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Clearing the Air

How I learned to break free of resentment in my marriage

Resentment toward my husband was silently strangling me. I was shocked to feel so angry and bitter. My husband and I had a solid marriage, and these overwhelmingly negative emotions seemed to have come out of nowhere. Nasty, sarcastic thoughts flew into my head uninvited, centering on my husband and things he did or didn't do.

Get a grip! I told myself. I hoped these strong and destructive emotions would disappear to wherever they had come from. In the swirl of life—toddlers, job, and laundry—I blamed them on hormones and ignored them. But as weeks went by, my feelings of bitterness and anger didn't decrease. Instead, I seemed to be agreeing with my angry thoughts more and more. Yeah! Why didn't he do that, am I responsible for everything? or Sure, go out to a movie tonight, I'm sure you need a break.

Instead of being shocked at my thoughts, I began to nurture them, deliberating on perceived wrongs. Angry words spilled out at my husband and children—an overflow from my hurt and bitter heart. I was frightened and unhappy with the state of my home, both my marriage and my negative parenting style. I tried to "talk it out" several times with my husband, but he felt attacked and I felt misunderstood. Suddenly I was terrified—we were struggling and stuck. I felt overwhelmed by negative emotions with no way to control or banish them.

When I encounter a problem, whether laundry stains or emotional meltdowns, my go-to solution is research—in the form of bookstores and girlfriends. So I trusted my struggles to a few of my closest friends and found this was an issue they had all encountered and wrestled with as well. And while they had each tried to approach this problem with prayer and unselfishness, endeavoring not to let bitterness in their marriages take deep root, none of them felt their issue had ever really been resolved.

Christian psychologist and author Dr. John Townsend, author of Boundaries, agreed to an interview with me, to help me understand what resentment is, where it finds its root, and how to resolve it. Here's my exclusive interview with Dr. Townsend, when I asked him everything my girlfriends and I wanted to know!

What is resentment?

Resentment is a persistent feeling of bitterness from feeling wronged by another. It often significantly decreases a person's happiness and contentment in important relationships.

How can I recognize resentment in my relationships?

Look for the following three things:

1. bitter feelings that get in the way of your connections with someone you normally care about and enjoy

2. a sense of powerlessness that there is anything you can do to change things.

3. a specific issue which is driving resentment. Resentment does not exist in a vacuum, and it is not the real problem. It is a symptom of a deeper perception of wrongdoing by another, in a behavior or in a pattern. For example, in your experience, did the other person criticize you harshly? judge you? control you? disconnect from you? lie to you? break a promise or a vow to you?

How can I bring up resentment (to my spouse, friend, parent) without making a bad situation even worse?

God designed relationships to be vehicles of transferring truth and love to each other, "speaking the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). We should be able to be open and honest in our closest relationships, and feel safe about it. So it's better to resolve things than to have an internal hurt blocking the relationship. Good relationships welcome truth that comes out in a vulnerable way. It is also important to realize that you don't want to focus on the resentment itself, but on the hurtful behavior of the other person. If you two reconcile about the behavior, the resentment should resolve. It has done its job in helping you be aware of the problem.

What are some practical steps I can take to resolve resentment?

There are several actions that will help.

1. Make sure your resentment is based on reality. Sometimes we feel bitter because we were having a bad day and the other person was just innocently in the same room. Talk to someone objective and wise and make sure there was an actual offense by the other person.

2. Make sure it's something significant. Could you be overreacting to a one-time misdemeanor, or it is something that matters, or a pattern? "Sensible people control their temper;
they earn respect by overlooking wrongs" (Proverbs 19:11). Check that out with a trusted friend as well. Sometimes resentment is rooted in something from our past that has not been healed. If that is the case, healing and forgiving in the earlier situation should resolve the resentment in the present situation.

3. Have the conversation. If you have walked through steps 1 and 2, and it is an actual and significant offense, go to the person in a vulnerable manner and tell them the following: "I have felt alienated from our relationship and I want to us to be close again. I have had some feelings of resentment because of X. Our relationship is important to me, and I am sorry I have felt this toward you. At the same time, I need to know that you are aware of how X affected me when you did it. I need to know that you are sorry for it, and that things will change. In that way, we both can be close again."

With a normal loving and open person, this should get you on the path and the resentment should resolve, because you are reconciling. However, if the person is defensive or blaming, you will need to adjust your expectations of that person and move into some grief and adaptation to the situation. And if the other person continues the hurtful behavior, set healthy boundaries so that you are not affected as much. That will help the powerless feelings, because you are taking action, and you will not experience the resentment so much. (These principles can be found in a more complete form in my book Beyond Boundaries.)

Dr. Townsend's insights into resentment helped me better understand my emotions and set up an action plan. I set aside some time when I was at my best, (not tired, hungry, or PMS-ing) and prayed for clarity. What was the real reason I was feeling so resentful toward my husband? I wrote out one possible reason and realized it was a problem but not the cause. Going down several layers, I finally rooted out the real foundational issue. It was surprising to see it written out—I had been totally unaware of the real source of my hurt and anger. I set up a time to speak to my husband and used the format that Dr. Townsend laid out. It really helped to start with "I have felt" and "I want us to be close again." It felt much less like an "attack" and more like a conversation focused on mutual love and reconciliation.

Our conversation wasn't an instant fix, but it was the beginning of a healing process. Having identified the core issue, we were able to reconcile and move forward. We have made some minor changes in our relationship, but the most helpful part of the process for me was feeling that I had been heard and my husband was willing to work with me. With the issue out in the open, we can have short check-in conversations about the topic, and I don't let hurts fester around this issue. I bring things up quickly, because I know I am sensitive in this area. After months of discord it's incredibly freeing to have this resentment cut down at the root. Truly "the truth has set me free." The angry and bitter feelings that were overwhelming me are gone, and with them my uncontrollable outbursts and dreary outlook.

This process was a difficult one for me, and boy am I glad to be on this side of it. I am thankful to have this new knowledge and experience to add to my relational toolbox. God calls us to move toward people with love and grace, and inevitably things get messy. I'm sure this won't be the last time the weed of resentment shows its ugly head and will need to be dealt with, and now I feel much more prepared to handle it biblically instead of ignoring it and letting it grow into a full bloom of anger, bitterness, and despair.

Jenny Schermerhorn is seeking to live an abundant life in motherhood, ministry and marriage. She's a freelance writer and communications director at her church.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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