I have counseled hundreds of couples regarding problems in their marriages. Without question the number one issue over all others at the root of their difficulties is bitterness. It isn’t even close to other primary causes (finances, in-law conflicts, sexual problems). I have asked other marriage counselors and they have told me the same thing – they deal with bitterness more than any other single issue.
The challenge in helping a bitter person is that they do not know they are bitter. They call it by other names – being hurt, disappointed, or not having expectations met. Yet, it is bitterness (harbored hurt). It’s impossible to help someone that does not realize they have a problem.
Bitterness is the result of seeds sown in the heart that are allowed to fester and grow. Soon a wall of indifference and silence is established between you and the one in whom you are disappointed. This happens most often with those whom we are the closest. The sheer amount of time spent together with your spouse and children provide the greatest opportunity for hurts to happen. It is inevitable.
I personally believe the cause of most divorces is bitterness. In all of my premarital counseling I’ve never met a couple that said, “We’re going to stay married for five years and then divorce”. At the beginning of their relationship it isn’t a consideration. After the hurts between the two occur (Luke 17:1), if not dealt with correctly, the sure result is a bitter spirit.
It’s hard to believe two people in the midst of a divorce were the same people that married each other – the hardened countenance, keeping a list of offenses by the other, protecting the heart from being let down again. The marriage evolves into a formal transactional, business relationship. At this stage, I call it “emotional divorce”.
Their contentions and issues didn’t happen over night, but were a gradual accumulation of disappointments and unresolved conflicts over months and years. Over time each incident is like a small brick that is stacked alongside and on top of others. At some point a high, thick, and wide wall is now between the two and there is no meaningful or intimate conversation. They simply don’t want to talk to the person that has hurt them so often.
The Bible warns men especially to be on guard against being bitter toward their wives – “Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.” (Colossians 3:19) Notice that love and bitterness are incompatible. It is impossible to love someone with whom you are bitter. Rather than focusing on serving them your focus is on how they have hurt you. Bitterness blinds us to the positive qualities of others.
Of course, wives can be bitter toward their husbands also. Most wives (all wives?) can quickly list the areas in which they are aggravated by their husband. I think I know the top one or two things that disappoint my wife. These are opportunities for her to be bitter toward me. The more dangerous trap for a marriage is the ways we irritate the other, but we are ignorant of and assume all is well.
I know many situations where a spouse (usually the wife) suddenly leaves the husband and tells him why. He is surprised and stunned as he didn’t see he coming. He (or she) took for granted that all was well – or at least tolerable. But it wasn’t.
The irritating behavior no longer hurt them, but they had become numb and just didn’t care any more. The relationship, in their opinion, wasn’t worthwhile saving. I’m not advocating or excusing this response, but it is a reality.
Parents can become bitter toward their children. Do children sometimes hurt their parents? Sure they do. When expectations are not met and sacrifices are not appreciated it is easy to become hurt. Beware Mom and Dad. A bitter spirit will destroy your relationship with your child if not addressed.
The Bible corroborates this – “A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her that bare him.” (Proverbs 17:25) The word “grief” means “to be provoked to anger or sorrow”. Similarly, the word “bitterness” means “to grieve from sorrow”. A foolish child hurts his parents deeply, especially when they have striven to help him even to the point of great sacrifices.
Years ago I was licking my wounds from something one of my children had done to hurt me. As I began to brood on it I realized that I was on the path to becoming bitter toward my own precious child. Remember, bitterness isn’t hatred, but hurt that is harbored.
Bitter parents begin to pull away from their child in their spirit. The result is deadly. A child doesn’t come home for holidays, call regularly, or does all he can to keep things on a surface level. It is often their response to Dad and Mom being bitter toward them. And tragically, it becomes a characteristic passed down generation to generation (Exodus 20:5).
Be careful, that wound in your heart from your child’s behavior or lack of gratitude is a seed of bitterness. It will continue to grow if not dealt with quickly and the results are not pretty. Many parents and adult children are divided for decades because of something that happened many years ago.
Another layer of bitterness in the home happens between children and their parents. I can remember decisions my parents made (especially my father) when I was a teenager that I didn’t like. It didn’t seem to m that he understood and I knew he was wrong on the issue.
However, as I look back on my life I cannot remember a single time that he was wrong. It was my own immaturity and selfishness that caused the conflict and the potential for bitterness to build up in my heart. Dad and Mom had a perspective from experience and wisdom that I sorely lacked from my limited youthful viewpoint.
I was greatly blessed in that my father loved me unconditionally. He told me and showed me frequently by his actions. It was his kindness and consistent love that kept me from staying upset with him.
I’m sure Paula and I have hurt our children, most often, unintentionally. Even if it was unintentional it still was painful to them. While I do my best to be right with them and close to them, they must make the choice to deal with the hurts from us through forgiveness. The vast majority of parents are very sincere, but still sin and hurt the people they love the most sometimes.
Many years ago I was counseling a man that was separated from his wife. He was consumed with bitterness. When he spoke about her his face would contort and tighten. He was angry about what he thought she was saying to their children about him. There was not a single positive thing he ever said about her. Most of the time he didn’t want to hear anything I had to say to help him; he just wanted to vent. Within the year they were divorced.
Under false pretenses to take gifts to his children he drove to her home and asked her to come to the car and help him carry the items to the house. While she was carrying the packages he stood behind her, pulled a revolver and shot her in the head. Then he went after her father and shot him four times in the back. Both of them died. After the carnage was over he stood by his car and waited for the police to arrive.
Today he sits on death row waiting for his execution date. His lawyers attempted to make it a case of insanity. I know better. I spent more time with the man than his attorneys. It was a case of bitterness. And he refused to deal with it even after clear Bible counseling and direction.
I often tell our church, “If it can be done, you can do it”. Bitterness unchecked always leads to malice (Ephesians 4:31). You are not an exception.
Perhaps as you have read these words you have realized that there is an unresolved hurt between you and your spouse, your children, or your parents – or your brothers or sisters. Deal with it today, forgive them, that you might not have regrets in the future. Don’t allow bitterness to rob you of the joy and sweetness of spending time with your family. Life is too short to live in bitterness. It just isn’t worth it.