Resentment is what happens when you are treated unfairly and you begin to feel angry and bitter. Resentment can be directed at your spouse, at God, at your life: but if it begins to play a significant role in your marriage, that’s going to make home a pretty tough place to be.
Proverbs 12:25 says that anxiety makes the heart heavy and as I thought about the subject of resentment it occurred to me that resentment can be a form of anxiety. You don’t see this in any diagnostic manual, but it has the same ruminating characteristic of repeatedly mulling over past grievances, with a lot of negativity.
We all end up with resentment at different places and times in our marriage. We don’t want to be getting after you about it, but rather we want to help you understand how it happens, why it doesn’t help and what to do differently!
Resentment often strikes us when we feel that we have been treated badly. Especially if it’s in a way we did not deserve, but it can even happen when good things happen to others which you feel they did not earn[i]. That starts to look a lot like envy.
In marriage it often occurs when you feel you have been unfairly wronged and so it might bring about a desire to get even by holding onto a grudge and remaining bitter[ii].
Major Sources of Resentment in Marriage
If you struggle with poor conflict resolution and a fairly frequent inability to solve disagreements this often leads to a buildup of resentment and anger[iii]. You get this buildup of annoyances and hurts which might be individually small but if left unforgiven and unaddressed can start to look pretty big. This slowly building resentment then negatively impacts marital satisfaction for both partners.
It is also helpful to note that certain styles of conflict are specifically linked to creating high levels of resentment, especially the competitive style of conflict where each spouse is trying to “win” the argument rather than reach a joint solution[iv].
Unless arguments are properly resolved and forgiven, resentment at the initial transgression which caused the argument will continue to impact the marriage. I often tell the couples I am providing counseling to that how much you argue is not nearly as important as if you resolve those arguments.
Underlying resentment about past grievances can then fuel future conflict and impede conflict resolution in the future, creating a negative spiral[v]. If you’re still angry about something from last week then this week’s annoyance is going to seem even more infuriating. And then when you’re arguing you start to throw in all the little things from the last few days that have annoyed you, and the whole thing blows up.
Don’t worry, we’re going to show you what to do about all this in just a moment!
Believing that your spouse is acting unfairly often leads to feelings of resentment which can create conflict and reduce marital satisfaction. This can occur over all kinds of aspects of life, such as:
- Division of household labor: believing that you do more work than your spouse or that the work is split unfairly leads to resentment, especially for wives[vi].
- Emotion work: similarly, feeling that you are doing all the emotional work to maintain the relationship (you’re the one doing all the maintenance behaviors like expressing love, confiding and intimacy etc) or feeling like you put more work into the emotional side of the marriage than your spouse does can also create resentment[vii].
- Secrecy: feeling that information is being kept from you by your spouse can also lead to resentment[viii].
- Lack of perceived support: feeling unsupported and thinking that your spouse is not helping you through difficulties also leads to hurt and resentment. For example a study in 2000[ix] examined marital satisfaction in couples where one spouse had a serious illness and found that a lack of support and concern or a refusal to help led to feelings of resentment which reduced marital satisfaction.
All these factors are also affected by attributions: whether you think you’re spouses actions are intentional, or driven by who they are as a person or just by circumstance. Believing that your spouse’s unfair actions were intentional or driven by who they are as a person makes the ensuing resentment more severe[x]. We did a whole episode on how to stop when you’re misinterpreting your spouse so make sure to go back and check that one out if this sounds familiar.
So perceived unfairness leads to resentment, and resentment leads to lower marital satisfaction. However, low marital satisfaction can also cause perceived unfairness. A study in 2001[xi] studied married couples’ levels of satisfaction at 3 points over several months. They found that dissatisfaction with the marriage at time 1 predicted perceptions of unfairness in relation to issues like division of labor at time 2. This then predicted conflict, resentment and dissatisfaction at time 3.
So, if marital satisfaction is already low (for whatever reason) then spouses tend to scrutinize their marriage more harshly and perceive aspects of it as being unfair, leading to resentment and conflict.
In other words, resentment becomes the lens through which you view all of your marriage and through which you see and interpret your spouse’s actions.
Letting Go of Resentment
So the perception of unfairness and the reality of unresolved conflict both come back to the issue of forgiveness. In the downloadable bonus PDF for this week’s episode, we have really detailed out a research based model for forgiveness. This model works. The researcher who compiled it is someone who has studied research for decades and then, on top of that, also had a call from the police one day that his mother had been brutally murdered during a break and enter. So he’s proven the model in his own life, too. You can get this bonus guide by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Now, how do you deal with resentment?
How to Deal With Resentment Towards Your Spouse
We want to give you three things to look at here.
Moving Towards Fairness
Addressing the reason for the perceived unfairness can prevent resentment from building up. It is important to identify the unfairness and then address it if you believe it is important to you.
Working on a fairer division of labor or more emotional support or whatever the perceived injustice can also remove the underlying resentment and improve marital wellbeing. Simple enough, right? Resolve the issue, remove the resentment.
Forgiving Your Spouse
Forgiving your spouse for the thing which offended you means choosing to let go of the resentment and not let their past actions dominate your present emotions.
Forgiveness is not the same as condoning your spouse’s behavior, or letting them off the hook for doing something that upset you. Rather it is choosing not to hold on to the resentment and releasing the person from being indebted to you.
Like I said, we’ve got some high quality detail on this in our bonus download for our patrons, but here is a very helpful quote from a research team:
“As the person decides to forgive and so proclaims, several important things happen. First, the forgiver has crossed an important line… He or she has moved from a position of resentment to one of not letting the resentment dominate the interaction. Although the one who forgives may still feel resentful, the person chooses not to let it be a controlling factor. Second, the decision and proclamation show that the forgiver is consciously aware of his or her new position. The forgiver, in other words, is not abandoning resentment because of taking some memory-loss pill or simply letting time run its course. Instead, the decision is a defining moment regarding who the forgiver is (“I am one who forgives”),who the forgiven is (“He/she is worthy of respect”), and what their relationship may be like as a result of this decision.[xii]”
Forgiveness has very strong links to marital wellbeing, commitment and satisfaction, and is especially linked with better ability to resolve conflict and prevent the negative cycles of resentment and conflict[xiii].
That’s why this is the focus of our bonus guide: forgiveness is a huge lever that you can pull to move you out of resentment and towards contentment.
Gratitude Helps, Too
This is really interesting: gratitude and resentfulness are often considered “mirror images” of each other[xiv].
Both arise in response to a person’s actions towards you and both invoke a desire to reciprocate or get even, either in a positive way (gratitude) or a negative way (resentment). Resentment therefore forms a cycle of conflict and negativity while gratitude starts a cycle of positivity and thankfulness.
Gratitude and resentment as personality traits are negatively correlated: being high in one makes you naturally lower in the other[xv]. So working on increasing your feeling and expression of gratitude will cause your tendency towards resentment to decrease. Being a generally grateful person is also highly correlated with being easily able to forgive, which also helps remove resentment[xvi].
An attitude of gratitude always helps!
[i] N. T. Feather and Rebecca Sherman, ‘Envy, Resentment, Schadenfreude, and Sympathy: Reactions to Deserved and Undeserved Achievement and Subsequent Failure’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28.7 (2002), 953–61 <https://doi.org/10.1177/014616720202800708>.
[ii] Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough, The Psychology of Gratitude (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
[iii] Frank D. Fincham, Steven R. H. Beach, and Joanne Davila, ‘Longitudinal Relations between Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution in Marriage’, Journal of Family Psychology: JFP: Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 21.3 (2007), 542–45 <https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3220.127.116.112>.
[iv] A. P. Greeff and T. de Bruyne, ‘Conflict Management Style and Marital Satisfaction’, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26.4 (2000), 321–34 <https://doi.org/10.1080/009262300438724>.
[v] Fincham, Beach, and Davila.
[vi] Daphne Stevens, Gary Kiger, and Pamela J. Riley, ‘Working Hard and Hardly Working: Domestic Labor and Marital Satisfaction among Dual-Earner Couples’, Journal of Marriage and Family, 63.2 (2001), 514–26.
[vii] Stevens, Kiger, and Riley.
[viii] Catrin Finkenauer and Hana Hazam, ‘Disclosure and Secrecy in Marriage: Do Both Contribute to Marital Satisfaction?’, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 17.2 (2000), 245–63.
[ix] M. Hagedoorn and others, ‘Marital Satisfaction in Patients with Cancer: Does Support from Intimate Partners Benefit Those Who Need It the Most?’, Health Psychology: Official Journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 19.3 (2000), 274–82.
[x] Elaine Hatfield, Richard L. Rapson, and Katherine Aumer-Ryan, ‘Social Justice in Love Relationships: Recent Developments’, Social Justice Research, 21.4 (2008), 413–31.
[xi] Nancy Grote and Margaret Clark, Perceiving Unfairness in the Family: Cause or Consequence of Marital Distress?, 2001, lxxx <https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681>.
[xii] Thomas W. Baskin and Robert D. Enright, ‘Intervention Studies on Forgiveness: A Meta‐analysis’, Journal of Counseling & Development, 82.1 (2004), 79–90.
[xiii] Frank D. Fincham, Julie Hall, and Steven RH Beach, ‘Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions’, Family Relations, 55.4 (2006), 415–27.
[xiv] Emmons and McCullough.
[xv] Félix Neto, ‘Forgiveness, Personality and Gratitude’, Personality and Individual Differences, 43.8 (2007), 2313–23 <https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.07.010>.