It’s like there’s an invisible wall between you and your partner. Each of you is annoyed or even outraged at the other’s behavior. You think your spouse’s actions are unfair. They think your actions are ridiculous. You don’t feel connected, emotionally or physically. In fact, even though you’re inhabiting the same space, it feels like there are miles between you. And you’re withdrawing more and more from each other. Maybe you even feel like roommates.
This is resentment.
Resentment often occurs when partners become parents. Each partner compares how hard they’re working and how much they’re doing. Usually, new moms feel especially resentful because they’re overtired, overwhelmed and lonely, said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a psychologist in private practice dedicated to helping couples and families thrive. They perceive that their husband’s life has remained the same: He still works out, works late and plays golf. Or new moms feel like their husbands could be more helpful with their baby or the house, she said.
Resentment also results from any kind of perceived inequality: You feel like you’re doing more around the house. You feel like you’re contributing more financially. You feel like you’re always the one initiating sex.
Resentment builds when partners don’t feel like a priority. For instance, “when one partner tends to spend more time with friends or on hobbies, their spouse can begin to feel hurt and resentful that they are not receiving more quality time,” Hansen said.
Resentment builds when one partner feels they’re more attentive and aware of their relationship’s needs than their partner, she said.
“Over time, resentment can evolve into contempt, which is coined ‘the sulfuric acid of love’ because it will erode a marriage.” You feel disdain for each other. You feel like you’re above your partner, and all you can do is roll your eyes.
Thankfully, you can intervene before your relationship unravels. Below, Hansen shared three ways we can prevent resentment from ruining our relationship.
Be direct and clear about your needs. Resentment surfaces when one or both partners aren’t getting their needs met. The first step is to make clear-cut requests about what you need.
According to Hansen, instead of saying, “It would be nice to get a pedicure this weekend,” say “I need you to watch the kids at 2 p.m. Saturday so I can get a pedicure and run a few errands.” Instead of saying, “Why don’t you ever do anything romantic for me?” say “I would really appreciate it if you could plan a romantic date for us. I miss that aspect of our relationship and it would make me feel loved.”
Hansen also has couples use a weekly calendar system: Every week partners sit down to talk about their plans and needs, and put them into their joint calendar. “The more a couple uses the calendar system each week, the more naturally needs get expressed in everyday life and the less resentment a couple experiences.”
It might be tough to fit everyone’s needs into one week. Which is why Hansen suggests couples look at the entire month. “Over the course of 4 weeks, there should be time for mom, time for dad, family time and couple time.”
Focus on feelings. “The best type of communication to reduce resentment is to express feelings more than thoughts,” Hansen said. That’s because a thought sparks debate and defensiveness. A feeling, however, gets at the heart of the issue. “Once it’s expressed, it can be processed and worked through.”
According to Hansen, instead of saying, “I feel like you don’t care about me” (which is really a thought), you say “I feel lonely.”
Focus on the positives. “Many couples get stuck in seeing all the ‘bad’ things their spouse is doing,” Hansen said. He always interrupts me. She always clams up when I’m trying to have a serious conversation. He didn’t empty the diaper genie. She rarely cooks anymore. He never closed the bank account. She never asks me how I’m doing.
Refocusing and acknowledging the good things your spouse is doing helps you reconnect to what you love about them, Hansen said. This is not easy to do, especially when you’re really upset. But our partners are not the enemy, and they’re likely doing many kind things, which we overlook.
Hansen shared these examples: “He works so hard for our family without complaining. He cleaned up the yard without me asking. She took the kids down to the park so I could get a few things done. He grabbed some groceries on his way home. She tells me she loves me every day. He still finds me sexy.”
Many couples ignore the resentment brewing inside their relationship. Over time, they become “comfortable” with the distance between them, because it feels safer to put up a wall than address the issues head-on, Hansen said. But “the more a couple ignores the resentment, the greater it gets, as they continue to search for evidence that validates their resentment.”
Sit down when both of you are calm, and discuss the issue. Talk about your feelings. Listen to each other without judgment or debate. Name what you need. And remember you’re on the same team. A team that you love.