How to Overcome Built-Up Resentment in Marriage
Resentment in marriage is a dangerous emotion. It’s a silent killer of relationships. Resentment is bitterness at having been mistreated. It’s anger too, but it’s so much more. When you feel resentment, you’re reliving whatever caused the anger. This builds an emotional wall between you and your spouse.
Resentment is complex, and it doesn’t look the same for everyone. Resentment can be a mixture of anger, surprise, disgust, contempt, shock, and outrage.1
Here are some common causes of resentment in marriage:
- Being taken advantage of by your spouse.
- Your spouse spends too much time with their family or friends and not enough with yours.
- Your spouse is married to their job.
- You don’t feel recognized or appreciated by your spouse.
- Being put down by your spouse.
Any of these would cause you to be justifiably angry. When that anger is ignored or left unresolved, it festers and grows into resentment. Anger is a healthy emotion, but resentment is not.
Built-up resentment doesn’t have to be a relationship killer. Your marriage can overcome it. It may not be easy, but it is possible.
Where do you start if you want to overcome built-up resentment in your marriage?
I’m so glad you asked.
Get to the root of the resentment.
To overcome resentment in marriage, you have to start at the root. Ask yourself, “When did it start? What happened that caused me to feel this way?” Maybe you feel there are several causes. Grab a notebook and start writing. Think through the timeline of your marriage. It may seem like you resent your spouse for several things, but there is likely a root cause. Remember, resentment builds an emotional wall between you and your spouse. Many issues may have compounded after that wall was built.
The intention isn’t to list all your spouse’s wrongdoings. Like a good detective, you need to gather the evidence. The exercise of writing down the wrongs will help you identify the root cause. Once you have identified the root, don’t let the other issues compound it.
Let yourself feel.
Resentment is an intense emotion. If you’re angry, be angry. If you’re sad, be sad. We often bottle up our feelings when we think others don’t care. Bottling up those emotions isn’t healthy or helpful. To overcome resentment, you must process the feelings that come with it. And as you work through this with your spouse, you must let those feelings be seen. Let them know how their action, or inaction, makes you feel. Remember to use “I” statements like “I feel hurt” or “I feel neglected.”
Focus on the good.
Your spouse is your partner, the love of your life. You may not always like them, but you married them because you love them. While resentment can cause us to dwell on the negative, overcoming resentment can only happen if we remember all the good in our marriage. Grab that same notebook and write all the good about your spouse and marriage. Write down what you love about them, how they care for you, good memories, and cherished moments.
You’re going through this process of overcoming resentment because you cherish and value your spouse.
Talk to someone you trust.
Whether it’s a therapist, a friend, or a relative, you may need someone to talk with through this process. This isn’t about bashing your spouse. You must address your feelings first. You can’t fix someone else; you can only fix yourself. Surround yourself with a support system as you find healing. You may have someone in mind as you read this. Take out your phone, text or call them, and invite them to coffee.
★We get it: Sometimes getting the help you need can feel like it’s out of reach for so many reasons. Here are some free/reduced options for counseling and help in your personal and relational wellbeing.★
Acknowledge that we all make mistakes.
We’re all human. Mistakes are in our nature. If we want others to forgive our mistakes, we must offer the same to them. However, this doesn’t mean you should excuse your spouse’s behavior when they wrong you. It means you should acknowledge their mistake and look deeper into the circumstances. If the mistake is repetitive, intentional, or crosses a boundary and they refuse to address it, you should speak to a counselor to get guidance.
Work toward forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a process. It would be ignorant of me to tell you to just forgive your spouse. I’m not a person who easily forgives. It’s often easier to forget and distance yourself from the person who harmed you. But resentment hurts you more than anyone else. If you’re looking for healing, forgiveness must come.
It may take a lot of time, depending on the depth of the hurt. When you choose to forgive your spouse, you decide to heal yourself. Take your time and be aware of your emotional well-being through the process. Don’t let anyone rush you to forgive. Let your spouse know your feelings and the cause of them. When you are ready, let them know you forgive them. Be honest with them.
Holding on to resentment hurts you. If you want a healthy, happy marriage, don’t let resentment keep you from working toward that.
How to Stay Motivated During Marriage Challenges – First Things First
What to Do When You Feel Disrespected in Marriage – First Things First
How To Have More Meaningful Conversations With Your Spouse – First Things First
1TenHouten, W. D. (2018). From ressentiment to resentment as a tertiary emotion. Rev. Eur. Stud., 10, 49.
Miceli, & Castelfranchi, C. (2019). Anger and Its Cousins. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073917714870
Dealing with Resentment in Relationships I Psych Central
How to Fix Resentment in a Marriage | Loving at Your Best
5 Things to Do When You Start Resenting Your Partner
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
How to Keep Intimacy Strong in Your Marriage
Marriage can be a wonderful experience when both spouses are connected and headed in the same direction. Life can be beautiful when you walk side by side, working together. But marriage isn’t always this way. My wife and I recently celebrated 18 years of marriage, and we haven’t always been on the same page. But we’ve learned having a happy, healthy marriage takes intentionality and commitment. And it requires a healthy level of intimacy. It’s important to keep intimacy strong in your marriage.
Let me clarify what I mean by the word intimacy. Intimacy is not sex, although that’s part of it. Intimacy is so much more! It’s the close connection you have with another person and feeling comfortable around your partner. It’s communicating your needs and feelings, and appreciating each other for who you are, not what you do or bring to the relationship. Intimacy is the intentional, ongoing process of fully knowing your spouse and being fully known by your spouse.
Did you know there is more to intimacy than just sex?
There are several types of intimacy: Emotional, Intellectual, Experiential, Spiritual, and Sexual. And they’re all intertwined.
Nurturing intimacy in your marriage requires building up these types. As you strengthen one area, the whole becomes stronger. Think of it as your health. Being healthy is more than just working out. It’s eating right, getting plenty of rest, hydrating, and exercising. When you focus on one area, you feel better. But to get healthy, you have to work on all the areas. Here’s a cool thing about strengthening intimacy in your marriage: When you strengthen one area, others are boosted as well.
So, if we want to keep intimacy strong in our marriage, we must do some work. Marriage isn’t easy. But having a happy, healthy, thriving marriage is possible for any couple who commits to the work. And it’s so worth the effort.
Let’s look at each type of intimacy and some workouts to strengthen them.
Emotional intimacy is understanding what’s happening inside your spouse (and feeling like they know you the same way). It’s demonstrated through communication and requires vulnerability. You have to listen and share. This is often the toughest intimacy to build, but it’s the glue that holds them all together. These conversations usually involve tough topics like feelings in response to someone’s actions, perception of yourself, or a difficult childhood. They may also include your hopes, dreams, and desires.
Take The First Step:
When you and your spouse see each other next, ask, ‘What is one thing you wish had gone differently today? Why?'”Listen and validate their feelings. This creates a vulnerable and safe environment.
Intellectual intimacy is about getting to know how your spouse’s mind works and letting them understand you better. Don’t get scared! And no, this doesn’t mean you can learn to read their mind. We all have a worldview shaped by our values, beliefs, and experiences. You and your spouse grew up in different families, work different jobs, and may have grown up in different cultures.
Take The First Step:
Ask your spouse, “What’s one thing or topic you’ve always wanted to do/learn? Let’s find a time to put it on the calendar and learn it together!” Sometimes, intellectual intimacy can lead to talking about things you disagree on. If you disagree with your spouse, ask questions about why they believe what they believe and make sure you’re asking those questions to learn more about them, not change their mind.
Experiential intimacy is the experiences and quality time you spend together. It’s bonding over shared interests. You don’t have to do everything together, but experiences together are often how relationships begin and grow.
Take The First Step:
Ask your spouse, “When is the last time we did something new together? Let’s decide on one new thing to try this month!” Setting regular time in your schedule to experience new things together can help strengthen your experiential intimacy.
Spirituality means different things to different people. For some, faith and religion are essential. For others, meditation or nature may feed their spirits. Spirituality involves your belief and values.
Take The First Step:
If faith is an integral part of your life, worshipping and praying together is an ideal way to grow your spiritual intimacy. Ask your spouse, “What’s one thing you do to help you feel grounded? Can we try it together, or do you prefer to do it alone?” One of my favorite ways to increase spiritual intimacy is by getting into nature. Take a walk in nature with your spouse, hand in hand and device-free.
This one seems straightforward, but there is so much more than sex. It’s the physical connection between you and your spouse. It’s all the touching, kissing, and hugging.
Sexual intimacy may be hard for some people because of past trauma or abuse. Be attentive to your spouse. If there is past trauma, offer to walk alongside them as they seek help to address it.
Take The First Step:
I could say have more sex, but it takes a lot more than that. Ask your spouse, “How many times a week would you say is ideal for us to have sex?” Scheduling sex doesn’t have to mean it’ll be boring! Sometimes the anticipation can add to the excitement.
But don’t just focus on the sex. Be intentional about physically connecting with your spouse in ways that make them feel safe. Maybe that’s cuddling, holding hands, or a massage.
Choosing to strengthen the intimacy in your marriage is a beautiful journey. It takes trust, acceptance, vulnerability, compassion, communication, and time. Enjoy the journey!
How to Talk About Sex in Marriage
Why People Really Have Affairs
How to Stay Motivated During Marriage Challenges
Weinberger, M.I., et al. (2008). Intimacy in young adulthood as a predictor of divorce in midlife. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2008.00215.x
Sinclair, & Dowdy, S. W. (2005). Development and Validation of the Emotional Intimacy Scale. https://doi.org/10.1891/jnum.13.3.193
Kardan-Souraki, M., et al. (2016). A Review of Marital Intimacy-Enhancing Interventions among Married Individuals. https://doi.org/10.5539/gjhs.v8n8p74
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***
Is Conflict in Marriage Inevitable?
Some things in marriage are inevitable, like conflict.
But wait. Isn’t the point of marriage to avoid conflict? To live in marital bliss and peace, happily ever after?
It’s commonly thought the less you fight, the healthier your marriage. As a matter of fact, both researchers and counselors seem to agree some conflict is not only inevitable, it’s normal. And it could even be good for your marriage.
That word: conflict; it’s tricky. Some might be tempted to picture marital conflict as a knock-down, drag-out, throwdown of debate and insults in the effort to “win.”
But if we’re to thrive in our marriage, it’s necessary to reframe how we think about marital conflict.
Conflict is simply disagreement. It’s a temporary inability to see eye-to-eye. Sometimes it involves strong feelings. But in no way is conflict some kind of omen for dysfunction. It’s just gonna happen, even in the healthiest of marriages. It’s, well, inevitable.
Side note here: There’s something to be said about the frequency of conflict in your marriage. If you find yourselves constantly at odds with each other, this could spell trouble. And it’s a possible sign that either: A. You aren’t handling conflict in a healthy way, or B. Other dynamics are eating away at your marriage. If this is the case, it may be a good time to consider seeking help from a professional marriage counselor.
So when it does come around (and it will), every married couple is tasked with handling conflict in healthy ways.
But how do you get there? Keep these ideas in mind:
- You and your spouse wear the same jersey. You’re on the same team. Even teammates have different ideas of how to get the ball down the field. But at the end of the day, you both share the same goal: Resolve the issue at hand and keep your marriage strong.
- Attack the problem instead of each other. In other words, keep the goal the goal. Nothing gets accomplished when you go after each other’s character. Avoid those four nasty responses to conflict described by researcher John Gottman: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling.1 They kill communication and suck the life out of your marriage.
- Be aware of how you speak in a conflict. Avoid using harsh start-ups, launching into a tirade with your emotions driving the boat. Don’t start sentences with “You…” Instead, use “I” statements to own your feelings and opinions.
- This is going to require some listening on both your parts. Listening is key to working toward a resolution.2 Since you share the goal, you share in the solution. Listen to seek to understand the other person’s view, even if it doesn’t align with your own thinking.
- Know when to forgive, and perhaps more importantly, when to ask for forgiveness. It deters the lingering effects of a conflict, even when a solution is found.3 Forgive and leave the offense there.
If you and your spouse experience conflict in your marriage, don’t fret.
It doesn’t mean you’re doomed. It’s just a part of life and a part of the marriage journey. And evidence even suggests that conflict can be positive for your marriage.4
Although conflict is inevitable, it provides an opportunity for making change where it needs to be made. And working through an issue to find a solution creates a stronger sense of connection and intimacy between couples.
Don’t let conflict throw your marriage off track. Maximize it to find solutions and strengthen your marriage.
How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage
4 Tips for Becoming a Team in Marriage
1Gottman, J., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting Marital Happiness and Stability from Newlywed Interactions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 60(1), 5–22. https://doi.org/10.2307/353438
2Lachica, N., Stockwell, A., & Gamba, J. (2021). What did I just say? An individualized behavior skills training for listening behaviors of adult participants in romantic relationships. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681994.2021.1922664
3Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., & Davila, J. (2004). Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution in Marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 18(1), 72–81. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3188.8.131.52
4Deutsch, M., & Coleman, P. T. (2000). The handbook of conflict resolution : theory and practice (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.
5 Ways to Tell If You’re a Passive-Aggressive Spouse
Has your spouse accused you of being passive-aggressive? Maybe they say you’re manipulative. Maybe they tell you that you never speak your mind. Sometimes it may seem like you’ve gained the upper hand in disagreements, but it still feels like the relationship never wins. Are you passive-aggressive or being falsely accused? Well, let’s look at a few ways to shed more light on whether you’re passive-aggressive or not.
What is passive-aggressive behavior?
Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M.D says, “Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them.“1
Think of it this way: You’re expressing your negative feelings aggressively, negatively. Often, this asserts your control, power, or desire to punish your spouse. However, it’s done passively or indirectly. If you’re not directly naming it, your spouse may not be sure what the real issue is.
Aggressive doesn’t necessarily mean loud, forceful, or demonstrative. But it is often intentional and pointed directly toward your spouse.
Different Levels of Passive-Aggressiveness
1. Passive-Aggressive Moments.
Many people have moments of passive-aggressiveness. Sometimes, you just don’t have the emotional energy to deal with a conflict, so you use passive-aggressive behavior to keep control of the issue. You may not demonstrate this behavior often, but every now and then, you might pull it out of your bag of tricks. You probably know it’s not the healthiest thing in the world, but the alternative at the moment isn’t worth it.
2. Passive-Aggressive Habits.
Being passive-aggressive is your primary way of addressing issues with your spouse. You may even find it hard to initiate a conversation about an issue head-on. You may have become “effective” at passive-aggressive behavior. It seems to get you what you want.
3. Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association defines this as a “pervasive pattern of negativistic attitudes and passive resistance to demands for adequate performance in social and occupational situations.” 2,3 This person feels impossible to tackle conflict with. Their passive-aggressive nature spreads throughout every part of their life.
What does passive-aggressive behavior look like?
Here are some ways being passive-aggressive may play out.
1. Sarcastic, snarky comments.
On its own, the comment you make may sound like a compliment. But the context is clearly meant to be negative. You and your spouse haven’t had a real conversation in weeks, but you hear your spouse chopping it up with one of their friends. You say, “You two sure do have a lot to talk about.” On its own, it seems innocent. Perhaps you’re hoping they feel the sharpness of your emotions. You feel neglected, maybe a bit jealous. However, instead of coming out and saying what you feel, you make a sarcastic remark.
2. Half-doing tasks.
Your spouse’s schedule has changed, and they aren’t doing things around the house, leaving it to you. You resent their schedule change, or you feel like they’re taking you for granted. Instead of bringing it up, you half-heartedly do the tasks like yard work, laundry, or cleaning. It’s obviously not up to standard. You’re trying to prove a point.
3. Silence or distance. (I struggle with this one.)
You gain control by not talking about anything of substance. Your conversations become surface-level or just about facts. Nothing personal or vulnerable. You build a wall between you and your spouse. You’re expressing your anger, resentment, displeasure, etc., through silence. This gives you control of the situation or at least makes you feel like you’re in control.
4. Agreeing, but not really agreeing.
Your spouse wants to go to the in-laws, but you don’t want to go. Your spouse knows you don’t want to go, and you can’t even believe they’ve asked you to come along. Instead of sharing your true desire, you agree to go not out of compassion or being a team player but out of resentment. You’re upset because they should know that you’re not ok with going.
5. Ignoring, putting off, or procrastinating.
Your spouse has asked you to do something. Your negative feelings toward your spouse may have nothing to do with what they’ve asked. However, you choose to express your negative emotions by continually putting off their request while never sharing the real reason.
Signs You May Be Passive-Aggressive… Self-Reflection Questions
While you self-reflect, consider…
- How do you address conflict in your marriage? Do you clearly communicate your thoughts, emotions, and desires, or do you drop hints? Do you exhibit any of the previously mentioned behaviors? Is ist possbile that you simply avoid conflict while sending sharp signals that there is conflict?
- Do you have negative thoughts about your spouse that motivate how you respond to them? How do they know those thoughts? Or do they? Is it possible you have built-up anger or resentment that comes out through simple requests?
- Do you usually control the when and where you deal with marital problems? You may be using passive-aggressive behavior to control or manipulate your spouse instead of working together.
Understanding how you deal with issues in your marriage can help your marriage thrive through difficult times.
If you come to the conclusion that you are a passive-aggressive spouse, that’s progress! Even if you don’t, this can open up meaningful conversations with your spouse to figure out how to handle conflict well in your marriage. The ultimate goal here isn’t about pointing out faults; it’s about transforming conflict in your marriage into building blocks for intimacy. Becoming a better version of yourself in that process is a strong byproduct I’ll take any day.
How to End Passive Aggressive Behavior in Marriage
How To Improve Bad Communication In Marriage
The #1 Thing That Can Secretly Ruin Your Marriage
1What is Passive Aggressive Behavior? What Are Some of the Signs?
2 The Construct of Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
How to End Passive Aggressive Behavior in Marriage
Newsflash: Sometimes your spouse is going to make you plain mad.
(Not to mention you’ll inevitably do something to annoy the heck out of them.)
Something is said, something is done without you being informed, something is left undone…
And the blood starts to boil.
Being angry is perfectly normal, and usually, things can be worked through. Mistakes and misunderstandings are a normal part of any relationship, especially a marriage.
But it’s how a person responds in their anger that can help find a resolution or derail the marriage train. Passive-aggressiveness in marriage not only throws the relationship off its tracks, but it’s also downright destructive.
Passive-aggressive behavior in marriage is when a person expresses anger or annoyance in an indirect way.1
- One person forgot to put the dishes away. The other says, Wow, look at all these dishes in here. Sure would be nice if they were in the cabinet where they belong…
- One said something that embarrassed the other last night in front of friends. The embarrassed person hasn’t spoken a word to the other since thinking their silence will wake their spouse up to what they did wrong.
- One spouse left their dirty socks on the bed when they came home. The other nonchalantly throws them in the trash can and walks away with a smile.
A passive-aggressive response in marriage is marked with quiet bitterness. It’s often a way to punish the offender emotionally, letting them “wallow in their sin” for a while. The “offended” seemingly avoids the conflict while putting the “offender” in a place of guilt, shame, and discomfort. It’s a power-play, a form of manipulation, and a highly ineffective way of dealing with conflict and strengthening a marriage.2, 3
Just in case I haven’t been too clear on this yet: Passive-aggressiveness is not good for a marriage.4
And yet, we all tend to act passive-aggressively at times. Fortunately, you can avoid it.
How can you and your spouse end passive-aggressive behavior in your marriage?
Talk about the importance of checking your anger before you respond.
It’s essential to pause and examine your emotions. Ask yourself, Okay, how am I feeling toward my spouse right now? I’m obviously frustrated. But am I being bitter? Am I trying to make my spouse feel ashamed or guilty? Am I expressing my feelings in a healthy way?
Agree to avoid dwelling on it.
This is when you replay the thing that has offended you over and over again in your mind. It builds negative energy and makes you even angrier the more you think about it. Decide together to talk about an issue directly, respectfully, and in a timely manner.
Practice addressing an issue directly.
Establish some ground rules for working through more serious issues respectfully. Agree to sincerely express emotions with each other. To avoid ruminating, it might be helpful to have a 24-hour rule. If either of you has any beef with the other, you’ll address it in a civil manner within 24 hours.
Have weekly check-in meetings to resolve hanging issues.
Establish a regular time to meet together over coffee and simply connect. Use that time to calmly get anything out in the open that needs to be hashed out.
- Hey, would you mind putting up the dishes tonight? I think it might’ve been forgotten yesterday.
- Do you remember that thing you said last night? It was a little embarrassing. I know you didn’t mean harm, and I totally forgive you already. But I just wanted you to know how I felt.
- I know this is silly, but leaving socks out really bugs me. Would you mind throwing those in the hamper when you come in from work?
Consider what you each are holding back from the past.
Is there something between you and your spouse in the past that causes passive-aggressiveness to creep into your marriage? Or perhaps from a previous relationship? We sometimes don’t even realize how these events shape how we handle present issues. Wrestling with them isn’t easy, but it helps you.
Choose one of these strategies to work through and talk about as a couple this week. There’s always room to strengthen your marriage, and figuring out how to eliminate passive-aggressiveness is a major step to take toward a healthier relationship.
5 Things To Do When You Feel Disconnected From Your Spouse
Is It Good To Fight In Marriage?
Help! My Spouse And I Can’t Stop Fighting!
The #1 Things That Can Secretly Ruin Your Marriage
2 What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior? What Are Some of the Signs?
3 What is Passive-Aggressive Behavior?
4 Exhausting Silence: Emotional Costs of Withholding Complaints
Can A Marriage Survive Without Trust?
When the trust was broken in my marriage, I wondered if we could survive without it.
Trust is a cornerstone of marriage. When we trust our partner, we feel emotionally safe with them. This safety allows for deeper connection and drives us to endure tough times when they arise. Trust is not only important for the health of our relationship but also for our physical health.
For more than 40 years, Dr. John Gottman has been studying what makes a marriage work. He found that the number one issue for couples was trust and betrayal. During his study, social psychologists asked people in relationships, “What is the most desirable quality you’re looking for in a partner when you’re dating?” The number one response was trustworthiness.
Dr. Gottman found what many of us would agree with: Trust is essential to healthy relationships.
So, how do we build trust? Trust is created in the small moments. Dr. Gottman calls these sliding door moments. “In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.” One moment may not be that important when you think of it by itself, but if you continually turn toward your spouse in the small moments, you’re building trust. If you continually turn away from your spouse, you’re eroding trust.
But what happens when there’s betrayal?
Betrayal can come in many forms. It can be loud and big or subtle and discrete. You experience betrayal when you discover that your spouse is hiding information from you. Or when they withhold support when you need it. You feel betrayed when you cannot entirely rely on your partner.
When we feel betrayed, it’s common to ask the question, “How can I ever trust them again?” But, here’s the good news: It is possible to rebuild trust. Remember those sliding door moments? Rebuilding trust takes lots of those. It requires choosing to move toward your spouse in the small moments. Trust is a two-way street, and to rebuild trust, you both have to move toward each other. In my marriage, we realized we could rebuild trust, but it would take time and intentionality.
Dan Yoshimoto, a graduate student of Dr. Gottman, found in the study that the basis of building trust is attunement. He broke down the idea of attunement with an acronym:
Awareness of your partner’s emotion
Turning toward the emotion
Tolerance of two different viewpoints
Understanding your partner
Non-defensive responses to your partner
Responding with Empathy
When we are attuned to our spouse, we are better able to build trust.
In the book What Makes Love Last? Gottman and Silver lay out the following four methods for communicating with your partner that fosters trust through attunement.
1. Put your feelings into words.
It can be challenging to articulate what you feel. There’s no shame in that. Just communicate that to your partner.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
Avoid close-ended questions that elicit one-word responses. Open-ended questions ask for a story and show genuine curiosity on your part.
3. Follow up with statements that deepen the connection.
When your partner responds to one of your open-ended questions, reflect back on what you heard. In your own words, paraphrase what they said. Don’t make assumptions, defend yourself, or bring the focus to you.
4. Express compassion and empathy.
Don’t tell your partner how they should be feeling. Don’t react defensively. Instead, hold space for their feelings, all of them, even if they feel uncomfortable to you. This creates a deeper connection and a sense of emotional safety. Your partner now knows they can talk to you about the hard stuff.
Trust is the bedrock of a healthy marriage. When it’s broken, it takes time to heal. Rebuilding trust between my wife and I wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Marriage can survive without trust, but it’s not as healthy. To have a healthy, life-giving marriage, choose to rebuild trust.
7 Ways to Increase Trust In Marriage
What Does Trust Look Like In A Healthy Marriage?
How To Rebuild Trust In Marriage
John Gottman on Trust and Betrayal
The #1 Thing That Can Secretly Ruin Your Marriage
My husband and I* find ourselves in the same type of argument, over and over again. Rinse and repeat. It goes a little like this:
>> I bring up something that’s bothering me. (It doesn’t matter how gently or carefully I say it.)
>> He immediately gets defensive.
>> I get frustrated that he’s being defensive.
>> He gets stubborn.
>> I get resentful that he’s being stubborn and start to criticize him.
>> He shuts down and starts stonewalling me.
>> I get extremely hurt and feel like he doesn’t care about me.
Round and round we go until someone waves the white flag. However, this never happens without a whole lotta tears and words that we wish we could take back.
I’ve always considered myself an excellent communicator. I’ve read the books, I’ve listened to the experts, I’ve honed my skills with active listening techniques, avoiding the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and using all of the “I” statements. I want to talk about the issue so we can find a solution and feel connected again. But he doesn’t want to talk. He feels attacked and condemned. Did I say the wrong thing? Was it the wrong time to talk? Does he just not care about me? Is this never-ending cycle ruining our marriage?
I had to find an actual solution.
Then I came across this quote:
“Couples are not disconnected because they have poor communication. They have poor communication because they are disconnected.”Dr. Pat Love
In their book, How to Improve Marriage Without Talking About It, Dr. Pat Love and Dr. Steven Stosny describe the root cause of why a perfectly good marriage can fail without either person doing anything wrong. No matter how hard you try to fix the issue by talking through it, this one thing is making it worse, not better. We call it the Fear Spiral. And it can ruin your marriage – but it doesn’t have to!
Please note: the studies done by Love and Stosny looked at the relationship between men and women as group averages, not individual differences. Keep in mind that the rest of this blog speaks to men in general and women in general. Although their studies apply to the majority, they do not tell us anything about individual men and women. That being said…
Abandonment and Inadequacy
The most common female core vulnerability is the fear of abandonment: isolation, neglect, rejection, and feeling alone.
Most women thrive on closeness and connection. So naturally, if there is any type of issue, she needs to talk through it to feel connected again. Women generally actually view a complaint as an invitation to move closer. We’ve had a bad day, we want to talk about it. We had a frustrating experience at the store, so we called up our best friend to vent. However…
The most common male core vulnerability is the fear of inadequacy: embarrassment, weakness, failure, and shame.
A man tends to pride himself on being able to please their partner. But if there is any type of issue, men may feel like they’ve let their spouse down. This intense feeling of shame activates their fight or flight response, making them shut down, stonewall, get angry, or defensive.
Then We Spiral Down
When a woman feels like her spouse isn’t showing up for her in the way she needs (whether that’s something like forgetting to switch the laundry or not speaking her love language), it activates her core vulnerability of feeling alone and isolated. Her complaint, request, or comment, however unassuming it may seem, sounds like criticism to her husband, which triggers his core vulnerability — feeling inadequate. He’s let her down, he’s not provided or protected her, and all he has done for her has been overlooked.
In other words, he feels like a complete failure. Flooded with the stress hormone cortisol, his body immediately goes into fight or flight, and he feels the need to defend and withdraw. This, of course, feels like abandonment and triggers her fear and anxiety even more, which triggers his shame more. And round and round they go. No matter who started it, the Fear Spiral is a vicious cycle that just breeds more and more disconnection and hurt.
You’ve had conversations with your spouse, even arguments, and maybe straight-up fights about this issue or that problem, BUT those interactions often don’t lead to any solutions. But why is that exactly?
Join us for this 20-minute webinar to find out!
So What’s The Solution?
When I discovered the Fear Spiral, everything started making sense. But… How in the world can I stop the spiral from happening? Just never bring up another complaint? Yeah right.
According to Dr. Pat Love, there are a few things you can stop doing right now to help:
If you don’t want your husband to feel shame, don’t…
- Expect him to act and respond as you would
- Criticize him or belittle him (especially in front of others)
- Compare him to others
- Expect him to make you happy
If you don’t want your wife to feel abandonment and anxiety, don’t…
- Forget to notice or appreciate when she does the majority of the household/family tasks
- Leave her out of important aspects of your life
- Expect her to have the same sex drive as you
- Ignore or dismiss her bids for connection
Now Let’s Cut to the Chase
The only way out of the Fear Spiral is by recognizing you’re in it and empathizing with your spouse’s core vulnerability. It’ll take a lot of intentionality because it’s difficult to relate to your spouse’s core vulnerability since it’s not the same as yours. Also, it means you’ll have to step up and be compassionate to your spouse when you least feel like it.
Understanding what your spouse is feeling and why they’re feeling it allows you to speak into their fear or shame and provide reassurance. This shifts the focus of the argument from the what to the why and enables you to have a more authentic and productive outcome. While you can’t avoid fear and shame altogether, you can transform them into an opportunity for connection.
Do This For Your Wife:
- Routinely connect with her at these four crucial times during the day:
- When you wake up in the morning
- Before you leave for the day
- When you return for the day
- Before you go to bed
- Open your heart and mind to her, let her in. (Be vulnerable and share your feelings.)
- Appreciate all she does for the home and family. While also doing your share of the household chores
Do This For Your Husband:
- Have sex regularly. (This is how they feel most connected to you.)
- Be physically affectionate every day. (A kiss, a hug, a hand massage, a butt slap…)
- Catch him doing something right! Acknowledge and appreciate what he does for you. If you feel like complaining about something he’s NOT doing or doing “wrong,” remember: Behind every complaint, blame or criticism is a desire. Your husband really does want to please you. So cut to the chase and tell him your desire instead of your complaint:
- “I love it when you…”
- “Thank you for…”
- “It makes me feel supported when you…”
- “I really appreciate…”
Connection is the Cure
The good news is: You won’t need to talk about your feelings if you already feel connected. The Fear Spiral is a sign of disconnection. So if an issue arises when you’re already feeling connected, it’ll be less likely to trigger that abandonment or shame. The tension can be managed easier, with less hostility and more sensitivity to each other’s vulnerabilities.
Life is messy, chaotic, and we are not perfect people… which means disconnection is inevitable. But when that loneliness and shame sneak back into our marriage, I’m confident that we will now recognize it and stop the spiral by reconnecting.
*This blog in its entirety is based on research done by Dr. Pat Love and Dr. Steven Stosny. Their studies are explained in depth in their book, How To Improve Marriage Without Talking About It.
Why Compassion is One of the Most Important Qualities in a Healthy Marriage
Compassion is important in marriage!
Did you know that there’s a whole science behind compassion in relationships? Seriously! Ok, bear with me, even if you’re not a researchy-geek like me (I promise I won’t make this sound like your high school chemistry book.) Because compassion is majorly important in marriages, even more so than you might think. And research has a lot to say about it.
Just like anything sciency, it’s essential to define terms well. And sometimes compassion, empathy, and sympathy get mixed up. Let’s untangle that.
Empathy = You don’t share the same feelings or experiences, but you choose to imagine what it might be like. They hurt; you don’t but can put yourself in their shoes. You can empathize.
And then we come to compassion. This is when you empathize/sympathize with someone (say, your spouse), and you’re prompted to show kindness in their situation.
They hurt. You empathize/sympathize. You say something to lift their spirits. Compassion!
So, sympathy/empathy are only the beginning of compassion. One study even suggests being empathetic is good to a point, but it can actually affect you negatively unless it’s followed up by compassion.1
So compassion is more than a feeling. (Classic rock fans, anyone?) Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, compassion isn’t really beneficial unless it’s put into action. One researcher describes compassionate acts as “caregiving that is freely given.”2
Think about this in your marriage.
No matter what your spouse experiences, good days or bad, you can:
- Sympathize with them, or…
- Choose to empathize with them, and then…
- Feel compassion toward them, which…
- Prompts compassionate action.
Y’all…we should be doing this all the time in our marriage!
Why? (Here we go with the science again…) Research3 tells us compassion is good for you, your spouse, and your marriage!
- Compassion toward a spouse predicts higher levels of daily relationship and life satisfaction for both people. (Don’t miss this: happiness in marriage goes up on a daily basis! Who doesn’t want that?)
- Compassionate acts benefit the emotional and mental well-being of the person receiving them (in this case, your spouse).
- The person who is acting compassionately toward their spouse also experiences a positive effect on their well-being, even if the spouse doesn’t necessarily recognize the compassionate act!
Bottom line: Compassionate acts do a marriage good.
It makes you a better spouse. It makes your spouse a better person. And it makes your marriage more loving, intimate, and strong.
Let’s consider one more reason why compassion might be one of the most important qualities in marriage. No matter who you are, most of us would agree that the world could always use a little more compassion. What if the real power of compassion in our world begins with compassionate action in our marriages and families? We know kindness is contagious.4 As they say: as families go, so goes the world.
So, inject some compassionate action into your marriage — for your spouse, for you, for the world.
1 Functional Neural Plasticity and Associated Changes in Positive Affect After Compassion Training
2Compassionate Love: A Framework For Research
3Compassionate Acts and Everyday Emotional Well-being Among Newlyweds
4Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior
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