As a couple grows through time and experiences, obstacles, challenges, and disagreements are inevitable. Life presents the relationship with opportunities to develop a closer bond or build what could be the most difficult wall to break down: resentment. Resentment can be hard to detect, hiding behind symptoms like criticism, passive aggression, and an inability or low desire to emotionally connect. For the partner who is not resentful, they may be left feeling angry, confused, and highly affected by the level of antipathy, causing withdrawal from the relationship and ironically perpetuating the negative cycle.
Throughout sessions with clients, I have become familiar with what resentment looks like, sounds like, and its effect on some strong couples. It creeps in like a dark cloud and refuses to leave because it makes itself very comfortable; so comfortable, that going back to a relationship filled with generosity and affection becomes unnatural to the couple over time.
Resentment is defined as the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc., regarded as causing injury or insult. Throughout my experience, I have come to find some common elements contributing to the construction of resentment, which is helpful because we can then begin to tear it down.
So, in a relationship, what are the factors that aid in building resentment?
- Lack of trust
When I bring up the word trust with my clients their automatic thought is fidelity, but there is so much more to trust than knowing whether your partner is going to cheat on you or not. Trust also includes: Can I depend on you when I need you the most? Can I rely on you? Will you be there for me? Will you judge me? Can I share my most honest and raw thoughts and feelings with you? Ultimately, do you accept me for who I am?
Over time, as we learn more about our partner through various encounters and interactions, we gain a better understanding of how they will respond to when we need them most. If we learn that the answer to some of the questions listed above is no, then we not only become conditioned to internalize and build a wall of safety, but the wall will also be built with resentment and maybe some fear as well.
- Difficulty communicating
There is a huge difference between talking and communicating. When a couple is effectively communicating, there is summarizing and reflecting what the other person has to say, there is curiosity, there are questions, there is rephrasing, and most importantly, there is validation. When a couple is merely talking or having a disagreement, it is almost like a tennis match as they pass the ball back and forth, not really holding on, taking in, or analyzing what the other person has to say. Feeling like your words do not have an impact or are not valued by your partner recurrently, will ultimately build resentment and frustration.
- Lack of generosity
A 2013 study found that generosity in a marriage was positively associated with marital satisfaction and negatively associated with marital conflict and likelihood to divorce. In this study, generosity was measured by acts of kindness, respect, forgiveness, and acceptance; essentially most of the manners which usually come so naturally to a newly established couple in the “honeymoon stage” of the relationship. Some grow resentful when the kindness stops, when the favors become chores and obligations, when the appreciation is no longer, when “I love you” and “I miss you” are supposed to be known rather than stated, and when stating how desperately these words and behaviors are needed go unnoticed.
- Negative sentiment override
Dr. John Gottman’s work defines negative sentiment override as a state a person or a couple is in when every interaction, every verbal exchange is perceived negatively no matter how innocuous. This occurs when over the course of the relationship, the couple has had more negative interactions than positive ones. Dr. Gottman explains that through his research he has found that the magic ratio is 5:1 or 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction is needed to avoid entering negative sentiment override. In this state, resentment is a given; negative interactions include almost a habitual lack of generosity and constructive communication as explained previously, generating a destructive and dangerous pattern.
- Personal challenges
It is important to remember that life is full of choices, and although we cannot always choose the way we feel, we do have the power to choose the way we behave in response to our feelings. As we hold on to and accumulate layers of pain, sadness, anger, disappointment, etc., we are building a wall of resentment. As the layers build up, our wall becomes higher and higher, and we build it around ourselves until we are trapped and unable to break free. Working through the resentment with your partner is imperative while simultaneously remaining cognizant of how much power you hold as well.
Resentment is not only difficult to talk about, but it is also challenging to undo. If you have been experiencing resentment towards your partner let them know and explain why. If you find it difficult to do this on your own, schedule a therapy session so we can break down the fortress together.
Written by: Yasman Mostajeran, MA, LMFT-Associate, CST-Candidate