angry couple~A husband exasperatedly says, “Just let it go, already!” to his wife who is still angry about an offense he committed early in their marriage.

~A woman, angry at her best friend for some hurtful comments following her miscarriage tearfully says, “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t let it go.”

These are just two examples I’ve heard in session* recently about the challenge of letting old hurts go.

Letting things go is one of the hardest relationship tasks we all face.  For Christians in general, there is even more involved in the challenge of letting go.  For instance, two of the 7 Spiritual Works of Mercy  (which, along with the “Corporal Works of Mercy” offer specific examples of what it means to live as a person-of-faith in the world) involve “Bearing Wrongs Patiently,” and “Forgiving Willingly.”  And Catholics, specifically, have often heard the counsel, “offer it up” (i.e., use the offense as an opportunity to grow in patience and generosity), when they complain about how others have treated them poorly.

But as my post on St Gregory the Great’s counsel regarding the need to sometimes speak up shows, placing a premium on letting go of some offenses doesn’t mean that it’s never appropriate to address others.  So, how do you know when to speak up and when to let it go?  And once you’ve decided to let something go, how do keep it from coming back and haunting over and over  again?

SPEAK UP OR “OFFER IT UP”?

The question, “Speak up, or offer it up?”  might be best understood as the religious equivalent of the therapeutic advice regarding the need to “pick our battles.”   But how do we apply this in real life?

As a rule of thumb, if something represents an objective threat to your physical, emotional, moral, or relational well-being, it’s probably best to bring it up ASAP.  Instances like these (e.g., your spouse is struggling to control his or her temper, or someone is pressuring you to violate your principles) can represent real injustices or even threats to the basic safety of a relationship.  It is very difficult to let these types of offenses go without causing real damage to yourself or the relationship.

By contrast, it’s usually best to at least try to let go of petty offenses against your comfort level.  Does it really matter how the dishes get done as long as they get done?  Does it really matter if you leave a few minutes later than you wanted to?  Will the world really end if you spend a Saturday doing this instead of that?  And so on.   These offenses against our personal preferences can certainly seem life threatening, but they probably aren’t. More often, they represent an opportunity to get over our big, bad selves and grow up a little.

That said, there are times when even these issues can be appropriate to address.  For instance, it might not be a big deal to pick up your husband’s dirty socks once in a while, but if he regularly, and without regard to your respectful requests to the contrary, expects you to hunt and gather his laundry from wherever he’s decided to hide it this week, that may very well rise to the level of an objective offense–if, for instance, it serves as an illustration of a bigger pattern of disregard and disrespect on his part.  (On the other hand, if this is his one and only blind spot…)

LETTING GO :  HOW TO

Regardless of the nature of the issue, let’s say you’ve decided to try to let something go. How do you stop resentment from coming back up on you like a bad meal?

You make a plan.

The reason we become offended by things (and stay offended) is that we feel that the offense stops us from getting a need met.  We become afraid that if X continues to happen (or doesn’t happen in the first place) then we’ll never be able to do or get Y.

For instance, the wife in my example above might think, “If I don’t say anything about my husband leaving his laundry all over the place, he’ll start to take me for granted.”  In order to let this fear go, the woman in this example might have to make a list of all the ways her husband does, in fact, demonstrate his regard for her so that she can allay the fears that this one thing means that something more deeply sinsiter is afoot.   Or, she might need to ignore the laundry issue, per se, but use her irritation about the laundry to motivate her  to have a more important conversation with her husband about getting a regular date night, or regular time to talk, pray, or work together on some project so that she would feel more connected to him in general and less fearful of being taken for granted.

Likewise, the parent who is afraid to stop constantly criticizing a child might be afraid that if he stops nagging his son, he won’t grow up to be responsible.  This dad might need to list for himself all the ways that his son actually does demonstrate responsibility.  Or, if there is a weakness there, perhaps this dad might do better to take all the energy he puts into nagging and criticizing and put it into a plan to help his son get his homework done more efficiently, or manage time better.

LETTING GO:  THE BOTTOM LINE

The point is, letting go means more than just not thinking about the thing that annoys you.  It means developing a plan that either:

…reminds you that your need is being met despite what your feelings are telling you, OR

…helps you meet the need/address the concern in a more efficient manner than you are currently employing (by holding on to resentment, nagging, or bickering about petty manifestations of the bigger issue).

Developing your ability to consciously choose what’s worth getting worked up about in the first place, and then making a plan to address the actual need at stake, are two skills that can help you start letting go without losing your dignity–or your mind.

 

*Details changed to respect confidentiality

For more information on getting your needs met in your marriage, family or personal life, check out God Help Me!  These People Are Driving Me Nuts!    For Better…FOREVER!   OR Parenting with Grace! 

Angry couple photo available from Shutterstock.