5 Ways To Break Out Of 'Normal Marital Hatred' — According To A Couples Therapist

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couple looking dejected, heads in hands

Our western culture romanticizes marriage and the "happily ever after," which sets couples up for disappointment when their experience is anything less than marital bliss.

As a couples therapist, I witness bitter feelings between partners all the time. From rage to annoyance, partners communicate their displeasure through words, actions, and body language.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t love each other or that their relationship is doomed.

Nationally recognized family therapist Dr. Terry Real popularized the term "normal marital hatred" to reflect the harder (and very common) realities of marriage, ranging from everyday frustrations to more serious relationship issues.

Real says: 

“I’ve run around the country for 20 years, talking about what I call 'normal marital hatred' and not one person has ever come backstage to ask what I meant by that."

And while not everyone thinks it’s okay to associate hatred with marriage, what most people do agree on is that even in loving and stable relationships, you will not feel enamored with your partner all of the time.

RELATED: 7 Reasons Women Start To Hate Their Husbands



Marriage is an emotional rollercoaster

It’s normal to feel both positively and negatively toward people you love because the people you care about the most ignite the strongest feelings on both ends of the spectrum. 

Romantic relationships are particularly intimate and vulnerable in nature, so disagreements, arguments, and hurts are business as usual. 

With our romantic other, we have more to lose if things go wrong, so we’re especially vigilant about potential risks to the relationship.

If you tend to focus on things you dislike about your partner, consider that perhaps, on some level, you’re afraid that what you find irritating in your partner might be what drives you apart or derails your relationship. For example, do you really despise your husband’s laid-back attitude, or are you worried it will rub up against your Type A style and drive a wedge between you in the future? 

RELATED: 8 Communication Skills That All Happily Married Couples Know

A few strategies for breaking out of a 'marital hatred' cycle:

A huge part of my job is to help couples who are deeply upset with each other reconnect and learn new ways to stay connected in the future when difficult feelings arise.

If you’re trying to break out of normal marital hatred and revive your relationship without going to therapy together, here are a few strategies you can explore on your own.

1. Let go of the judgments that fuel your animosity 

If you have negative feelings about your partner, they will seem like the villain no matter what they do (due to something known as confirmation bias). In this case, perhaps what needs to change first is your perspective, not your partner's. 

Critical thoughts tend to spiral in our head: They don’t care about me. What a jerk. They’re never going to get it. All they want to do is make me miserable. Relationships shouldn’t be this hard. I shouldn’t have to put up with this. How dare they.

Judgments and assumptions like these make us angry, and the angrier we get, the more judgments we make, in a seemingly endless cycle.

Notice the judgments you’re making that fuel your resentment toward your partner.

How much of the problem is your thought pattern, more than your partner’s actual behavior? What role do you play in this cycle?

The antidote to judging is to simply notice and describe what’s going on externally and internally, here and now, without judging your partner for their behavior, or yourself for your negative feelings.

This can be achieved through practicing mindfulness when you’re alone and when you’re with your partner (see Alan Fruzzetti’s The High Conflict Couple book). Being mindful will regulate your nervous system and enable a very different experience for both you and your spouse.

RELATED: 10 Ways To Immediately Be Less Judgmental Of People You Disagree With

2. Identify what’s beneath the rage

One mindfulness exercise involves searching for the emotions beneath your anger.

Anger is an iceberg emotion — we see what’s above the water line–fury, frustration, irritation–but there’s a lot more going on that’s harder to see. Under the surface are the more vulnerable feelings like hurt, shame, disappointment, fear, and sadness. 

We jump to anger as a habit, likely because it feels safer than exposing other parts of ourselves. However, reacting with anger doesn’t get us what we really want, things like love, care, appreciation, understanding, connection, and respect.

When frustration toward your partner bubbles up, use curiosity to see what else is going on. Are you just angry that they’re late for dinner, or are you also hurt that they didn’t prioritize spending time with you?

Are you really mad at them for calling you out, or are you also ashamed and embarrassed that you let them down? 

Consider that maybe there’s more to the story. 

When you better understand the emotions underlying your frustrations, you can more effectively communicate with your partner and ask for what you want directly (rather than aggressively or passive-aggressively).



RELATED: 5 Signs You Might Have Anger Issues & What To Do About It

3. Practice kinder thoughts and actions 

When you’ve felt miserable about your relationship for some time, it’s important to generate hope that it could be better between you.

While I’m not suggesting you ignore your feelings and intuition, you do have the power to experience your relationship in a new way by experimenting with more generous thoughts and actions toward your partner.

Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to adapt or change over time), with effort and repetition, you can retrain your brain to hold your partner in higher regard, which might also provide the boost you need to keep working on the relationship.

Here are five things you can do to cultivate positive vibes toward your partner:

  • Write a list of all the things you like and love about your partner, read it daily or when they’re really irking you. 
  • Pick a place you can go (e.g. a quiet corner, your car) to think warmly about your partner, like a relationship “powering up” station.
  • Give frequent verbal appreciation to your partner regarding who they are and all that they do (big and small).
  • Look at pictures of your partner to prompt pleasant feelings, and look at pictures of them as a child to boost compassion.
  • Do fun, new things together regularly to see your partner in a different light and to create positive associations.

RELATED: 7 Things Truly Nice People Do Every Day That Make Us Adore Them

4. Check in on you

How you relate to yourself, other areas of your life, and your past will influence how you feel about your partner and your relationship. For example, if you’re feeling stuck and unmotivated at work, you might end up projecting similar feelings onto your partner or relationship, which can look like attacking or blaming (which may be easier than confronting your own difficult emotions).

Additionally, with romantic partners, we tend to project unconscious feelings we have toward a parent figure onto our partner, in an attempt to solve unfinished business from childhood, which can look like picking the same fight over and over again, or being mad at your partner and not knowing why. 

You might also be playing out something from a past romantic relationship in your current relationship. For example, if an ex betrayed you, you may struggle to trust your new partner, though they’ve done nothing to suggest they can’t be trusted. 

Journalling or working with a therapist can help you identify if and what you are projecting onto your partner. 

Additionally, we are more likely to project when tired, stressed, and emotionally under-resourced. Practicing regular self-care can help, including making time for yourself, doing things that make you happy, and fostering other relationships. 

The bottom line is, if you’ve been experiencing sour thoughts and feelings about your partner, you are not alone. In fact, you are completely normal.

Fortunately, there are tangible actions you can take on your own to change your perspective about your partner (some of which are outlined in this article), likely causing your partner’s energy to shift for the better, as well.

However, if normal marital hatred is a dominant and enduring feeling in your relationship, further intervention is recommended.

RELATED: 8 Easy Ways To Stop Being Bored In Your Marriage



5. Consider couples therapy

Of course, if your relationship is abusive, or if one of you is considering hurting the other, please seek immediate safety and specialized help.

If abuse is not a concern, I suggest working with a couples therapist before things get more distressing.

A couples therapist can help you with mindfulness and emotional regulation, teach you to communicate more productively, and help you illuminate each of your roles in the pattern of disconnection.

They can also help you look at the big picture and make healthy choices for the future.

Remember, you don’t need to wait until your relationship is collapsing before going to couples therapy. You can seek support at the first signs of normal marital hatred, or even preempt it entirely. Learning important relationship skills early on can only increase the strength and resilience of your relationship.

RELATED: 14 Experts Reveal The Most Common Reason People End A Relationship (Other Than Infidelity)

Talia Litman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. She can also be found on Instagram