First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes “normal marital hatred”?
That’s the latest buzzword to enter the relationship/pop psychology space, thanks to marriage therapist Terrence Real, a family therapist for two decades and the author of the new book Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Real illuminated what he means by “normal marital hatred.”
“There are going to be moments when you look at your partner, and at that moment, there is a part of you that just hates their guts,” Real told the paper. “You’re trapped with this horrible human being. How did you wind up here? What I want to say is, ‘Welcome to marriage. Welcome to long-term relationships.’”
The idea is, once you recognise that marital hatred is par for the course in long-term unions, you can learn how to defuse the situation.
Critics online, though, were quick to call the concept of “marital hatred” into question. (The term is decidedly less warm and fuzzy-sounding than a concept like “love languages.”)
“It’s not normal to hate your spouse,” said Hannah Evans, a sociology Ph.D. candidate whose tweet was widely shared. “If you hate your spouse, you should see a therapist and/or get a divorce. The point of platforming all of these opinion pieces that basically say the same thing appears to me to be trying to discourage people, particularly women, from leaving.”
“I don’t think marital hatred is the right word for this, as hatred implies a deep disdain for the other person.”
Sex and culture writer Ella Dawson shared her thoughts, too. “I don’t know who needs to hear this tonight but it is not healthy to hate your partner. It is not healthy to ~occasionally~ hate your partner,” she tweeted. “Frustration and annoyance are going to pop up in any long-term relationship, but hatred should not.”
Idealising your relationship to the point that you think it will remain anger- and argument-free is a bad idea, of course, but is calling angsty moments “normal marital hatred” going a little too far? Is Real right in saying it’s normal to hate your spouse? Is it normal and commonplace but still gravely unhealthy? Is it a clever marketing ploy when “disdain” or “annoyance” would have gotten the point across better? (Probably, yes!)
To answer those questions, we asked other marriage therapists to weigh in on Real’s claim that sometimes we all low-key hate the ones we love. Here’s what they had to say.
“If [your hate] is a day or a week here and there after a fight, that’s normal”
“This is certainly a pretty normal feeling for most long-term married people. There’s seasons of a marriage where you feel disconnected, angry and even hateful. If this is all the time, something is wrong. But it’s very harmful to act as though marriage should be all happiness all the time. This is an impossible expectation for all but newlyweds. Some people feel emotions more intensely than others, so they will feel hate vs. irritation. I think a good analogy is sometimes you hate your sibling even if you love them overall. Close relationships lead to intense feelings. If you hate your spouse unrelentingly for months, try couples counselling, but if it’s a day or a week here and there after a fight, that’s normal.” ― Samantha Rodman Whiten, a clinical psychologist and the host of The Dr. Psych Mom Show podcast
“When I mention normal marital hatred to the couples I see, they usually laugh, then express relief”
“When Terry Real talks about normal marital hatred, he is talking about a process that almost all marriages go through — a relational weather system with storms, springtime, flowers, ice storms, blue skies, frozen pipes and lots of electrical outages.
Clients may have relational fantasies and say, ‘I want a happy sitcom family,’ or a marriage where ‘we’re best friends, passionate lovers, our children love us, and all runs smoothly.’ The problem with that is it’s not realistic for a relationship with two people or more in it to not experience ups, downs, and everything in between. We are human; therefore fallible, sometimes cranky, tired, and self-oriented. We are all emotionally damaged in various types of ways and from families where we often hated one another at various times.
Usually, biological family hatred is fleeting, just like marital hatred. Getting couples to understand this is crucial so that they learn not to run when the marriage is running low on fuel, and to get over the idea that they are only in the relationship so long as everything is working for them.
When I mention normal marital hatred to the couples I see, they usually laugh, then express relief. People are often quick to think they are the only ones struggling and everyone else has it better.”― Becky Whetstone, a marriage and family therapist in Little Rock, Arkansas, and co-host of Curly Girls Relationship Show
“I don’t think marital hatred is the right word for this, as hatred implies a deep disdain for the other person”
“When I work with couples, it’s totally normal for them to express negativity, frustration and annoyance toward one another. But I don’t think marital hatred is the right word for this, as hatred implies a deep disdain for the other person.
While temporary frustration or even longer-term resentment happens in many relationships, hatred towards your partner would make me wonder if there’s a deeper issue, like incompatibility. If you feel like you hate your partner, it may be worth asking yourself whether you want to stay in the relationship at all. Having conflict or disliking some parts of your partner or relationship is absolutely normal, but calling it hatred may be taking it a bit far.” — Amanda Baquero, a marriage and family therapist in Miami
“Normal, relatively healthy couples will feel annoyed or frustrated at times”
“I think the use of the word ‘hate’ is an eye-grabber, but not entirely accurate for Terry’s explanation. For many years, the late psychologist and author David Schnarch spoke of ‘normal marital sadism,’ which stems from the same idea. It speaks to the idea that normal, relatively healthy couples will feel annoyed or frustrated at times and express their anger through aggressive or passive-aggressive means. They’ll forget something on their partner’s calendar or fail to pick up their partner’s staple item from the store or fake an orgasm. It is certainly something to work through, as direct communication is generally preferable to indirect or passive-aggressive avenues, but the fact that we are sometimes angry with our partner is normal and needs to be managed with maturity and clarity.
Furthermore, the closer we get to someone, the more likely we are to speak to them the same way we speak to ourselves, which isn’t always pretty. To deny marital disappointment is to say that all healthy marriages are free from occasional problems or misunderstandings. The truth is, if we’re choosing a dancing partner, we’re going to step on toes once in a while. Work on expressing your displeasure with the missteps as course corrections and learning opportunities rather than dealbreakers.” ― Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, and author of the Mental Health Journal for Men
“To me, hate conjures up resentment and bitterness”
“I have heard of this phenomenon and really don’t like the word ‘hate’. Getting angry at your partner is understandable, even in the best of relationships, but the emotion of hate is something else. To me, hate conjures up resentment and bitterness. Bitterness in particular is utterly toxic and not healthy for the person who is feeling it, and certainly not their relationship. So, no. I do not think it is normal or healthy to feel chronic hate. It is definitely not, in my opinion, a healthy word choice.
There is also a trend in our culture since the 1970s that portrays partners as adversaries. This has led to hate in relationships and has hurt the ability of many couples to be more concerned with being close because they are more focused on being right. Hate totally destroys that ability to be understanding. In turn, this leads to chronic anger and disappointment, and that can lead to feelings of hate. This is a damaging cycle that I see so much of the time in my practice.”
― Gary Brown, a couples therapist in Los Angeles
“I’d use the word disdain rather than hatred”
“Do I believe in the concept of marital hatred? Sure, though I’d use the word ‘disdain’ rather than ‘hatred.’ But only because hatred is too polarising and leads people to overlook the more subtle message, as I think many did with Real’s Washington Post article. But the emotion is the same.
My wife and I have been married 25 years this coming March, and I can say that we are happy and deeply in love. We fully expect the next 25 will be better than the first. Have those 25 years been bliss? Anything but. We’ve each had stretches of time where we felt trapped, alone, or deeply disdainful towards each other. At times I’ve been convinced my life would be better if I had married someone else. Problems seem both insurmountable and her fault. But without exception, once the dust of those moments settles, the problem hasn’t been that my wife was worthy of my disdain, it was that I needed to stop projecting some hated aspect of myself onto her.
I think of marriage as two people growing up together. Married or single, growing up is a messy process full of ups and downs as you gradually learn which responsibilities are yours and which aren’t. If you’re married, you’re just going through that journey next to someone else, meaning they get a disproportionate amount of your crap projected onto them as you figure life out. They get blamed for all sorts of nonsense that really is yours. In that sense, my marriage has become valuable to me not as a source of deep, unending Disneyland love, but rather because it offers a mirror into parts of me I don’t want to see, and an unending invitation to become a better person by working on those parts. If you let it, the crucible of marriage will refine you like nothing else. (Not including abuse, of course. In that case yeah, get out).” ― Sean Davis, a therapist and professor in the couple and family therapy program at Alliant International University’s campus in Sacramento, California
“Once I hate you, it is very difficult to turn back”
“First, I would like to say that I am a big fan of Terry Real’s approach and philosophy for couples. I would say he and I are usually 99.9% aligned. However, in this particular case, I differ slightly.
Although I have not yet finished his book ‘Us,’ I feel that his quote of ‘normal marital hatred’ is being taken a bit out of context in the media. While it is a great sound bite, I believe that this deep feeling, encountered in a committed relationship such as marriage, is complex. We can experience moments of very strong feelings in relationships. Although I do believe that ‘hatred’ can be experienced in relationships, if it is more than a moment or two, more than a passing feeling, then there is serious trouble. I believe that anger is the more prevalent emotion in relationships and that anger is very normal, dare I say healthy, if managed correctly. Anger can pass, sometimes very quickly. Hatred, on the other hand, seems to have a permanence, or let us say depth, that I believe is not healthy.
As a marriage and family therapist, and a certified anger management specialist, I believe that defining the difference between anger and hatred is very important. Anger is triggered when one’s expectation is broken or challenged and can usually be linked to a specific event or action. I can love you, or at least like you, yet be angry with you. Now hatred, on the other hand, seems to get to the core being of the individual it is directed at. Once I hate you, it is very difficult to turn back. This is why I feel that hatred may not be accurate for what Terry has been quoted for as normal. I agree with him that anger is very normal, especially as an automated coping response to developmental trauma. Hatred, on the other hand, in marriage, well, that feels like it should not be considered normal, in my opinion.” ― Ken Ribotsky, a marriage and family therapist in the South Bay area of Los Angeles
“While it’s not good, it’s still normal.”
“Yes, in my 12 years in practice as a focused marriage counsellor, marital hatred is absolutely normal at times. While it’s not good, it’s still normal. In the discussions since the article came out, people seem to be getting stuck on the word ‘hate,’ and it doesn’t allow them to see the principle behind the thought. I say all the time in my counselling, “it sounds like you don’t like your partner very much,” and I get a lot of nods when I say it. But if I use the word ‘hate,’ couples often disagree with me. Even though the couples who use the word ‘dislike’ vs ‘hate’ are treating their partner the same way. It’s really just semantics. And the difference (if any) is just splitting hairs.
Side note: Most of the time they don’t use the word ‘hate’ because it implies that they are actually capable of hate and they don’t like to hear that about themselves. And this same ego that keeps them from looking internally into the dark corners of themselves is usually also causing other problems in the marriage that need to get sorted out — either to help this marriage or the next one.
Whatever words you prefer to use, it’s liberating for a lot of spouses to hear from a marriage counsellor that this behaviour is normal at times, because they’ve been taught this should never happen in a marriage and that their marriage is broken or that they or their spouse are personally and irreparably broken if they feel this way. Honestly acknowledging their hateful feelings helps disempower the stigma and shame of how they’re feeling and really explore themselves and the marriage in an honest light without flinching. The fact that they’re willing to do this for someone they hate at that moment is an absolutely beautiful thing. It shows courage and a willingness that is nothing less than heroic. It’s a beautiful thing as a counselor to see a couple who treats each other horribly come to counseling for help and do the work that is hard and painful. And the rewards are worth it. Absolutely worth it.” ― Aaron Anderson, a therapist and the owner of The Marriage and Family Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada and Provo, Utah