"As challenging as it can feel, it is the responsibility of the approached partner to be willing to listen to the hurt partner’s request."
All relationships encounter points where one or both partners become irritated with the other. Ideally, many of these irritations are accepted as just part of the marriage deal. Just because your husband or wife does something that bothers you does not mean you need to bring it to his or her attention.
Tolerating differences in behavior or in a spouse's personality quirks are aspects of marriage that require patience and tolerance. Just as your partner does things that annoy you, you can be sure that you are equally guilty of doing things that annoy him or her. Some hurts are difficult to accept or tolerate and need to be talked about. For many people, talking about hurts and upsets is easier said than done. This may be due to partners being ineffective communicators or because one partner, or both partners is conflict-avoidant.
Perhaps you feel unheard, dismissed or disrespected by your spouse, but are resistant to share your feelings because of a fear of causing a fight. Perhaps you have tried to communicate verbally, behaviorally, or passive-aggressively (not recommended), with little to show for it. Even though you may feel frustrated that your efforts at communication have failed, be mindful that the hurt feelings do not dissipate without the opportunity for emotionally safe conversation. Most importantly, the failure to address feelings of hurt, anger, or relationship neglect increases the potential for resentment to emerge in the relationship. Resentment develops when you repeatedly feel unheard, dismissed or feel that a spouse puts other interests ahead of you and the marriage.
Resentment grows gradually over time due to repeated instances of feeling dismissed, undervalued, and invalidated. It feeds off of avoidance, so partners who refuse to address directly the issue of growing resentment are at much greater risk of losing their intimate connection and severely damaging the relationship. Because of the systemic nature of relationships, the origin of resentment can be difficult to pinpoint, with partners often blaming the other for the existence of any negativity between them. Mutual finger-pointing and blame can instill further distance and curtail any hopes of reconnection. When resentment exists in a marriage, the only way to heal is to face it directly.
"Even though you may feel frustrated that your efforts at communication have failed, be mindful that the hurt feelings do not dissipate without the opportunity for emotionally safe conversation."
It may feel easier to try and ignore the feelings or to give up communicating openly altogether. This survival strategy will backfire as it only serves to create more distance between partners and fails to give a possibly ignorant partner the opportunity to rectify the hurt feelings. To diminish resentment, the hurt spouse must choose communication over choosing to ignore, and the other partner must be open to his or her feedback.
Facing feelings of resentment directly requires emotional courage, vulnerability, and respectful speaking and listening skills. A hurt partner may open a discussion of resentment by saying, "I find myself feeling angry more often lately, and I think it is because I feel ignored every time I try to talk to you about _____. I think you may feel annoyed to have to keep hearing about it, but this issue is important to me. I am worried about continuing to feel so distant from you and what it means for our relationship. Can we please find a time to talk more about this?"
This invitation to a discussion about feelings of resentment avoids one-sided blaming and uses "I" statements so that the hurt spouse takes ownership of his or her feelings. Additionally, it focuses on why it is important to discuss this issue—to reestablish connection and to diminish resentment. The request to schedule a time for the conversation gives both partners an opportunity to prepare and approach the discussion with a clear head, and it avoids making the approached partner feel blindsided or bombarded.
"Facing feelings of resentment directly requires emotional courage, vulnerability, and respectful speaking and listening skills."
When your spouse tries to talk to you about feelings of resentment, it is easy to become defensive or feel driven to go on the attack if you feel misunderstood or unfairly blamed. Or maybe you just feel guilty, and your instinctual self-protective response is to deny, diminish, or counterattack. All of these feelings are understandable; however, shutting down your partner’s effort at sharing his or her feelings with the hope of improving your marriage is very short-sighted. As challenging as it can feel, it is the responsibility of the approached spouse to be willing to listen to the hurt partner’s request. Listen with the knowledge that you too will have a chance to share your thoughts and feelings. Listen with the knowledge that your spouse is being vulnerable and sharing his or her feelings because he or she is feeling emotionally distant from you. See your partner inviting you to the discussion as his or her way of addressing the "red flag." See the effort as your husband or wife working to save your marriage.
"Listen with the knowledge that your spouse is being vulnerable and sharing his or her feelings because he or she is feeling emotionally distant from you."
To keep an open mind and increase opportunities to address and diminish resentment, review the following:
- Consider how difficult it is for your partner to approach you with his or her feelings.
- View the conversation as an opportunity for connection, not the start or renewal of conflict.
- Make sure you understand your spouse's feelings before formulating a response. Ask your partner questions for clarification.
- Agree to rules of engagement: no yelling, name-calling, swearing, or sarcasm.
- Recognize that it is easier for your spouse to choose resentment over directly addressing hurt feelings, and appreciate that he or she is willing to make the effort at reconnection.
Do not fall down the slippery slope of resentment by choosing to ignore it. Choose to fight it by directly confronting a problem that is affecting your relationship. You show respect for yourself and your relationship by making time to communicate openly about feelings of hurt, neglect, and anger. Diminish resentment by creating a conversational safety zone. It is difficult to initiate a vulnerable conversation when you feel resentful or dismissed, but once you and your spouse express mutual interest in rectifying your marriage, such conversation become habitual and more comfortable over time.
Dr. Anne Brennan Malec is the founder of Symmetry Counseling, a counseling, coaching, and psychotherapy group practice in Chicago. Dr. Malec, who had an earlier career in business, made a significant shift in 2000 when she began her training in the fields of Marriage and Family Therapy. She is the author of "Marriage in Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works." Dr. Malec earned her Bachelor’s degree from Villanova University in Accountancy and holds two Master’s degrees: one in Liberal Studies from DePaul University, and one in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University. Dr. Malec earned her Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. For more information visit www.drannemalec.com.