It’s one thing to get irritated with your partner on occasion. Or let’s be honest, on many occasions. But it’s another thing when it starts to harden into an ongoing pattern of bitterness — one that may be marked by quick-to-surface anger, impatience, intense disappointment, or a nagging sense of unfairness. Let’s talk about dealing with resentment in your relationship.
Resentment in its various forms typically builds over time, and it can be one of the biggest relationship killers, especially for busy and overstretched parents. If resentment festers, you may start to lose empathy for your partner, shut down emotionally, and avoid conversation as well as intimacy.
The problem is that this only makes things worse, as resentment has to be addressed in order to be resolved — and most importantly, to prevent it from damaging your relationship and negatively impacting not only your own wellbeing, but that of your children and partner as well.
Identifying the warning signs (for both of you)
Here are some of most common indicators that you may be harboring resentment toward your partner:
- A sense of an unequal division of labor (e.g. with parenting, household chores, etc.)
- A feeling of being slighted, betrayed, or treated unfairly
- Increased irritability, disgust, and/or passive aggressiveness
- Embittered statements like “You always…” or “You never…”
- Less respect for your partner
- Little to no interest in sex or intimacy
- Complaining frequently about your partner to others
As for your partner, or the person who is sensing your resentment, they may notice:
- Greater emotional distance and/or a disconnect between you
- An increase in tension and arguments, but without understanding why
- A feeling of being ignored, criticized, or cut off, leading to confusion and anxiety
- Increased shame and hopelessness about the noticeably unhappy dynamic
Tackling the big one: The division of labor
From washing uniforms to arranging carpools to enforcing rules, the daily to-do list for parents of adolescents can feel endless. Not surprisingly, one of the most common paths to resentment is feeling like you’re taking on significantly more parenting duties and domestic tasks than your partner.
If it seems like you’re carrying the load, or your partner isn’t doing their fair share, it’s important to bring it up proactively to keep it from turning into something toxic. When you’re calm, share how you’re feeling and describe in very specific detail what your needs and expectations are. Don’t assume your partner already knows.
From there, see how your partner is feeling and if there are any misunderstandings at play. It’s possible they want to help more but are fearful of doing things wrong — or not up to your parenting standards. In that case, you can let them know that perfection is not the objective, but rather being a team. It’s important to really own this piece, as default parents often like things done “their way.” Your partner’s best may look differently than you’d hoped, but this isn’t the time for criticism or inflexibility.
Tools and tricks to try
It may be helpful to try to go through and define (or redefine) who is responsible for what on a regular basis — and ideally put it in writing so that it can be reviewed and updated. Even if it’s not completely equal, it needs to feel like a fair division of responsibilities to both of you. These check-ins can help you feel more supported, and remind everyone where they are succeeding or need work. Remember that now that your children are older, there may be places where responsibilities can start shifting to them as well! They can’t learn without some failures along the way, so a parent can always be listed as their “back-up.”
When resentment rears its head again, another trick is to think about your partner’s good qualities and the contributions they do make. Another way to look at this is to assume your partner had good intentions, whether that’s something they did or something they said. It may help you put things in perspective and cultivate gratitude. After all, no one is without flaws, including you, and every relationship requires effort and compromise.
And while it’s unlikely that every contribution each of you make is equal across all categories (household chores, home maintenance, childcare, etc.), when you step back and look at the bigger picture, you should feel like you’re a team and that you’re in it together. Any change is a process, so give your new perspective and organization time to bear fruit.
As parents, it can often feel that time with just the two of you is at a premium. Even when you get away for a date, a lot of that time can be spent just tackling the things mentioned above. Dating your partner doesn’t have to be time consuming or expensive. But it should avoid household maintenance chats or concerns about the kids. Setting aside even 30 minutes together to walk and talk or listen to a funny podcast is a way to reconnect bit by bit. If you’re feeling resentful, this allows you to slowly start to enjoy each other without the pressure of a multi-hour expensive dinner. Your children are aware of the effort you make to be a couple, and it sets a wonderful example to put the work in.
Resentment in your relationship: when to seek more help
If you’ve tried bringing the conversation up and it’s not going well, or nothing has improved, you may want to consider going to couples counseling to have an experienced therapist help you navigate fraught issues. It’s a commitment, but then again, so is a relationship.
There are also online relationship courses that you can take to help you improve your communication as partners and co-parents, which is by far the biggest tool you have for weathering the ups and downs together. Healthy communication can make all the difference when life’s next conflict occurs. Seeking help is not a sign that something is wrong, it’s an investment in your family and your relationship.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team