People can be complicated, and the ways we relate to one another more so. In marriage, spending a lifetime together provides many opportunities to create happy memories, but it’s also true that the daily grind of life can produce negative experiences too. Some of these negative experiences with a spouse can bring about feelings of resentment.
Resentment is a complex emotion that’s a mixture of disgust, disappointment, and anger that arises when we feel we’ve been insulted or injured. When you harbor ill-will toward your spouse, that can have deep and long-standing effects on the marriage.
Causes of Resentment
Resentment can be caused by a variety of circumstances, and these include:
Disappointments and unmet expectations. When your spouse disappoints you by saying or doing hurtful things, or by not doing what they said they would, that can lead to feelings of resentment. Additionally, if your spouse doesn’t meet certain expectations, such as being romantic, or being more involved with the children, or more invested in your career, which can evoke resentment.
Inability to forgive. When your spouse makes a mistake, or if there is a deep misunderstanding that causes hurt, one faces the choice of whether to forgive them or not. Without forgiveness, the root of bitterness is given room to grow and resentment sets in over the hurt caused by your spouse.
Lack of mutual appreciation. When you don’t feel appreciated by your spouse, you can feel taken for granted; the same goes for your spouse. That can undermine the goodwill and create room for anger and its close companion resentment.
You can tell that resentment exists in a relationship when one or both parties in the relationship quite often find fault with each other, physical intimacy is withheld, they feel detached from one another, they find that they tend to argue over the same things and feel they aren’t being listened to by their partner. These may signal the presence of resentment.
Dealing with Resentment in Marriage
Resentment has the effect of slowly killing a relationship, bringing untold pain, and erasing the positive feelings from the relationship. Left to fester, it can estrange spouses and possibly end marriages. How does a couple go about dealing with resentment in their marriage?
Acknowledge the problem
The first step in addressing resentment is to acknowledge that there is an issue. Resentment is a silent killer – often, one spouse feels those feelings of anger, disgust, and disappointment, but their spouse may not even have a clue that is how they feel.
The detachment caused by resentment can lead relationships into a slow fade, where through imperceptible years the marriage struggles until it eventually just ends. Even if the two feel and know that there is an issue, often it can remain unnamed and unresolved. Resentment should be named for it to be dealt with appropriately.
Adjust and set realistic expectations
Resentment can also happen when one spouse feels disappointed because their spouse did not meet certain expectations. Sometimes, these expectations can be unrealistic and difficult to meet. In some circumstances, the expectations are difficult for your spouse to meet because of who they are.
For example, if you want to be hosting people in your home weekly or you want to take your spouse out every week, if they are introverted, that’s not a recipe for their flourishing nor is it realistic that they’ll join you gladly. Or you might expect your spouse to be enthusiastic about sex every night, but that just might not be possible.
These expectations, when disappointed, can lead to resentment. To avoid such disappointment, compromising, and having realistic expectations that your spouse can meet can go a long way. Your spouse is a human being, and that means as amazing as they are, they have limited capacities.
Communicate your needs
In addition to having unrealistic expectations, one cause of resentment in marriage is when any expectations or needs are left uncommunicated. Our spouses aren’t mind readers, and we can’t assume they know what we need.
“You should know this without me telling you” – these words can be devastating for a relationship because they assume the other person knows what they ought to do, so surely when they don’t do what we expect, that means it’s a deliberate decision to ignore our feelings.
Sometimes hurt feelings come about because your spouse simply doesn’t know or misunderstands; this is why a couple needs to continue speaking openly, gently, and often throughout the life of the marriage, to make sure they know what the other person needs.
Listen to one another
A key component of good communication is listening well. It’s not enough for your spouse to say what they need – you must listen to what they say so that you understand those needs and can respond appropriately.
We often assume that we are good listeners, but we usually aren’t. Between being distracted, not paying attention to our and the other person’s non-verbal cues, interrupting, not asking clarifying questions, or reflecting what we’ve heard and many other signs of poor listening, we’re not really listening and the people around us don’t often feel heard.
Sometimes what causes resentment is not so much that needs and expectations aren’t communicated, but that one spouse simply does not feel heard because their spouse is a poor listener and after they communicate, nothing seems to change. Real, empathetic listening creates a space to hear what the other person needs and moves to act, however haltingly, to remedy the situation.
Appreciate what your spouse does
A frequent cause for resentment is when a spouse does not feel appreciated. Whether it’s taking out the trash, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, taking overtime to better provide for the family’s needs, looking after the kids, or going to an event they didn’t want to go to (except that they want to support their spouse), spouses ought to appreciate one another.
We all want to feel that we are seen and that the effort we put into the marriage is seen and appreciated. The words “Thank you” can go a long way in a marriage. Over time, spouses can take simple things for granted, and with that lack of appreciation, resentment can set in.
Honor your commitments
Being accountable to your spouse means living up to what you said you would do. If you say you’re going to do something, do it. If you cannot meet the commitment you made, assume that you need to explain why you weren’t able to, and be prepared to apologize to your spouse. Broken promises are a frequent culprit when it comes to causes of resentment.
Learn to forgive and let go
With the understanding that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we know that the person we are married to will make mistakes and sin against us (just as we will sin against and hurt them). We can choose to forgive them and let go of our anger and feelings of disgust that if given their head quietly (or otherwise) blossom into resentment.
While forgiving your spouse means letting go of your anger and not holding their mistake against them, it also means making a clean start of things. A clean slate means keeping past mistakes in the past and deciding to not bring those past grievances into present conflicts. If you’re in an argument and say, “You always do this!” to your spouse, there are at least two things to consider, especially if you’ve forgiven them of a similar infraction in the past.
First, it’s likely an unfair characterization to say your spouse “always” does something; second, saying it like that indicates that whatever they did in the past is probably still being held against them and hasn’t been truly forgiven. Accountability and forgiveness aren’t opposites, and both can coexist in a relationship.
Christian Marriage Counseling
Resentment can have a corrosive effect on relationships. Taking it seriously and heading it off before it sets in can help save a marriage from a lot of pain, and even when it has caused emotional distance within the relationship, resentment can be dealt with by addressing its root causes.
With the help of a trained and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a couple can unearth and address the causes of resentment in their marriage, setting better foundations and gaining skills to strengthen their marriage for the present and future seasons.
“Wild Horses at Dawn”, Courtesy of Annie Spratt, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “She Doesn’t Know”, Courtesy of E S, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Smoke on the Water”, Courtesy of Dejan Zakic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “No Words”, Courtesy of Mary Skovpen, Unsplash.com, CC0 License