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How to Overcome Built-Up Resentment in Marriage

Even though it may be hard or even painful, a healthier relationship is worth the effort.

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.

Other blogs:

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

Sources:

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

Additional articles:

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.***

What Is Emotional Intimacy?

Being close with the one you love has major benefits.

Cultivating emotional intimacy in marriage makes me think of a road trip. Having a destination is essential, but the journey is where adventure lies. My wife and I love a good road trip. I could tell you countless stories of getting lost, taking detours, traffic jams, and discovering beauty along the way. 

Marriage is a lot like a road trip. Some days are blue skies and sunshine, driving through the countryside with the wind in your hair and music cranked loud. Other days are roadblocks, traffic jams, and detours. When you head out, you never know what lies ahead. The road you travel won’t always be easy, but the journey is where your marriage is strengthened and thrives. 

The journey begins the day you say, “I do.” It won’t always be easy, but all the bumps in the road help the two of you grow closer. When you tackle all those hazards together, hand in hand, it strengthens your connection. 

Researchers at Cornell University found that the most successful marriages involve communication, knowledge, and commitment.¹ Those three components are vital to a happy, healthy marriage. They also contribute to building emotional intimacy in your relationship.

What is emotional intimacy in marriage?

It’s the ongoing, intentional process of fully knowing your spouse and being fully known by your spouse. Intimacy is often equated with sex, but it’s so much more than that. There are actually five types of intimacy: emotional, intellectual, experiential, spiritual and sexual. For right now, let’s focus on emotional intimacy because it’s crucial to the other types. Emotional intimacy is the “glue” of all relationships.²

Emotional intimacy is understanding what’s happening inside your spouse (and feeling like they understand you the same way). It’s knowing all their feelings, hopes, dreams, vulnerabilities, fears, motivations, and desires. It’s gaining a better sense of what drives or moves your spouse, what interests and intrigues, and enthralls and enchants that person you’ve committed yourself to. Emotional intimacy is simply growing deeper in your understanding of your mate. 

Emotional intimacy requires couples to take on the role of a compassionate detective – an invested student of each other. Developing emotional intimacy is a continual process of learning, understanding, and empathizing with who your spouse is on the inside. Both men and women view emotional connection as crucial to a long-term, healthy relationship.³

So, what does emotional intimacy look like in marriage?

I’m glad you asked!

Here’s what people in marriages with strong emotional intimacy may say: 

It feels like I’m heard whenever we talk, even if we disagree. 

When we’re together, we’re not just two people in the same room; we really connect. 

They don’t try to fix things when I’m explaining a problem unless I ask for it; they simply listen to try and understand what I’m feeling. 

When we have a disagreement, it doesn’t feel like we’re on opposing sides necessarily; it feels like we’re on the same side trying to solve the same problem. 

We’re busy, but we make time to spend with each other. That’s important to us. 

Couples with emotional intimacy…

  • Have a stronger sense of trust and security. Knowing and being known chips away at the need to wonder how much you can rely on your partner to be on your team. You can feel safe, secure, and accepted just by being yourself.
  • Are more accepting of each other’s faults. Understanding who your spouse is gives you a better appreciation and compassion for them. It’s beautiful when that’s a two-way street in a relationship. 
  • Have a stronger physical intimacy. Emotional intimacy and sexual intimacy have a substantial effect on each other. 

How do you build emotional intimacy?

Emotional intimacy needs to be foundational to your marriage. All the other types of intimacy need this foundation to thrive. Here are a few ways to build that foundation:

  • Communicate daily.
  • Express appreciation for your spouse.
  • Be curious about your mate.
  • Make yourself emotionally available.
  • Be vulnerable.

Check out this article for some exercises to strengthen emotional intimacy in your marriage.

Marriage is a beautiful journey. One day, you’ll look back and take joy in the detours and roadblocks because those things strengthened your emotional intimacy. Enjoy the journey and take every turn hand in hand with your spouse.

Other resources:

Help! Our Intimacy is Gone – First Things First

7 Questions Every Couple Needs to Ask Each Other to Improve Their Sex Life – First Things First

MARRIAGE COURSE | Discover Deeper Intimacy In Your Marriage

Sources:

¹Cornell University. “Love, factually: Gerontologist finds the formula to a happy marriage.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 17 June 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150617134613.htm>

²Gaia, A. Celeste. “Understanding Emotional Intimacy: A Review of Conceptualization, Assessment and the Role of Gender.” International Social Science Review, vol. 77, no. 3/4, 2002, pp. 151–70. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41887101. Accessed 27 May 2022.

³Wade, TJ and Mogilski, J. (2018) Emotional Accessibility Is More Important Than Sexual Accessibility in Evaluating Romantic Relationships – Especially for Women: A Conjoint Analysis. Front. Psychol. 9:632. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00632

***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 Your Marriage Strong Over Summer Break

Be intentional and turn toward each other this summer.

School’s out, and my kids are excited about a fun-filled summer. Mom and Dad… not as much. Don’t get me wrong; I love summertime. But summer schedules can be hectic when you’re juggling different camps, vacations, and activities. Sure, the school year is crazy busy, but at least it’s consistent. Summer schedules are a little more challenging. Are any other parents feeling the crunch?

Summertime can add more stress to your marriage as well. Focusing on our relationship can get lost in the frenzy if we aren’t careful. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can keep your marriage strong over the summer, too.

Here are a few ways to get you started:

Date each other.

A regular date night is crucial to the health of your relationship. It can be so easy to fall into a routine in your relationship, especially when kids are in the picture. This is where date night comes in. Dating your mate takes a little more coordination if you have young children. If you don’t currently have a regular date night, now’s the time to start. Create a shared calendar on your phone (if you don’t already use one) and schedule one date night this month. Then flip to next month and plan another one. Keep it going. I mean it! Stop reading right now, and get those summer date nights on the calendar. I’ll wait…

Okay, now that you have dates scheduled… they are scheduled, right? Here are a few more ways to keep your marriage strong.

Make time for intimacy.

Before you put the calendars away, go ahead and schedule some time to get intimate. Wait a minute! Isn’t sex supposed to be spontaneous? Sure, but if you have little kids, you know the reality. Spontaneity is hard to come by. If you’re not intentional, it’s easy to let your sex life fall into the background. But your marriage needs sexual and physical intimacy. And what gets put on the calendar often gets done, am I right? So, decide how often and when and schedule it. Just to clarify, this is a conversation for the two of you. And don’t worry, just ’cause it’s scheduled doesn’t make it boring. [Read 3 Ways to Have Better Sex in Marriage.]

Share a hobby or activity.

Identify at least one common hobby or activity and make time to do that together. You may need to break out the calendar and schedule it depending on the activity. But there may be hobbies you can do at home while the kids play. This doesn’t have to be a family activity, but it can be if you both agree that you’ll enjoy it just as much.

Daily check-ins.

As you’re going in different directions, getting the kids places, and working, it can be easy to spend less time talking as a couple. Carve out some time each day to check in with each other. Maybe it’s over coffee in the morning. Perhaps it’s 30 minutes outside together at the end of each workday. 

When you check in on each other, give your spouse space to vent. If one of you is working from home while the kids are out of school, you may need an avenue to let go of stress. Give each other space to share what’s going on.

Show appreciation daily.

Nothing says love like appreciation, so don’t forget to show your appreciation to the one you share a life and home with. Here are some easy ways to show how much you appreciate your spouse:

  • Send a text telling them how much they mean to you. (Bonus points if you’re specific about why you appreciate them.)
  • Leave Post-it notes for them. If they leave for work, leave them in their bag or lunch. If your spouse stays home, hide notes somewhere they will find them throughout the day.
  • Say it out loud and often. And say it in front of others, especially your kids. 
  • Give them a break (or at least a few hours) to do whatever they enjoy most.

Invest in your marriage.

Take an online course together. There are loads of resources to help strengthen your marriage during the summer or any other season. You can focus on intimacy, communication, parenting, or other topics. Investing in your marriage now strengthens it for the future.

Speak your spouse’s love language.

If the two of you have never taken Gary Chapman’s Love Languages assessment, now is the time. We all have a primary love language, and when someone speaks it to us, we feel loved and appreciated. We also usually express love using our primary language, so learning your spouse’s love language is crucial to helping them feel loved. 

Hold hands.

An easy way to keep your marriage strong is to simply hold hands. Holding hands releases endorphins, a mood-boosting chemical. It also releases oxytocin, making you feel more bonded to your spouse. And it’s a stress reliever, too.

Make this summer a great one for your marriage. Not because of a big trip, but because you both chose to be intentional and turn toward each other.

Other blogs:

The Importance of MeaningLESS Conversations – First Things First

How to Talk About Sex in Marriage – First Things First

8 Ways To Care for Your Spouse’s Mental Health – First Things First

Sources:

Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction

Walsh, C. M., Neff, L. A., & Gleason, M. (2017). The role of emotional capital during the early years of marriage: Why everyday moments matter. Journal of family psychology: Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 31(4), 513–519. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000277

Goldstein, P., Weissman-Fogel, I., Dumas, G., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2018). Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115 (11), E2528-E2537. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1703643115

Managing Expectations for Mother’s Day

Break down these 3 barriers so you can all win and feel the love!

Have you ever asked your spouse what they plan on doing for you on Mother’s Day? Raise your hand if they’ve replied:

Shoot… Is that THIS weekend? 

or

Whatever you want to do, Babe.

or

Umm… nothing. You’re not my mom. 

All wrong answers. That sinking feeling of being unappreciated, taken for granted and forgotten drowns out any last-minute plans they may try to scramble together. The damage has been done. 

Your expectations to be thought of and celebrated have been shattered to dust. And if this isn’t the first, second, or third offense, you may even feel numb to it now. Disappointment is inevitable. No point in getting your hopes up, right?

You’ve probably figured out by now that motherhood is a thankless job. It’s not just what you do – it becomes who you are. It’s like breathing… and it’s natural, instinctual, automatic. But it’s also grueling, emotional and exhausting. So having your family acknowledge all that hard work AND celebrate it one day out of the entire year is not asking for too much. 

But what trips up most couples is actually that – the ASKING part. “What are you going to do for me?” is a loaded question if you already have unspoken expectations of what you want.

But shouldn’t my spouse care enough to look at a calendar and plan ahead? Shouldn’t they know me well enough to know what I’d want to do/how I’d like to be celebrated? Shouldn’t they realize that even though I’m not THEIR mother, I’m a mother, and that’s what this holiday is all about?!

First, that’s a lot of shoulding… So let’s break down some expectation barriers together so we can all win on Mother’s Day.

Barrier #1: You expect your spouse to think and act like you.

It’s easy to believe that everyone (including your spouse) sees the world the way you do. This sets you up for some pretty unrealistic expectations and 

disappointment. You want your spouse to magically know and do exactly what you would do (and probably are doing for your own mother). Maybe you expect them to…

  • Speak the same love language as you. For example: Your spouse may think a signed card shows they care, while you long for a handwritten, thoughtful love letter. Or they may think flowers are the universal language of love, but you find them impractical and a waste of money. Or they may tell you to take the “day-off” and go get a massage or do your nails or whatever you want… but your love language is Quality Time, and you want to celebrate with your family (without any of the normal responsibilities of motherhood…)
  • Have the same skills as you. For example: Your spouse is a spontaneous, in-the-moment kind of person. They don’t enjoy planning. So they wait ‘til the last minute to figure out what to do. But this seems lazy or unthoughtful to you (a planner) when really, it’s their natural temperament. Or they are very logical, and thinking of creative ways to show love is like speaking a foreign language to them. So they get you a super practical gift like new towels or a car charger when you want something meaningful.

Break down the barrier by realizing that your spouse is a unique individual.

They are not YOU. And that’s a good thing! Our differences make us stronger. Talk about your differences. You most likely are speaking different love languages, so discover what each other’s love language is and try to speak it fluently and frequently. If you already know each other’s love languages, a simple reminder can go a long way! 

Barrier #2: You expect your spouse to read your mind.

Whether you’ve been together for 3 years or 30… your spouse cannot read your mind. We joke about this – but when was the last time you’ve thought or said, “You should know what I like! I’ve only told you 1 million times!”? Been there, said that way too often.

The real issue here is that you long to feel seen, understood, and known deeply. This requires intentionally working on your emotional intimacy, which is an ongoing process of growing in your understanding of each other’s feelings, hopes, dreams, fears, motivations, etc. You know what you want and need. But it changes over time and throughout different seasons of life. 

Break down the barrier by telling your spouse exactly what you’d like for Mother’s Day and why it’s so important to you.

Sharing what would make you feel the most acknowledged, valued and celebrated doesn’t diminish your spouse’s effort; it encourages it. The more you tell your spouse how you feel loved the most and why, the more your spouse has the chance to love you in that way… and the deeper your emotional intimacy will grow.1 This doesn’t mean you have to plan the whole day. You just have to clearly communicate what you want or need. Leave the little details up to your spouse! 

Barrier #3: You expect your spouse to be perfect.

No matter how hard your spouse tries, they’ll never be perfect. Expecting perfection sets unrealistic standards that will make them believe they aren’t good enough. It’ll push them away, and you’ll end up experiencing the opposite of what you wanted to feel.

Break down the barrier by realizing that your expectations may be unrealistic.

Take a moment. See if maybe you’re setting the bar too high so that it feels out of reach to your spouse. Have you criticized their efforts in the past? If you have, there’s a good chance they don’t want to fail again (and maybe they think they can’t fail if they don’t even try…). Think about what your spouse is good at and enjoys doing – that still fills your love tank. Telling them exactly how you’d feel loved and appreciated will set them up for success and set your expectations at a realistic level. 

So this year, instead of asking what your spouse will do, try telling them what you’d like to do first. 

Take the pressure off of them to decode your side-eye sighs and do your spouse a favor:

  1. Spell it out.
  2. Be clear and specific before any resentment starts to build. If you’re a planner, talk about it a couple of weeks in advance.
  3. If you like surprises, give your spouse a few options for things you’d like to do and let them choose!  

You DESERVE to be celebrated, Mama. Mother’s Day is a great opportunity for your husband and family to do that. So be honest and open about what would make you feel appreciated and loved. 

Source

1McNulty, J.K., et al. (2004). Positive Expectations in the Early Years of Marriage: Should Couples Expect the Best or Brace for the Worst? 

Easy Ways to Make Your Wife Feel Loved on Mother’s Day

Celebrate and appreciate Mom for who she is and all she does.

It’s May, and you know what that means… Mother’s Day! Mother’s Day is a wonderful time to celebrate the women who have been influential in our lives. My mom, grandmothers, and mother-in-law have been significant in shaping me into the person I am. 

But, this day is about all the moms in my life. And my wife is the most significant mom (don’t worry, my mom knows it’s true). She’s the one I chose to do life with. She’s the one who made me a dad. So, celebrate your mom, grandmothers, and mother-in-law, but also celebrate your wife. And I don’t mean just helping the kids make her feel special. Guys, you should make her feel all the love as well. 

Here are some ideas to help you make sure that your wife feels all the love this Mother’s Day:

  • Make a video asking your kids what Mom means to them. Here are some questions to kick you off. What does Mom say the most? What is Mom’s favorite thing to do? Of all the things you love about Mom, what do you love the most?
  • Have the kids create a song about Mom and perform it for her on Mother’s Day. 
  • Help the kids make her breakfast or lunch. It doesn’t have to be extravagant… just from the heart. Let the kids lead out and choose what they want to make.
  • Let her sleep in on Mother’s Day. This is a big win in my house. We all know moms need rest.
  • In-Home Spa Day, anyone? My 6-year-old likes to paint nails and give foot rubs. You can all pamper Mom as a family.
  • Homemade cards are always a win. Encourage the kids to make cards that represent their personalities.
  • Does Mom love to travel? Spring is an excellent time for a day trip. What’s within driving distance in your area that she would love to visit?
  • Is Mom crafty? What is her favorite craft? Whether she likes to paint, knit, or anything else, get some supplies together and create as a family. 
  • Does Mom love movies? Watch her favorite movie as a family. Create a movie theater experience for her, complete with popcorn and her favorite snacks.

Here are a few more ideas specifically for you fellas:

  • Plan a date night or weekend getaway for just the two of you. Work out the details yourself.
  • Be intentional about speaking her love language on Mother’s Day. 
  • Give her a massage. I don’t just mean a shoulder rub. Break out the massage oil and pamper her.
  • Clean the house. Moms often feel the pressure to have a clean house. Take care of this for her.

Most importantly, let’s show Mom that she is loved and appreciated.

Research shows four factors had more effects on helping moms feel supported in well-being and parenting:

  1. Feeling loved unconditionally.
  2. Feeling comforted in distress.
  3. Authenticity in relationships.
  4. Satisfaction with friendships.

I’ve learned over the years (from both my mom and my wife) that celebrating Mom is less about the cost and more about the thought and heart that’s put into the gift. That’s what matters most. 

Don’t let anything stop you. Make this the best Mother’s Day ever!

Sources:

Who mothers mommy? Factors that contribute to mothers’ well-being. Dev Psychol. 2015 December ; 51(12): 1812–1823.

Other blogs:

How to Celebrate Mother’s Day With a Difficult Mom – First Things First

Mom, Here Are 5 Reasons Why You Should Be Celebrated – First Things First

What To Do When Your Spouse Lacks Empathy

Your spouse can develop empathy. Here's how to help.

You want your spouse to be fully present with you in your feelings, thoughts and situations in life. But what happens when they don’t show empathy? You probably feel alone, unimportant and misunderstood. You’ve opened up, but your spouse seems unable or uninterested in responding in an empathetic way. So, what do you do when your spouse lacks empathy? 

First, my heart goes out to anyone married to a spouse who indeed lacks empathy. This is a hard road.

Let’s begin by establishing what we mean by the word empathy. According to Harvard psychologist Susan David, “Learning to label emotions with a more nuanced vocabulary can be absolutely transformative.” 

The term empathy has evolved and has recently exploded in popularity.

That’s great, but it can be confusing if it’s not clearly defined. In Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, researcher Brené Brown describes two types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive Empathy is sometimes called perspective-taking or mentalizing. It’s the ability to recognize and understand another’s emotions. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! It’s completely understandable to feel betrayed. I get you.
  1. Affective Empathy is often called experience-sharing. It is one person’s emotional attunement with another’s experience. “Your best friend told a bunch of people something you confided in them! I feel that sting of betrayal. I feel you.

Your spouse is the one person you hope will get you and feel you. Why? So they can be there for you. (In whatever way you need them to be.)

Simple phrases like, I get you, I feel you, and I’m here for you, are gestures toward empathy. When they’re sincere, they mean I. Am. With. You. You are not alone. But empathy doesn’t stop there. Empathy isn’t complete without action. 

Empathy should lead your spouse to put self aside, be present in your story and absorb it. They understand, believe and validate it and you… they don’t judge, criticize or dismiss it and you. (And they definitely don’t make it about them.) Empathy is the catalyst to respond with appropriate, compassionate actions.

How to Respond vs. React

Telling your spouse they’re not empathetic is probably not gonna help. It’s more of a label when you actually need their labor. You need them to do the relationship work to get outside of themself and be considerate of you. 

You may be able to help your spouse who lacks empathy by fine-tuning your communication. Be clear and direct about what you need. Invite them into your story. Frame the conversation by saying things like, “At the moment, I’m not looking for you to judge me, give me advice, or share your opinion. I need to feel heard and understood.”

Pause. Reframe. Rephrase. “I need you to be present with me.”

Begin your statements (like the ones below) with “I need you to…”

  • Understand how I feel and care about my feelings.
  • Listen to what I’m thinking and consider my thoughts.
  • Hear me and care. I need to know I have your full attention.
  • Support me and be my partner in this situation.
  • Understand this part of me I’m trying to share with you.
  • Understand how important this is to me.

Empathetic conversations can lead to tangible, actionable things for a caring spouse. You can set measurable goals around these statements. Often, we can address a lack of empathy with better communication. There is help and hope to improve communication so you feel heard and understood

But what if this doesn’t snap my spouse out of themself and into being present with me?

Why isn’t your spouse empathetic even when you ask them to try to empathize with you? There can be a variety of reasons. We don’t fully understand why some people are more empathetic than others or why some people have little to no empathy. But there are indications that a person can learn to be more empathetic. 

Here are a few things you can do:

1. Model empathy for your spouse.

Make empathetic statements “out loud” and do empathy work “out in the open” where your spouse can see it. For example:

  • Help me understand how it felt to get that raise at work… 
  • Sarah, how did it feel when Hunter wouldn’t share his toys? 
  • Imagine what it must be like to lose everything as those people on the news did.
  • Amanda, I’m not going to offer unsolicited advice. I just want to sit with you as you go through this difficult time. You tell me what you need.

2. Practice talking about emotions with your spouse.

Try books, games, apps, and websites with “get to know you” questions and conversation starters. This can be a helpful practice for discussing your interior lives. Make it a “Judgment-Free Zone” and a safe sharing space.

3. When your spouse does express empathy, acknowledge it and thank them for it.

Hard Relationships. Hard Choices.

Living with a spouse who isn’t empathetic can be draining and demanding. Because your spouse lacks empathy, they might be critical, cruel, or unforgiving. They may react with anger when they feel like you are being “too sensitive.” They could be oblivious to how their behavior affects you, or be unresponsive to your needs. 

Unfortunately, this might be your reality. It’s one thing to be patient with the change process and support growth in your spouse. It’s quite another to be hurting all the time and in over your head. 

Here are things to consider: 

1. It’s not your job to “fix” your spouse.

Several factors can contribute to someone’s inability to empathize. Genetics. Socialization. Childhood trauma. Your spouse may have grown up in a family that suppressed emotions. You can support and encourage your spouse if they’re trying to grow in this area. But this may be an issue they need to work through. You also need to recognize if they’re not trying to grow in this area.

2. Seek professional help.

Diagnosable disorders may play a significant part in why your spouse lacks empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.). Know when to bring in the professionals. But remember: Your spouse may not change. 

And if abuse is going on, it may not be a safe relationship for you to stay in. Your safety and mental health are important. 

**Constant criticism, mocking, and devaluing your thoughts and feelings are forms of emotional abuse, and if your spouse is completely unwilling to get help to change their behavior, that’s not ok. Understand what abuse is in all of its forms. [See below for The Domestic Violence Hotline number.]

3. Find validation from within and from other supportive people in your life.

It can take quite a bit of time for your spouse to hone their empathy skills. It’s a process that will have ups and downs. You can’t allow your self-worth to be tied up in their ability to empathize with you; it should come from within. Practice self-acceptance and self-care, and in the meantime, turn to trusted friends you can share your thoughts and feelings with. And there’s no shame in seeking a counselor for yourself, either.

Life is certainly not easy with a spouse who lacks empathy. You can do several things to improve the situation. But you also need to recognize when those things aren’t working. Many people have successfully maintained their marriage knowing that their spouse may have many positive traits, but being empathetic is not one of them. You can set boundaries with your spouse and still get your need for empathy met in other healthy ways.

At the end of the day, we all want to be heard and understood without judgment. And chances are, you both want your marriage to be a safe space to share your thoughts and feelings. Fine-tune your communication around what empathy looks like in your relationship. Practice talking about feelings. Dig deeper into understanding and believing in each other. Recognize and appreciate any progress toward more empathy – it’s a process that will bring you closer together in the end.

Sources:

*Special thanks to my colleague, Tamara Slocum, for her insights/contributions to this piece.

Susan David, Ph.D.

Brené Brown

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience

8 Steps to Better Communication Today

Empathy Definition | What Is Empathy

The Origin of Empathy

The Surprising History of Empathy | Psychology Today

The Secret to a Happy Relationship Is Empathy | Psychology Today

What to Do If You or a Loved One Lack Empathy

Resources:

Why Should I Consider Counseling? – First Things First

How to Find a Counselor Who Will Fight for Your Marriage – First Things First

How to Crack the Code of Men’s Feelings | Psychology Today

Keys to Effective Communication in Marriage – First Things First

Why Some People Have a Lack of Empathy (And How to Deal with Them) – Lifehack

200 Questions For Couples

**Domestic Violence Hotline

Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the Domestic Violence Hotline, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.

I’m Unhappy In My Marriage. What Can I Do?

Take the time to examine what's really going on.

I’m sorry to hear that you’re unhappy in your marriage. I don’t need to tell you that an unhappy marriage can lead to stress, depression, anxiety, and insecurity. That hurts. But the fact that you’re here is a sign that you’re looking for help. That means you’re still hopeful. Hold on to that hope

Now let’s make a plan. (We’re going to look at your Marriage Mindset. It’s how you think about your marriage. There’ll be sources at the end to go deeper, plus a ton of practical help.)

If you Googled “unhappy marriage,” you know that most articles head straight to, “Should I stay or should I leave?” Fortunately, those are not your only options. This is a chance for growth.

Many “unhappy” marriages are actually feeling growing pains. They could potentially hit a growth spurt and go to a whole new level.

I recently heard someone tearfully say, “I want to be able to say I did everything in my power to make this relationship work.” I remember thinking: This person has the power to change the relationship and flip the whole story! (It looks like it’s working, too!)

Nobody knows you, your spouse, and your marriage better than you do. I won’t give you one-size-fits-all answers for your unique marriage. My goal is to walk alongside you and give you some things to think through. Together, we’ll discover actions to make tangible improvements to your marriage. (You may want to have a pen and paper ready.) 

(1.) Is your marriage causing you to feel unhappy, or are you unhappy about your life in general?

These aren’t entirely unrelated, but they need different solutions. It’s easy to confuse the two. Settle in and give this some real thought. List issues in two columns on your paper.

(2.) Is this an “unhappy” marriage situation or an “unsafe” situation?

There’s a difference between “unhappy” and “unsafe.” If you feel emotionally, psychologically, or physically unsafe, please IMMEDIATELY seek out the professionals listed at the bottom of the page.*

(3.) Start with a positive mindset. (Before you roll your eyes, stick with me.)

We are what we repeatedly think. Let’s keep things positive and in perspective. Take a few minutes to write down five things each (about your life and in your marriage) that you’re grateful for. (If you can go past five on either list, keep going!) Look at both of those lists and try to immerse yourself in gratitude. 

This is where it starts. Your marriage isn’t totally and completely terrible. See the positives for what they represent. The positives are real, concrete, and significant. It’s super easy to focus on the wrongs and overlook what’s right. Your Marriage Mindset can make all the difference.

Time Out For Some Optimistic Realism

Before we go any further, here are some things you need to understand for real, lasting change to happen. You may want to sit with these ideas a bit.

If you don’t believe you can be happy in your marriage, you won’t.

No one can make you feel anything without your permission. This doesn’t mean you’re responsible for your circumstances or your spouse, only that you’re responsible for how you respond to them – in your actions and emotions. We tend to misjudge our own power in these situations. What if you aren’t the Victim in an unhappy marriage? What if you’re the Hero?

If you don’t believe you and your spouse can change, you won’t.

Change in yourself is, by definition, change in your relationship with your spouse. Don’t underestimate that. As you change, you can be a catalyst for change in your spouse. (If you frequently fight, but now you’re aware of your words, it will help if you try to stay calm. It’s a powerful thing when you don’t escalate situations. Boom! Marriage-changer. And maybe a spouse-changer.) 

If you don’t believe your marriage can change, it won’t.

Sometimes marriage feels romantic. Sometimes it feels like work. Marriages go through ups and downs and seasons. Make sure what you expect matches the realities of marriage. 

Organize your thoughts.

Let’s keep keepin’ it real. You’re in an unhappy marriage. I want you to write down five things you wish were different in your marriage. Take your time. Now, look at your list. 

How many things are mainly about your spouse? How many are mainly about you? And how many involve you both? What things can you control, and what things can’t you control? What things can you influence, even if you can’t control them? Which things are due to circumstances? 

These aren’t just changes to your thought processes. These are radical perspective changes that can transform your marriage.

Assuming that many of the things on your list weren’t always that way, how have they changed? This should encourage you. Change works both ways.

Time to make a plan.

Take another look at the things you wish were different in your marriage. Where do you want to start? What would have the most immediate impact? More importantly, what can you control? How will you be the change? 

Use the Principle of Replacement: Instead of __________, I’m going to __________. Set a reasonable goal(s) and go for it! Watch what happens!

Let’s get your spouse in on this!

Does your spouse know you feel unhappy in your marriage? Do you know how your spouse feels? Don’t be surprised if your spouse isn’t aware of how unhappy you are. Don’t be shocked to find out your spouse is unhappy, too. It’s time to talk.

How to have a productive conversation:

  • Take turns talking and listening to each other’s needs and concerns. 
  • Use “I” statements (I feel, I need, etc.) and be respectful and kind.
  • Avoid defensiveness, over-generalizing, trying to be “right” or “to win.” 
  • Work toward and commit to mutually satisfying compromises.
  • You should each have a concrete list of 2-3 things to work on.
  • Set a time to talk again to re-evaluate, make adjustments, and celebrate growth.

Be patient and gracious with yourself and your spouse. Lasting change doesn’t happen overnight. Give yourselves a month to work on these things. Be intentional during that month to work on being your best self, spend quality time together, communicate, and have some fun.

➤ Read 30 Tips On How to Have A Happy Marriage & 50 Marriage Tips From Couples Who’ve Lasted 50 Years.

Keep your positive Marriage Mindset. Restructure how you think about a “happy marriage.”

I want you to be able to say you did everything in your power to make this relationship work.

Sources:

Effects of Conflict and Stress on Relationships

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Relationship

Cognitive Restructuring for Stress Relief: Introduction

How to Survive in An Unhappy Marriage | Psych Central

The Five Stages of Relationship | Free & Connected

Does Couples’ Communication Predict Marital Satisfaction, or Does Marital Satisfaction Predict Communication?

Resources:

Six Good Habits to Start for Your Marriage in the New Year – First Things First

5 Keys to Being Thankful in Marriage – First Things First

Is Conflict in Marriage Inevitable? – First Things First

*National Hotline for Domestic Abuse

Are you nervous or afraid to disagree with or displease your spouse? Do you feel safe? For a free, confidential, and clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here, or contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse, 24/7, at 1−800−799−7233.

Image from Pexels.com

6 Things To Know Before You Get Married

Knowing some things ahead of time can lead to a happier relationship.

My wife and I often get asked a common question: “What do you wish you’d known before you got married?” 

Our marriage isn’t perfect by any means. We’ve had our ups and downs. But according to recent statistics, the average length of marriage in the U.S. is just over 8 years. So, it makes sense to ask questions of a couple who’s been married longer than that.

Most couples anticipate having a long, happy marriage. And they should! But if you’ve been married any amount of time, you probably recognize it’s not always smooth sailing. Your marriage is going to get rocked by waves. Sure, there will be times when the sun is shining and the seas are calm. Just know before you get married, there will be storms ahead. But you can navigate the storms and make it through.

In his book, Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married, Dr. Gary Chapman says, “No one gets married hoping to be miserable or to make their spouse miserable, yet the highest percentage of divorce occurs within the first seven years of marriage.”

Chapman’s book provides a marriage blueprint. He lays out 12 potential areas of stress for married couples – they’re great to think about before you get married.

Here are six of the areas he addresses:

1. Being in love is not an adequate foundation for building a successful marriage.

The “honeymoon phase” of marriage typically lasts for up to two years. This phase usually is idealistic and romantic. Don’t get me wrong, this stage is fantastic; it just needs to be treated realistically. This is a time to learn and adjust to each other. Differences will become apparent, but that’s OK. A healthy marriage requires commitment, trust, and communication. You need more than just that loving feeling.

2. Romantic love has two stages.

Chapman describes the first stage of love as a time when couples expend lots of energy doing things for each other, but they don’t consider it work. The second stage of love is more intentional. It requires work to keep emotional love alive.

3. The saying, “like mother, like daughter” and “like father, like son” is not a myth.

Chapman doesn’t suggest that your spouse will become their mother or father. But parents do greatly influence who we become. You will see some traits of your spouse’s parents in them. Be aware of this.

4. How to solve disagreements without arguing.

Conflict is a normal part of marriage. When two people spend lots of time together and grow closer, they won’t agree on everything. That’s OK. Not every conflict has to end in an argument. You can handle disagreements through healthy conversation and compromise.

5. Apologizing is a sign of strength.

Apologizing isn’t always easy. Some even see apologizing as a sign of weakness. It takes a strong person to say, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”

6. Mutual sexual fulfillment is not automatic.

Many newlywed couples don’t anticipate this being an issue. Dr. Chapman shares that while men focus on sex, women focus on relationship. We’re all built differently and have different sexual drives. Those drives change with varying stages of marriage as well. So, what do you do when you feel like sexual fulfillment is lacking? Communicate, communicate, communicate!

Couples who have been married for a long time talk about these issues and more. Marriage takes open, honest communication and flexibility from both people. It won’t always be smooth sailing, but you can navigate the storms together and enjoy those smooth seas. There is beauty in every phase of a relationship.

Other blogs:

5 Tips For Newly Engaged Couples – First Things First

5 Things You Should Have In Common With Your Spouse

Can A Marriage Survive Without Intimacy? – First Things First