Discover more from For Better Or Worse: Tales From A Married Man
How Not To Resent Your Spouse
I've seen relationships fall apart from the virus of resentment.
This piece started with the title. The words "How Not To Resent Your Spouse" stood bolded on my screen as my wife rounded the corner from the kitchen. I think she wanted to tell me something but stopped mid-sentence and stride. Locked into my writing, I didn't notice her until I paused to switch browser windows (I like to change the music when I write), and I felt her presence over my shoulder.
"Why did you close the window?" she said, glaring at the "How Not To Resent Your Spouse" title. "You didn't want me to see what you are writing?"
"Of course not."
"Hmmm," she said, arms folded behind her back, eyes fixated on my screen as if challenging me to write the next sentence.
I swallowed, aware of the weight behind whatever I typed next.
Resentment, spouse, and marriage are words nobody wants to hear (or see, in my wife's case) in the same sentence. Still, many people are surprised by how easy it is for resentment to build in a long-term relationship. Unfortunately, the topic rarely comes up in the countless podcasts where single people talk about relationships all over the internet. Maybe it's because resentment isn't an immediate reaction; it's a plaque that builds up over time, hence why it only develops in long-term committed relationships. If left unchecked, resentment is a virus. It spreads quickly and taints the interactions between couples. Resentful partners don't need to physically leave a relationship to leave it damaged. How does resentment grow in relationships?
I've seen relationships fall apart from the virus of resentment. It's always little things that go unchecked and unmonitored. Resentment thrives on two elements: time and proximity. Both of these elements come in abundance within a long-term relationship. Something that annoys you once or twice becomes more than a little annoyance after you let it slide for the one hundredth time. Resentment doesn't abide by the general rule of "out of sight, out of mind"; in fact, hidden resentment dominates a person's mind more than visible ones. In an ideal, pre-marital world, we dreamed that closeness would only encourage more understanding and better insight. We long for the familiar, but familiarity can breed contempt, especially when you expect a person to "know better" or when you've told them "so many times before." When a partner sits by your side on the battlefield, it's easy for them to get caught in the crossfire of a wide range of emotions. Unintentional, misdirected frustrations compound and magnify until we associate the emotion with a person and not a situation. It becomes like a smell that reminds you of a specific place or person. The moment resentment removes itself from the specific situation and attaches itself to a person, it's time to say something.
Resentment happens when you don't communicate early enough or at all, but also when we avoid accountability. Humans hate to take accountability (we are natural-born blame-shifters) when we are challenged. We avoid accountability at work (I'm not judging, turn your camera off in the Zoom meeting because you were out shopping instead of working from home). We avoid accountability in our diet, swearing that one bite doesn't have any calories. Accountability demands too much from us; it requires change, reflection, and adjustment. Avoiding accountability in a relationship leaves one person carrying the baggage of our decisions. It's easier to find an excuse or someone to blame when things go wrong. We usually point a finger in the closest direction. When a team is losing, the coach is usually the first person fired, regardless of how poorly the players performed. It's the same process that happens in our brain. When we make a bad decision, can we blame the spouse who nodded along supporting us? We love people who "ride," but when it comes to the "die" part, we are quick to start backtracking.
Let me share a story with you. A man I know couldn't get a job in the UK, despite his catalogue of academic achievements. Unable to embrace his shortcomings, he turned to alcohol, blame, and resentment. He decided his wife (who managed to find a job) should take responsibility for his failures. She was forced to feel the weight of his resentment through his abuse. Ultimately, she left him, and he never recovered. My heart still breaks for both of them.
Imagine you are in the kitchen prepping dinner after a long workday; you've fantasized about this meal all day. The food is on the stove simmering to perfection when you get a phone call. You have laid all the necessary foundations for your banquet and feel comfortable shifting your focus to leave the kitchen and take the phone call. When you return to the kitchen an hour later—driven by the smell of your delicious supper—you find your spouse leaned over the stove.
"I turned it off for you, so it didn't burn."
Your mind races. Was I gone for that long? You must have miscalculated the length of the phone call. You nudge your spouse out of the way and rush over to the stove in a panic to check the status of your meal.
You take a spoon, chew, swallow—your world crumbles. The awful taste fills your mouth. Your meal is ruined. The evening is destroyed. The apocalypse has begun; the eternal worm has devoured Connecticut.
Who is to blame? You turn to the only person in the vicinity. It's easy to develop a proximity bias in a relationship. This is when we blame the people closest to our situation for every outcome. You don't say anything, but next time you see your spouse near the stove with a wooden spoon, you mourn your lost meal. That frustration doesn't remain with your lost Pot Noodles, but it transfers itself. It becomes "I can't find my work shoes, where did you put them?"
A week later, it's "Why do you always move my things?"
In a month, it sounds like "Don't touch my stuff!"
There are many reasons why the meal didn't turn out as planned: an expired ingredient, a mistuned heating dial on the stove, or maybe you bought the wrong flavor. Yet, when something goes wrong in life, it becomes easy to blame everyone or anyone associated with that situation—our parents felt the brunt of this many times during our teenage years.
Resentment grows despite love. It's the unaddressed issues or the immediate reactions that accumulate over time, gradually eroding the foundation of happiness. It arises from a tendency to assign blame to those closest to us, even for outcomes that may have other contributing factors. It is easier to blame others than to take accountability in the short term, but it never serves us in the long term. Have the harder conversations early so they don't ruin your relationship later. Resentment is a cycle; if it's not broken, a relationship never moves forward.
P.S: My wife reads and edits everything I write before I post, so despite the tense intro I think I won her over.