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Healing anger and resentment in your marriage

Posted March 23

Question:

After 14 years of marriage I am feeling frustrated and discouraged. My spouse and I continue to argue over the same issues without ever coming to any resolution. I’m worried about the long-term impact of us not being able to move forward and gain any progress. I feel that we both hold on to resentment, and this leads us to become easily frustrated with each other. I don’t want us to have these issues go on for years. What can we do to let go of the past offenses that create this constant resentment?

Answer:

Built-up resentment is a very common experience for many couples. To change this, you will need to understand the real issues below the surface of your anger and resentment, what causes them, and why you always have the same fight again and again. It all comes down to your core fears and subconscious reactions.

You and your spouse both suffer from the same two core fears, the fear of failure (the fear of being inadequate, which gets triggered whenever you feel criticized or make a mistake) and the fear of loss (the fear of being taken from, which gets triggered when you feel mistreated or life doesn’t meet your expectations).

Most of us have one of the two fears, though, that is bigger than the other and that fear is the real trigger behind almost all of your bad behavior. Chances are your spouse is really good at triggering that core fear and you are good at irritating his or hers.

For example, you might have fear of failure and you might be easily triggered by criticism. When you feel criticized, you might react by pulling away from your spouse to protect yourself. Your spouse might feel you pulling back, which might trigger his fear of loss or abandonment. When he feels abandoned, he might behave badly back and even criticize you again, which will trigger even more fear of failure and bad behavior in you.

Most couples have a perfect storm of fear triggers that cause these fights again and again. When this kind of fighting happens you may also start to feel disappointed in each other — and feeling disappointed is the poison that kills relationships and creates resentment. It also makes you feel unsafe with your partner. If you sense your spouse is disappointed with you, it doesn’t make you want to try harder to love more either. It usually makes you pull away or want to look for faults in him or her, so you can prove he or she is at least as bad as you are.

Does this sound familiar? Is there a subconscious game going on in your marriage to figure out who treats who worse, and who really is the bad one?

If this is happening in your marriage, don’t give up hope; you can change this. You can stop the fear triggers, forgive each other, let go of resentments and move forward feeling safer with your spouse, but it is going to take both of you doing some work on your fear issues. (Many people think the problem is a communication issue or an attraction issue — we disagree. We believe if you could stop feeling inadequate, taken from, criticized and walked on, quiet your fears and improve your self-esteem, you would find yourself more attracted, less resentful and communication would be easier).

The first step is to forgive the past, let go of anger and resentment and reconnect is to get clarity and make sure you are seeing yourself, your spouse and this journey through life accurately. This will fundamentally change the way you feel about everything in your life, especially your marriage.

Here are some steps for making that happen:

1. Remember you are here in school and you have married your greatest teacher.

This person is in your life to help you grow and become better. This means his or her job is to push your buttons and trigger your fears issues, giving you a chance to see them and work on them. That is why every marriage is a perfect storm of fear because this special relationship forces you to rise up and learn to be more mature and loving than any other in your life. When you see your journey accurately as your classroom, you handle situations better.

2. See every moment as your chance to forgive and grow.

Our clients say when they see their spouse’s bad behavior as their school class, they harbor less resentment and handle situations better. They feel more motivated to rise to the occasion and take the high road. Forgiving the past also becomes easier, if you see all past conflict as being your perfect classroom, and whatever bad behavior your spouse was guilty of was about their fear about themselves. It wasn’t really about you. You might want to take stock of the positives your past fights have created. There always are some. When you see your spouse as your perfect teacher and their past bad behavior as your perfect classroom, it becomes much easier to forgive them. For more help with forgiveness, check out Clarity on Forgiveness on my website.

3. Take responsibility for your fear issues.

You must take responsibility for your insecurities and fears and the bad behavior they create. When you can "flag" and name your fear triggers (in the moment they happen) and if you understand your spouse’s triggers and can see when they get triggered, it will be far easier for you to see the situation accurately and be less reactive or offended.

Instead of shutting down or exploding you can say, “I need you to reassure me and love me through the insecurities this has triggered in me” or ask, “What do you need right now to make you feel safer with me?” You will understand the fear in play and what you both need to quiet those fears.

Your spouse might need you to listen and honor and respect his or her right to think and feel the way he or she does. Spouses also need you to own your past bad behavior and apologize for it. (Even if you think they behaved worse, own your part and say sorry.) Being vulnerable and humble creates a safer space where they are more likely to own their bad behavior too.

If you get angry and fly off the handle (regularly), you are again having a fear issue. You only get angry when you fear failure or loss and feel either insulted, taken from or mistreated, which are all fear.

If anger is an issue for you, identify your core anger trigger and start practicing choosing to trust that your value cannot be diminished by anyone or anything. If your spouse gets disappointed or frustrated with your behavior, there might be some good lessons there, but you still have the same intrinsic value as everyone else. If you see yourself and your value as unchangeable, you won’t get angry as often.

Then choose to trust the universe you are safe all the time and can’t fail or lose anything unless it serves you to lose it and is your perfect classroom. If you choose a perspective of fearlessness and safety, you spouse will no longer be a threat, and you won’t get angry or offended as often. We have a new Anger DVD on my website that would help if anger is an issue for you.

Resentment is by far one of the most dangerous emotions in your marriage. It can build walls and create disconnection that can even become permanent. Instead of worrying about your future, focus today on showing up with love and kindness, quiet your spouse’s fears with lots of validation and reassurance, and be quick to own and apologize when you do wrong.

Any good, long-lasting relationship is made of two good forgivers. We have many great articles, worksheets and podcasts about forgiveness on our website that might also help.

You can do this.

Kimberly Giles is the president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is the author of the book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a popular life coach, speaker and people skills expert.

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