell others about it/it’s called gossip. In the church, we do this really spiritual thing: we bring it up as a prayer request at a small group: [Laughter] “Hey, you need to pray for John,” “Oh, really? Why?” “Because John did this,” or “…John said that.” We Christianize it/we spiritualize it; and all we’re doing is getting others around us to be bitter with us and to endorse our bitterness; instead of saying, “Okay…”
Again, you didn’t do any of that; but you held onto it for months, maybe close to a year, before we had a moment, where we brought God into it—we call it: “Going vertical,”—but it’s like, until that moment, it was just bitterness.
Ann: Do you think we can let go of bitterness, even if a spouse or a friend doesn’t change?
Dave: Yes, I think we can, with God’s help. I don’t think we can do it apart from Him, because it’s deep. Even my bitterness toward my dad was deep, and I had to go on a journey, and say, “Jesus, I can’t forgive him. I don’t want to forgive.”
Ann: —and “He doesn’t deserve it.”
Dave: Yes, he didn’t do anything to reconcile with me; he didn’t even apologize for it. It’s like a big decision to say: “Okay; I’m going to, as Lewis Smedes in his book on forgiveness says, I’m going to allow Jesus to do spiritual surgery on my heart.” It’s an internal thing; but we have to say, “I’m willing to take the first step to say, ‘I need to forgive; I need to put this offense away and stop this root of bitterness. I can’t; so Jesus, would You begin a work in me?’”
Shelby: You’re listening to Dave and Ann Wilson on FamilyLife Today. This is so good. Dave’s still got a few thoughts, as a reality check, coming up in just a minute.
But first, we’ll never overcome bitterness in our heart, and be able to forgive those who wronged us, if we don’t understand the love of God. That’s why we’d love to send you a copy of Jessica Thompson’s book, How God Loves Us—it’s a 40-day devotional of Discovering His Character in the Fruit of the Spirit.
As we take this short break from the conversation, I want you to know that it’s critical you understand how valuable you are to this program. As you consider partnering with us, at FamilyLife, we want you to know that you are pro-actively changing lives. When you do partner with us, it helps us keep conversations, like today’s, coming at you every single day. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to give, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329; that’s 800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.” And when you do, we’d love to send you a copy of How God Loves Us by Jessica Thompson. It’s our, “Thanks,” to you when you partner, financially, with us today.
Okay; here’s Dave with a few final words of honest reflection when it comes to overcoming bitterness and seeking forgiveness.
Dave: I’m not going to sit here and act like it’s instantaneous—like, it was a week later; I forgave my dad—it was years. But the process starts the day you say, “Jesus, I’m letting You in this area. That person may never change—they may never bless me—but I want You to give me the power to bless them, even if they never bless me.” That changes a person’s heart.
Ann: And that’s their [listener’s] next step.
Shelby: Now, tomorrow, on FamilyLife Today, Dave and Ann Wilson continue the conversation to talk about resolving the little offenses that happen around us; that’s tomorrow.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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