EXPLORING HURT & RESENTMENTS TO HEAL A MARRIAGE
I help clients heal after infidelity and other devastating relational crises; chronic porn viewing, sex outside the marriage, emotional affairs, secret addictions...You name it, I've seen it. All of these acts of betrayal can shatter a relationship like a class five hurricane. However, they all don’t have to be completely destructive. At times, these events can lead to essential reparative work, depending on each partner’s willingness and desire.
As part of the recovery process it's important for each partner to take a step back and figure out where and how it all went “wrong” because marital crises don't "just happen". There are several little steps that lead one (or both partners) to turn away from the relationship in lieu of turning toward his/her spouse (if they were ever turned toward each other in the first place). At some point, one partner (or both) feels a stronger (or safer) draw and desire to put more time, energy, and effort into their affair partner, or addiction, or porn viewing, etc. Therefore, its important to work “backward” and find out what, exactly, triggered the breakdown of intimacy and connection in the relationship. Since intimacy and connection is predicated on feeling “safe” with that person, I like to explore when and how the partners STOPPED feeling safe with one another.
Additionally, my experience has shown me that a lot of marital discord comes from unspoken and/or unrealized resentments. In other words, we have to figure out what each partner doesn't really LIKE about his/her spouse. Oftentimes, resentments and "dislike" for our intimate partners exist deep in our unconscious. Unfortunately, while these feelings of dislike are often mutual, there is a lot of resistance in allowing these negative feelings to surface and be fully explored or expressed. After all, who really wants to accept that we don't LIKE our spouse? Furthermore, if we don’t like parts of our spouse there’s a pretty good chance that our spouse may not LIKE parts of us, too. Those are some uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. They’re so uncomfortable, I’ve heard many people talk themselves out of realizing these yucky feelings.
For instance, a classic narrative I’ve heard from someone who’s been having an affair and is trying to figure out if they want to stay in the marriage or go:
"I like my wife. She's the mother of my children. She stood by me during x, y, or z. We have memories and history."
So OK, maybe you "like" or appreciate certain parts of your spouse or your life together. However, let's be honest: Would you really have done what you did to someone you "like"? Equally, your partner may not be owning the ways s/he might not like parts of you or your relationship because s/he’s been desperate to save the marriage (at all costs) and, therefore, far less likely to express his/her hurt or disappointment.
Generally speaking, I find during a reconciliation process the most important first steps (after deescalating the crisis), are to explore the hundreds of "warning signs" that existed in the relationship before the infidelity or crisis began. Now, that is never to say that one is ever to blame for another's betrayal. I'm just saying it has to be a part of the discussion and recovery process.
I had two clients who were trying to repair their relationship after the husband had a yearlong affair. During the secret affair and consequential marital conflicts, the wife kept romanticizing the marriage, saying she'd always loved her husband, the marital issues came out of nowhere, and she did her best to express love and show him love regularly, etc. The husband would respond by saying he didn't feel loved by his wife. He strongly valued many attributes of his wife but he just felt something "different" and special from his affair partner. Neither spouse could really identify or own where/when the breakdown of intimacy occurred.
After months of dissecting the relationship in therapy their narratives began to change. The wife finally realized she’d spent years resenting and disliking her husband’s judgmental, controlling, and cynical ways. She stopped wanting to share stories or thoughts or feelings with him about anything for fear of his disapproving and judgmental responses. He was never pleased, in her mind, so she stopped trying. She thought she would cope with her resentments and hurt by “venting” or talking negatively about her husband to her friends. Talking to her spouse about their relationship became confrontational and uncomfortable. Little did she know, her resentments only festered inside her and she became passive aggressive with her husband. She found herself relieved when he wasn't around because she could "be herself". All the while, she was afraid of being alone, so she kept hoping the relationship would just “magically” get better over time. She found herself saying “It’ll be better when he’s less stressed at work, when the kids get older, when I start working again, etc.” It was the environment around them that was to blame for the lack of intimacy, not the maladaptive ways they interacted with each other.
Coincidentally, the husband realized he operated in a lot of fear, control, and resentment, as well. He felt his wife was unable to hear anything he said, especially when he would express a need. She would respond defensively or sarcastically. He knew she would talk negatively about their marriage to her friends and that made him feel very disrespected and hurt/angry. When his wife would show obvious preference to be with her friends and family over him he felt unloved and unappreciated. He felt his wife was selfish and inconsiderate. He was also, separately, struggling with the monotony and “boringness” of his life but he didn’t know what to do with those feelings. If he told his wife about his struggles, she would respond defensively or think he’s blaming her. Maybe they were her fault, he pondered. His affair began with confiding in a female friend about his deep-rooted resentments and struggles. To add insult to injury, the husband’s unexpressed resentments led him to feel justified and entitled to invite and accept the inappropriate attention of the female friend. Then the shame from the affair led to further anger, resentment, and disconnection by the husband toward the wife, and the marriage began to implode at a rapid pace. Soon, the entire family (and affair partner’s family) found themselves in a lot of pain and chaos.
As you can gather from my example, the process of repairing the harm and hurt of the betrayal must also include the years of unspoken, unidentified resentments that exist between the couple that need to be addressed. No marriage dismantles itself overnight. It's an insidious, slow poison that usually only dramatically surfaces when an addiction, infidelity, or some other betrayal ignites a small flame. Sure, there are a lot of things that couples value about the each other (Which is why some are successful in reconciling). However, it's imperative that the recovery process include dissecting the ways that they don’t like each other, the personality issues, the subconscious conflicts, and the unspoken anger. I wish these types of conversations occurred before a marital crisis explodes. Unfortunately, that’s usually not the case.
In order to explore this topic in your relationship it’s important to ask simple questions like: Would you prefer to spend time with friends or family instead of your partner? Or Do you feel safe or desire to share intimate thoughts or even silly jokes with your partner? Or would you rather share those thoughts and jokes with others?
Also, it helps to realize that we are all perfectly imperfect. Every human screws up, especially our spouse and ourselves. We can all be annoying, frustrating, hurtful, and fall short of another’s expectations. Often, it has little to do with us and more to do with the other person’s issues, their own shame, and their own faulty interpretations. But in order to determine that, there must be open communication about our shortcomings and resentments with another. In other words, once most spouses learn how they harm their spouse, they need to try to not take the information personally and act defensively. This information—if delivered correctly—can be constructive if both partners work to replace their maladaptive behaviors with more productive (less harmful) ones.