I often deal with spouses who have trouble forgiving their husband or wife for some hurt they caused. Sometimes it’s big, like an affair. Sometimes it’s not quite as monumental, like being late somewhere. Large or small issue, often spouses have trouble getting part these small hurts. They don’t understand why they just can’t let it go.
Today I heard the name for an effect I’ve known of for some time. It’s called the Zeigarnik effect, after it’s discoverer. This young psychologist was sitting in a Viennese cafe watching the staff remember complex and long orders, without taking notes, and never getting them wrong. After the meal, she decided to interview some of them, and to her astonishment, none of them could remember the previous orders. It turns out that our brains remember incomplete tasks far better than complete ones.
So, what does this have to do with marriage? Well, I think a large part of the reason people can’t move past their hurts is because it’s an unfinished task. For many people, conflict hurts, and so is something to be avoided. So, when it happens, they prefer to simply move on rather than deal with the issue. The problem is that this means the conflict is never really resolved. The issue is still outstanding. The task is incomplete.
In jumps the Zeigarnik effect. You now have an unfinished task camping in your brain that your mind wants to constantly keep alive so you won’t forget to complete it. Unfortunately, the only way to keep a memory like that alive is to regularly use it. So, the spouse gets to relive the memory over and over again. Unsurprisingly, this makes them feel like they can’t let it go, like they’re unable to forgive them.
How do you move past the hurt?
Well, the solution is to complete the task. All conflict is an opportunity to grow. I know a few couples that have grown through an affair rather than let it destroy their marriage. They took a hard look at their relationship and resolved to fix the issues.
Yet I talk to other couples who can’t get over simple logistical issues simply because they refuse to look at the conflict and discuss what needs to change. Each spouse simply points at the other and says “It’s their fault.” Most of the time, each spouse has some blame in any conflict. Even the spouses I know who were cheated on say “yeah, I bear some of the responsibility”. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t deserve it, but they know they could have done a better job of preventing it. I’m always impressed with their humility.
So, if you are struggling to let go of something your spouse did to you, ask yourself:
- Did we resolve the conflict, or just bury it?
- Did I learn something that I could improve about myself?
- Did I tell my spouse I forgive them, and mean it?
If any of the answers to these questions is a “no”, then you might have an unfinished task nagging at you.