It happened all the time. I was at home with our first son, totally exhausted expecting our second. After a long day of working and waiting for his arrival, my handsome breadwinner would pull up to the house, ready for some R&R from the daily grind. And that’s when it would start.
It didn’t matter what Andrew did in his after work routine – where he hung his jacket, put his shoes, ate his snack – I picked it apart, silently castigating him for not performing such insignificant activities with meticulous perfection. Because nothing he did was good enough or neat enough under my critical eye, a layer of filth formed over my previously rosy view of him. Shoot – I didn’t know I was being unjust, but I went about my way, all the while mentally stacking straws on my own back. And all those straws amounted to resentment against him. Even writing this out, it’s embarrassing to recall my own unfairness and how I blamed him for my frustration.
You might wonder why I was even resentful in the first place and it’s all because I wasn’t praying to God and I wasn’t communicating with Andrew.
We’ve had our fair share of mutual bitterness, usually over something we didn’t communicate about. What’s remarkable to me is that, to my recollection of our young marriage, Andrew hasn’t ever been nearly as impatient with me as I was with him; I assume because he has been blessed with a laid back personality and compassion, while I have to stifle an inner uptightness and quick cynicism. While my cup brimmed with resentment, I kept up the happy faces knowing how we secretly hated to risk hurt feelings and conflict over anything. Both peacekeepers to a fault, frustration would slip out in the form of sarcasm and seemingly innocuous jabs. And for what? We fell victim to the classic marital blunder of foolish pride.
It’s happened in our relationship and I’ve seen it in a million other circumstances – not just marriages either. Bitterness is happy to settle in between friends, colleagues, and family members often because, whether done intentionally or subconsciously, we have unspoken expectations of what we deserve from the other. Where does this sense of entitlement come from? Undoubtedly (and rightfully), we hope in marriage that, after everything we’re investing in our beloveds, surely we’d receive some sort of proportionate response – a gesture, a smile, or maybe communicated appreciation. And when the response doesn’t come, it’s all too easy to feel not only let down, but resentful.
Fr. Emmerich Vogt said that harboring resentment is like “taking a drop of poison each day and hoping it kills the other person.” Of course, this insight is slightly over the top since I highly doubt any of us wish harm on our spouses, but the point is that such heartfelt bitterness is likely to ruin the sweetness of marriage more quickly for you than your spouse.
Just a few months ago, we unearthed my tendency to bottle bitterness and we’ve been striving to communicate more clearly ever since. So here’s what Andrew and I are doing to knock this out and keep it down:
- We pray as individuals and as a couple every day. It’s sometimes profound and other times it isn’t, but regardless something we know we can’t stray from if we want genuine peace. If you feel like you’re too busy for a good 20 minute period of prayer, try just 5 minutes at first. Or pray little prayers throughout the day as you think of it – e.g. Holy Mary, please give me your gentleness as I work with [enter name here] or God bless my husband/wife on the way home. Marriage is tough – we beg God to pour his graces on us because, left to our own devices, we’d mess the whole thing up.
- We decide to serve each other and overcome ourselves. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? and it sure is when I accept the grace to do it; but overcoming myself is the hardest battle I fight every day and, admittedly, I don’t always win. Sometimes serving Andrew means doing the load of laundry I’m too tired to do, but that’s what makes marriage humble – sometimes we do things just because we have to love our spouses more than ourselves.
- We forgive each other every day and we talk it out. Again, sometimes it’s profound and other times not, but we have to keep this up. Within the context of praying together, we ask “Is there anything I’ve done today for which I need to ask your forgiveness?” (Ok, so it’s not that grammatically beautiful, but the meaning is there.) and then out it comes – whatever we’ve been harboring or regretting. We apologize, we say “I forgive you,” and then move on to thank God for our marriage. I will say that since we’ve been doing this so regularly, it’s acted as preventative medicine; meaning we’re developing the virtue of charity between us and there seems to be less and less to forgive as we progress.
What if, however, your bride or groom isn’t the praying, let’s-forgive-each-other-every-day type? That’s ok – you still need to be. The love within marriage is supposed to imitate the love of God, right? In the nearly 10,000 days that I’ve been alive, I’d say I omitted appreciation to God for his compassion and generosity for over 95% of them; yet even without a word from me, God has remained faithful and abundant with his blessings. Do the same for your spouse – even if he or she doesn’t notice or appreciate what you do, continue to offer it out of sheer love. Plus, in imitating this sweetness, mercy, and charity, you’re setting an example for your spouse to join. You’ll find that your sense of entitlement will dissolve into cheerful and humble servitude. I’ve learned that, even knowing that my deeds may go unsung at the end of the day, stomping out resentment in my own soul ensures that I’m ready and enthusiastic to ask my husband how I can serve him simply because I love him.