Mental & Emotional Health
Holding on to Old Grievances
Most of us have narratives of our life stories that include some pivotal event. It could be meeting the love of your life or a special teacher who changed your life for the better. Sometimes the pivotal event is a tragedy such as sexual or physical abuse, or an accident or death in the family. For example, Ohio Governor John Kasich’s narrative revolves around the death of his parents in an auto accident in 1987. However, some people’s narratives involve old grievances that are not tragic, but the people have been carrying the old gripes around for years. Something that was done to them that was unfair, or even cruel, changed their life and that explains to them why they are unhappy and never got what they wanted. They may be right that someone did do something that caused pain and grief. But old grievances fester and prevent personal growth and development.
Bob has been harboring a grievance against his mother and sister for ten years. His widowed mother gave his sister a down payment for her house and did not give an equivalent amount of money to Bob. He feels self-righteously angry and there is a feeling of satisfaction in having been victimized and deprived. Why would someone want to hold on to that painful feeling? What makes it so difficult for Bob to get over this grievance?
Sometimes when someone holds on to an old grievance, there are older grievances for which there has been no recognition or apology. People often transfer early experiences on to later ones like a format. Bob, for example, has been angry at his parents and his sister for most of his life. As painful as it is, Bob holds on to the anger about the down payment because he feels it validates his earlier feeling of having been treated unfairly as a little boy.
When Bob was five years old, his elderly grandmother came to live with the family in their three bedroom home. His parents could have moved Bob into his sister’s room (she was seven) and given his room to his grandmother; or they could have chosen to have his grandmother share his sister’s room since she was the same sex. Instead, his parents moved his grandmother into Bob’s room. From ages five to ten, he shared a room with his grandmother, while his sister had her own room.
For Bob, having to share his room with his grandmother indicated that his parents loved his sister more than they loved him. Hence, when Bob’s mother gave his sister money for a down payment and did not offer it to him, his old grievance about having to share his room with his grandmother emerged with renewed force.
Holding on to old grievances can cause a serious undertow in a marriage and it is a common theme in couples’ therapy. Every time there is a disappointment or disagreement, the old grievance comes to the surface with renewed vigor. For example, Barry and Linda have been married for 40 years. Linda’s narrative pivots around their wedding. Linda cannot let go of the hurt caused when Barry acceded to his mother’s demand to have a Catholic wedding. Linda is not Catholic and she wanted to elope in order to avoid a religious service, but Barry could not bear to hurt his mother. His mother’s wishes trumped his new wife’s and Linda went along grudgingly, but never forgave Barry or his mother. Linda felt that her mother-in-law was more important to Barry than she was and every time they had an argument she told him so.
Over the years Barry recognized that he had made a mistake and should have stood up to his mother. But he was 25 years old at the time and his parents’ approval was important to him. Despite his many apologies, Linda could not forgive him. Each time some minor disagreement arose, the old hurt resurfaced and she screamed, “How could you have done that to me?”
Why does Linda hold on to the old grievance even though Barry has apologized multiple times? Why is it so difficult to let go? Not everyone holds on to old grievances. Some people have a Zen-like ability to move on from old hurts. But Linda experienced the hurt surrounding her wedding through an old lens.
Linda feels that her parents were so enamored with her younger brother that they didn’t pay attention to her. Her brother was always the focus of their attention and she was told she had no reason to be jealous. Hence, the fact that her husband paid more attention to his mother’s wishes than to Linda’s brought up all of her old feelings of being second best. Linda felt jealous of her mother-in-law in the way she had been jealous of her brother. And Barry’s apologies did not take away her pain because the real grievance occurred long before Linda and Barry met.
Linda’s pain about her wedding was understandable, but the intensity of it and the relentlessness of it were due to an earlier painful experience that had never been resolved. Once Linda understood the underlying cause of her grievance, she was able to loosen her hold on her grievance against Barry. She was able to explain to Barry why the way he handled their wedding was so painful to her. He was able to comfort her, finally, because he understood the subjective meaning of his behavior to her. And the experience of resolving the grievance brought new intimacy to Linda and Barry’s relationship.