Challenges and disagreements are inevitable as a couple grows through time. 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 is defined as the feeling of displeasure or indignation at some act, remark, person, etc., regarded as causing injury or insult. It hides behind symptoms like criticism, passive aggression, and an inability or low desire to emotionally connect. The partner who is not resentful may be left feeling angry, confused, or hurt by the level of antipathy. That anger causes withdrawal from the relationship and ironically perpetuates the negative cycle.
Working with couples has familiarized me with what resentment looks like, sounds like, and its effects. It creeps in like a dark cloud and refuses to leave because it makes itself so comfortable that going back to a relationship filled with generosity and affection becomes unnatural to the couple. Fortunately, there are some common elements that contribute to the construction of resentment. This is helpful because we need to understand our enemy before we can start tearing it down.
So, what are the factors that aid in building resentment within relationships?
Lack of trust
My clients automatically think of fidelity when I bring up the word “trust”. However, there is so much more to trust than fidelity. 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? We learn more about our partner over time through various interactions. We gain a better understanding of how they will respond to us when we need them most. If the answer to the questions listed above is usually “no,” then we become conditioned to build a wall around ourselves.
There is a huge difference between talking and communicating. Effective communication between a couple involves summarizing and reflecting on what the other person has to say. There is curiosity, questions, rephrasing, and- most importantly- 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. They are 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 build resentment and frustration.
Lack of generosity
Previous studies have shown that generosity in a marriage was positively associated with marital satisfaction and negatively associated with marital conflict. In this study, generosity was measured by acts of kindness, respect, forgiveness, and acceptance. These are essentially the manners that come so naturally in the “honeymoon stage” of the relationship. Some grow resentful when the kindness stops, when the favors become chores, when appreciation is no longer there, 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
Negative sentiment override occurs when a couple has had more negative interactions than positive ones. Through research, Dr. John Gottman has found that the magic ratio of 5:1. This means 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 that generates a destructive and dangerous pattern.
It is important to remember that life is full of choices. Although we cannot always choose the way we feel, we do have the power to choose the way we respond to others. We build a wall of resentment around ourselves as we hold on to layers of pain, sadness, anger, and disappointment. 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. Let your partner know why you’ve been feeling resentful. If you find it difficult to do this on your own, schedule a session so we can break down the fortress together.