Is resentment ruining your marriage?

Jay Dee

Is resentment ruining your marriage?

Feb 12, 2016

Resentment is a dangerous feeling. I see it in marriages nearly every day. A spouse has done something years ago, and it was never dealt with, or never adequately resolved. Perhaps there was no apology, or maybe no forgiveness given. Either way, resentment grows. There

Is Resentment Ruining Your MarriageResentment is a dangerous feeling. I see it in marriages nearly every day. A spouse has done something years ago, and it was never dealt with, or never adequately resolved. Perhaps there was no apology, or maybe no forgiveness given. Either way, resentment grows. There are a lot of marriages with resentment that just sits there in the background. In a lot of cases I hear “it’s fine, I’ll get over it”, in other situations I’ve heard “I just need time” and that’s the feeling a lot of people have. That time will fix resentment. However, I think the truth is very different. That resentment, given time, can fester and continually damage your relationship.

Now, I like to see what the Bible has on the topic of resentment, and really it doesn’t have a whole lot to say explicitly. We do have a couple verses though:

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. – Mark 11:25

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. – Matthew 5:23-24

This second verse popped into mind a month ago when a woman at my church was looking unsettled. I asked her if she was okay, and she said that her husband and her had just had an argument on the way to church and it hadn’t been resolved, so they were still angry with each other. This verse came to mind immediately. Here they were in church, supposedly offering praises to God, but they were consumed by this resentment. Obviously not the most worshipful experience.

This has implications in our marriages as well. Resentment damages relationships. Certainly the relationship with the one you are resentful towards, but also other relationships as well. The Bible is quite clear that our relationship with God, at the very least, is damaged by holding on to hurt, by failing to forgive, by deciding to be angry.

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. – Matthew 6:14-15

I think this verse is often misunderstood. Sometimes we see it as a punishment from God if we don’t forgive others. If we continue to resent, then God will spank us until we stop. But, I don’t think that’s how it works.

Rather, I think resentment changes us. When we hold on to resentment, when we decide to stay angry, or hurt, or upset, or untrusting, it changes us. It makes us put up walls, it stops us from being vulnerable, it hinders our ability to be intimate. Eventually, we will find it hard to ask God for forgiveness for the things we have done, because asking for forgiveness requires vulnerability and intimacy. But if we’re stopping ourselves from being vulnerable and intimate, then we will fail to ask for forgiveness with a truly repentant heart. And if we aren’t willing to repent, then we are continuing to sin, continuing to break that relationship, and so how can God forgive us while we are actively sinning?

The same holds true in our marriages. If we hold on to resentment with our spouse, we are actively deciding not to have an intimate relationship with them. Yes, we might talk, we might even have sex, but on some level, we are intentionally holding back. We’re deciding to break the relationship.

The becomes a problem, because we train our brains on how to react to people. Every time we make a decision, our brain changes in small, minute ways. Over time, these can become big changes. So, if we hold on to resentment, our brain starts getting used to the idea of not trusting, of holding back, of deciding not to be truly intimate. Eventually, these pathways in our brain will grow stronger than those saying we should trust our spouse, that we should be vulnerable with them, that it’s safe and we can be intimate. When that happens, then you are in trouble. It means that your default starts to switch. Whereas before your inclination was to promote intimacy, now the “natural” thing to do will be to withhold intimacy, to not trust them, to build walls.

The longer this continues, the harder it becomes to fight against this, now, larger neuro-pathway. Mistrust, resentment, anger, bitterness, they become normal, they become the default, and they will undermine your marriage at every turn. Eventually, a relationship with your spouse will become unbearable, for either of you, because intimacy will be impossible to establish.

I believe this is why the Bible is so strong about forgiving quickly, about not delaying, about reestablishing relationships as soon as possible, because the sooner you catch it, the sooner you can stop those pathways from growing, the easier it will be to reestablish a relationship. The longer you wait, the harder it becomes. In a way, you become addicted to the resentment, and that addiction becomes a cycle. The more you resent, the more easily you will find it to be resentful.

So, if you have hurt feelings, start working through them. Time does not heal all wounds. Sometimes time lets them fester and become infected. So, decide today not to resent, but rather to work towards intimacy again.

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9 thoughts on “Is resentment ruining your marriage?”

  1. John Wilder says:

    The very most important job listed for Christians in the NT is found in Mathew 5:9 where it says:

    9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.

    That would put peacemakers right below Jesus who is the Son of God. Do you realize
    how few peacemakers there are in the world.l The leading cause of divorce is the lack
    of conflict resolution skills.l They don’t come naturally but must be taught. What
    comes naturally is fighting. Satan wins when people fight.

    Start out with a peacemaking attitude with statements like: “In What way can we resolve this”.
    Don’t raise your voice and most importantly don’t interrupt someone who is voicing discontent
    with you. That only escalates the fight. The Bible says that “a soft answer turns away anger.

    Just saying

    1. Jay Dee says:

      I agree, we are called to be peacemakers in most situations. However, I’m not sure that is our most important job. After all, Jesus Himself said:

      Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. – Matthew 10:34

      There are times when our need to stand firm in the truth will outweigh our calling to be peacemakers.

      You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. – Matthew 10:22

  2. butterflywings says:

    I wanted to say that letting go of things like anger/hurt/etc, isn’t something that should be linked to letting go of mistrust. There are sins in marriage where trust does need to be earned back. For example, when a spouse cheats, even if they are unrepentant, you can forgive, you can choose not to be angry, you can let go of the hurt, but the marriage changes. Even when they are repentant, things like trusting your spouse around members of the opposite sex after they have cheated, or responsibility for the finances after they have gambled away the family house, or feeling safe after they have physically abused you…. none of those are things that a sane person will trust their spouse over immediately even when there is 100% forgiveness.

    I felt really strongly I should mention the point of regaining trust shouldn’t be equated to letting go of anger and hurt etc.

    Also, on a separate note, I think it’s important to separate past wounds, from ongoing wounds. The only example I can think of to explain what I mean, is a personal. I have long forgiven my husband for ignoring me on our honeymoon. The constantly refusing to have sex and spending all his time playing computer games and refusing to do anything with me, is something I have forgiven a long time ago. But the reason it still hurts is because it’s not in the past. It’s because it’s an ongoing problem. It’s an open wound that is being ripped apart further and further every single day. If it had ended on the honeymoon, or even after a few months of settling into being married, it wouldn’t come up ever. But it’s the fact that 1. he is unrepentant and has gone out of his way to put me down every since as some kind of weird pervert for wanting sex once a day on our honeymoon and an obsessed control freak for expecting him to spend at least some time each day with me on our honeymoon instead of 12+ hours a day on his computer playing games. but more important 2. the fact that because he sees nothing wrong with what he did, and that he thinks I’m the messed up one for thinking we should have sex at least twice a week and that he should spend at least as much time with me and the kids as he does playing computer games, that what happened on the honeymoon DOES still come up.

    Not to rub it in his face of “you dragged me to a foreign country where we don’t speak the language, a country where it’s not safe for a white woman to travel alone, and then ignored me for two weeks” but rather “you have a serious gaming addiction and it has been happening our entire marriage since our honeymoon”. But I am tired of being told, even by counsellors, “just let the past go”. The problem is, it’s not the past. It’s the present. It’s our current life, day in and day out. The past needs to be mentioned to give it a frame of reference that it isn’t just a one off thing. That it’s constant, every single day, our entire marriage.

    I’ve forgiven 7 times, I’ve forgiven 70 times 7. I’ll probably keep forgiving 700x70x7 times. But forgiving and refusing to be resentful doesn’t fix the problem, it doesn’t lead to intimacy (emotional, physical or spiritual), and it doesn’t stop it from hurting. I feel no resentment, bitterness or anger. I just feel bereft of hope of there ever being any sort of intimacy in my marriage. I will keep trying to be intimate on my end, I will keep opening myself up, making myself vulnerable, reach out, showing love, but I have lost all hope of my husband ever offering intimacy of any sort in return.

    1. Jay Dee says:

      Agreed. Resentment can get in the way of intimacy, but removing resentment doesn’t automatically make intimacy flourish. And yes, some things, like trust, need to be rebuilt. I think what is needed first though is the willingness to have it rebuilt.

    2. LatterDay Marriage says:

      There is forgiveness, then there is reconciliation. Forgivness is something that can and should be freely given by the offended party, but reconciliation requires the offender take action to repair the relationship. I was taught once that there were 5 things a person should do to reconcile a relationship they hurt. They are:

      1. Recognize the offense, no denial.
      2. Feel genuine regret for it to the level of the hurt caused.
      3. Make restitution, undo what you did as best you can and more than make up for it if possible.
      4. Confess your guilt and beg forgiveness, to the one you offended and to God.
      5. Don’t do it again.

  3. LatterDay Marriage says:

    I had a habit for the longest time of trying to brush off things my wife did that hurt me, bottle up the hurt and not make a big deal over it. I’d tell myself she didn’t mean to hurt me, so why make a big deal over it and that will leave her feeling bad. That was a bad, bad idea. Like you said, there are some things that time doesn’t heal, and when you don’t address them quickly they become worse for you. On top of that your spouse goes on thinking that things like that don’t bother you and they don’t learn to modify their behaviour. Leave it for long enough and they won’t even be able to remember well when it happened, why they did what they did etc. which makes it hard to talk about and resolve when it finally comes up.

    1. Butterflywings says:

      Thank you JD and LDM both. I’ve been struggling with being made to feel guilty/ being accused of not having forgiving because I can’t pretend the things that have happened (the ones that continue to happen) have never happened. Obviously human relationships are not completely like our relationship with God, but they do have similarities – God forgives us, but to gain eternal life we do have to accept we are sinful and repent.

      I totally agree with you LDM that reconciliation needs those steps. I mean… we are all human, and we stuff up and most things that hurt our spouse we will do again but it’s that genuine commitment to try to never do it again that matters, as well as the making restituation.

      I struggle with my husband’s response to things being “I’m sorry you feel hurt”, with his emphasis being that he is doesn’t see himself as having done anything wrong and he’s not sorry for what he did, and emphasizing that because he sees nothing wrong with it, that he will definitely do it again. I’ve tried explaining with certain things that even if he doesn’t see the inherent sinfulness in them, that he could stop doing them out of love for me – eg one argument we’ve had since the beginning of our marriage is over washing hands… seems minor? with my health issues, I get severe gastro very easily. It took literally three years before my husband finally believed me, after watching me get severely ill over and over, how important it is to wash his hands after going to the bathroom and before touching food, especially when going from one to the other. Not washing hands is not “sin” but I explained to him before we got married how sick I get and why washing hands is important (even gave him the literature from my nursing course) and shortly after we got married, particularly after I had severe gastro from doing this on our honeymoon, the first counsellor we went to (an elder from the church he grew up in), even said to him “you married a nurse, you wash your hands!”.

      But it took three years, (including weeks off work one time and needing hospital another time with the whole family getting very sick) before he’d listen – he couldn’t do it out of love when I first asked, he wouldn’t even do it out of listening to my logic – it had to be repeatedly “proven”. But even then, it’s not “sorry I didn’t listen”, it’s just “sorry your immune system sucks, I wish you had a normal immune system”.

      Even when there are things he recognises are sin and does apologise (a rare occurrence), there is no attempt to mend things/make up for it. It’s a real struggle for me as my own family are like that. There is the attitude that no matter how badly you wrong someone, saying “sorry” is enough – never any attempt to fix what has been done nor any commitment to not do it again. It’s a real struggle at times.

  4. A Happy Hubby says:

    I am in a marriage with a conflict avoidant gatekeeper. For decades I kept reading books and blogs stating that I needed to work on me and treat her like a queen and things will improve (and I mention many times just how much our differences hurt me with a constant response of “you should get over it as you have the problem”.
    I feared resentment would build and it did a bit. But on the last conversation we had on the subject 2 years ago she said she will never “work on the issue as that it is all just my issue and I should be happy with having sex twice a month”. I realized that if I kept pushing myself I would fall into depression.

    Since that time I have backed off. The resentment has subsided, but as someone commented above the lack of resentment does not equal intimacy. I feel more sorry for her that she will never experience a great marriage. Instead of resentment I just don’t feel for her anymore. I don’t care if we ever have sex again. It just doesn’t matter and I am just staying with my wife as a companion as a parent. I have talked with friends that divorced and the prospects for a late middle aged man that has a few extra pounds and going bald just don’t seem all that great

    1. Butterflywings says:

      Hi Happy Hubby, sadly that is approaching how I feel too. I don’t understand spouses who say they will never do anything about the issue and that it is our problem and not theirs. We are their life partner! Their problems are our problems and our problems are their problems…. or at least in a loving, christian marriage they would be.

      But sadly we cannot change them. All we can do is pray that God convicts their hearts one day and pray that our own hearts have not totally shut down by then.

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