Is Resentment Coming Between You and Your Spouse?

Guest post by Claire Hatch, LICSW

Like a lot of people, you’re pretty happy with your marriage. You’re lucky. You found someone who shares your values, makes you laugh, and who is really a good person who means well.

And yet—whenever something happens that reminds you of that, your blood pressure shoots up and your mind starts to spin. Maybe it’s the way he follows other women with his eyes when you’re out to dinner. Maybe it’s the way she has to have the last word about the children.

You’ve got some resentment built up. You know you’d be so much closer and happier together if you could figure out how to talk about it. But how do you break the ice without things going south?

 Look Inside Before You Talk

As a marriage counselor, I help people with this problem every day. I’ve learned that if you get a better handle on your own experience before you talk, it changes the game. Resentment snowballs in a predictable series of stages. When you step back and look at them, one by one, the swirl of angry feelings in your head settles down. You can see clearly what you need to say to your partner to reach the understanding you’ve been wanting.

To help you do this, I developed a model called the Cycle of Resentment. Here’s how it works.

 Understand the Cycle of Resentment

Picture a circle. At the top of the circle is the Trigger Event, that thing your partner did or didn’t do that upset you so much.

Next in the cycle are your desires. I call them Burning Unmet Desires. You only get hurt when there’s something you want very badly from your partner. That’s what turns an everyday occurrence into a trigger. Your desire might be for your partner to help more with the kids or to go on a date with you. But your deepest desires are the emotional ones, such as feeling accepted, secure, admired, or special. These are the kinds of desires that lead to the keenest resentment when they’re left unfulfilled.

When your desires are thwarted, you tend to draw Negative Conclusions, such as “He doesn’t care about me” or “I have to do all the work around here.” The more trips you make around the cycle, the more fixed your conclusions become in your mind.

Your conclusions can’t help but produce Painful Feelings. You’ll feel hurt and angry, and maybe disillusioned, anxious or powerless.

Then, when you’re in the grip of your feelings, you’ll have some kind of Reactions. Do you try harder to convince your partner to do what you want? Do you get angry and lash out? Some of your reactions fuel the cycle and keep it going.

Your desires get more intense as you go through the cycle. In the last stage, you develop some New Desires. Usually, the number one New Desire is for your partner to understand everything you’ve been through. If you can get this desire met, you’re on your way to stopping the cycle. But the less you feel understood, the more little things become Trigger Events. And you go through the cycle all over again.

As you read this, you might already be feeling like you’re looking at things with more perspective. I see that happen a lot with people I work with. What I’d like you to do now is to choose one particular resentment you’ve been struggling with. Chart its course through the cycle. You want to take your time, look at each stage, and identify exactly what you were going through at that point in the cycle.

 Speak Up, and Get the Understanding You Crave

Once you’ve sorted out your own stages of the cycle, you’ll find it much easier to have a successful conversation with your partner. You’ll be able to zero in on what’s really important to you. You might also see some ways you’ve contributed to the resentment snowball. If you can take some responsibility for that, you’ll find your partner is much more open to talking with you.

In some cases, your discussion will lead to new solutions, for example about how you can share the child care or find more time to go out together. But often those kind of concrete solutions are beside the point. Sometimes feeling understood is the solution. The truth is, for most of us, that’s the most important emotional desire of all.

Claire Hatch, LICSW is a marriage counselor in the Seattle area. She writes a marriage blog at ClaireHatch.com and released her book, Save Your Marriage: Get Rid of Your Resentment in October, 2011.

NOTE: A special thank you to Mrs. Levine of the beautiful blog, Whispered Between Women, for publishing an interview with me about my upcoming book. I’ll republish the post later in the week, but you can also read it here:

Photo by nuttakit courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

9 responses to “Is Resentment Coming Between You and Your Spouse?

  1. Sexy Christian Wife

    Exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks.

  2. Resentment can be toxic, especially when it isn’t brought out in the open. I really like your Cycle of Resentment – very effective and powerful. I also agree about understanding being so important, and a vital first step towards positive communication about problem issues.

  3. I read this bc i feel I’m growing resentment toward my husband. I can always see how I react in the wrong way immediately, but I must admit I’m still stuck in the cycle. H is a know it all kind of person. Most of our fights start from a criticism he gives. I know this burns me deeply bc all I want is to be told I’m doing a good job. If it were just a once off thing, i could handle it, but it turns into a lecture and I feel like a child being reprimanded. I get hurt and angry. Sometimes I ask him to stop and sometimes

  4. Sorry…cont. Sometimes I snap back with a nasty attitude. I know that isn’t right and I want to stop the cycle, but how do I stop the criticism? He criticizes my parenting, my cleaning, my habits, etc. and when I disagree with him suddenly I’m not “supportive.” I haven’t figured out yet how to effectively fight, for lack of a better term. We’ve been married 5 1/2 years andour kids are starting to be old enough to see this. My boil it down desire? To be accepted and respected. I can’t command my children’s respect if my husband doesn’t.

    • I’m sorry that you are having this challenge, and it does sound difficult. Have you expressed your feelings to your husband? Your desire to be accepted and respected? “I feel xx when you xx?” Try to stay calm and express your feelings clearly. If you can’t do it in person, maybe even in writing. I’m not a marital therapist, but perhaps a pro-marriage counselor would be able to help you, or even communication training online at poweroftwomarriage.org. This is a confidential online service. It’s very difficult for a spouse to feel loved when he or she is criticized frequently, so I can understand your pain. Check my resources page for good online or print resources as well. I wish you the best.

  5. Pingback: 109 - When Sex Isn't Worth the Trouble - Stupendous Marriage

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