Quid Pro Quo vs. White As Snow
Getting Rid of Marital Resentment
If you married a normal human being, chances are that you have some of those typical 10-12 unresolved areas of marital conflict that are causing you resentment. It is also likely that your sense of fair play makes it easy for you to accidentally keep a marriage balance book that adds up to feeling like things are not fair. For example, most women keep a balance sheet that indicates that their husband has a chores deficit, gift-giving deficit or romance deficit. Many men have a balance sheet that indicates a deficit in sexual activity, being appreciated and being granted time off duty while at home. Research on couples shows us that developing the habit of keeping a marital balance sheet promotes a quid pro quo mindset-the tit for tat approach that is guaranteed to destroy your marriage. Taking a quid pro quo mindset never works because it promotes a “me first” orientation and highlights all the things that are most human and in need of forgiveness in your spouse, but without acknowledging that you are guilty of the same inability to make things even according to your spouse’s balance sheet. It cultivates resentment instead of a good- natured humble attitude that acknowledges that at any moment you could be the one guilty of contributing to the marital fund of annoyance.
Jesus gave some clear instructions for how to manage our awareness of our spouse’s annoying attributes and outright failures. When St. Peter asked him how often he should forgive, Jesus answered, “…not seven times… but seventy times seven!” (Matthew 18:22). Isaiah also tells us that God’s attitude toward our sin is one of total forgiveness, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18). As Christians, we know that we are to cultivate forgiveness, but for most of us, this is a very difficult task, especially when it concerns our spouse. Why? Besides having unrealistic expectations (expecting your marriage to reflect a life of predictable fairness and frequent pleasing events), we have to learn to manage the way our mind works when presented with painful circumstances and disappointments. We have to learn to compensate for what scientists call the attribution bias and the fact that our minds are programmed to place more emotional value on recalling negative interactions than positive interactions.
The attribution bias occurs when we ascribe our own personal failures to circumstance and the failures of others to flaws in their character. We all do this whether we intend to or not unless we learn to think in a different manner. For example, if I arrive late to work, the attribution bias predicts that I will apologize to everyone by explaining how bad the traffic was and how difficult it was to get my sons to school. I then preserve my view of myself as being a basically nice person who just made an unintended mistake. If my colleague shows up late to work, however, the attribution bias predicts that I will likely ascribe their lateness to defects in character, such as being lazy, disorganized and selfish for not valuing everyone else’s time schedule as much as their own. Sound familiar? Chances are that if you get a group of married women together at Starbucks, they are complaining about their spouse’s immaturity just as the attribution bias would suggest. Chances are that if you get a group of men to talk their wives, you will hear the same type of eye rolling talk about their spouse’s peculiar female ways. The reality is that your spouse is no different than you. They are full of good intentions gone awry, a desire to live in harmony with you and wanting very much to please you, but they are destined to always not quite get it right because they are human. In other words, it is never personal and even when it is intended personally, it never makes sense to make it personal. If you can just remember to view your spouse as a victim of circumstance and lack of skill, then you will go a long way towards prompting yourself to explain their behavior in forgivable terms.
Our minds also catalogue moments of conflict with a greater emotional weight than for positive events. This probably has some adaptive value when real harm occurs, but for most marriages the only real danger is that imposed by misunderstanding one another. Scientists have shown that it can take up to 20 positive interactions between spouses to emotionally neutralize the effect of a painful interaction. That means that you should never be casual about having a temper tantrum or expect your spouse to just get over a difficult conversation or fight just because you have moved on. Chances are that they are still suffering the ill effects long after the situation occurred. This explains why couples tend to distance and stop acting friendly toward each other, after a fight or threatened fight. They avoid eye contact, smiling, touching and being verbally and physically affectionate with each other even though these are some of the very behaviors that would start to restore the uneven emotional balance created by the conflict or disappointment. It also means that if you are wise, then you will work be persistent at being kind, affectionate and loving toward your spouse when they have goofed so that you can more quickly get back to the comfort zone. Justifying your distance by believing that you are protecting yourself from emotional pain is a mistake-it only prevents you from developing a healthier marriage by cutting off opportunities for healing.
How can you work to avoid character assassination of your spouse and resentment toward your spouse?
- Always, always be gracious enough to explain your spouse’s annoying habits and disappointing qualities in terms of the situation and life circumstance, just as you explain your own character flaws to yourself and your friends
Example: “She is just trying to help me by making sure we get there on time” vs. “She is a controlling side seat driver!”
Example: “He overspent on the Christmas gifts because he wanted to surprise us all with lavish love and grew up in a home where no one got worried about keeping a Christmas budget because they never had enough money anyway.” vs. “He is such a spendthrift!”
- Start keeping a daily log, or mental list, of things that you are grateful for in your spouse. If you do not like writing lists, tell them to your smartphone or tablet. Make your lists specific about what your spouse did and how they did it. If you need help in learning how to be full of praise and gratitude, read a few of the praise psalms for inspiration on how to elaborate on positive attributes and develop your own psalm of praise for your husband or wife. Then write it down and give it to them. Happily married couples are constantly mentally reminding themselves of what they love about their spouse, saying it aloud, reminding their spouse of what they love and affirming it again and again. Instead of feeling jaded when you observe a couple being verbally romantic and engaging in public displays of affection, take notes and try to copy them. They are being a terrific positive role model.
- Tell others, including the kids, what you like and love about your spouse. Tell the pets and neighbors too. You are mentally practicing what psychologists call cognitive reframing. This a very healthy thing to do. The things that you repeat the most are also the things that come to mind most easily.
- Vow to never take your spouse’s behavior personally. They are only human, just like you, and deserve a break because after all they have to be married to you! View conflict as an opportunity to practice cognitive reframing and forgiveness rather than a trigger for rehearsing the mindset associated with persecution and resentment.
- When you know that you have goofed and caused pain or conflict, then be patient with your spouse because it will take a lot of positive interactions to get both of you back into the mutual comfort zone. During this recalibration time, keep hugging, smiling, making eye contact and saying “I love you” and “Please forgive me-I am so sorry I caused you and us pain.” We may think of bringing flowers home, lovemaking, or cooking a special meal after a fight as being quaint, but it is a smart person’s choice for rebuilding mutual trust and intimacy. It extends the hand of God’s grace that allows for healing to occur and hope to be rebuilt.
Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., A.C.T. is a Light of Christ member with 25 years of experience in clinical psychology. To read her full biography, click here.
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