Your Health

Resentment is like acid to a romantic relationship

One killer of romance is resentment. What is resentment, how does it destroy love and what can you do if it shows up in your relationship?

Resentment is a form of anger that arises when you feel you’ve been hurt or treated unfairly. It’s a natural and normal response to a situation, a feeling of, “Hey, that’s not OK!” There’s nothing wrong with feeling resentful in the face of unfair treatment. What you choose to do with these angry feelings will likely determine if the situation will be resolved or is likely to be unresolved and repeated in the future.

Following are some examples of resentful thoughts.

• She doesn’t treat me with respect.

• He never does the dishes.

• You never want to spend time with me.

• We never have sex.

• I have to make all of the money.

• I have to change all of the diapers.

• I always do the shopping/cooking/cleaning/driving kids, etc.

Ways to curb resentment

In a long-term romantic relationship, situations causing some degree of resentment will happen. Count on it. So what do you do if you find yourself feeling resentful? Or you suspect that your partner may be feeling resentful toward you? Basically, here is what to do: You either talk about it or you do not talk about it.

When done effectively, talking respectfully and calmly with your partner about what’s going on is the best option. Consider this: There’s nothing wrong with sharing your feelings of hurt or disappointment with your partner. In fact, finding a safe way to talk about what happens between you and your partner is the only way to change a situation causing distress and disconnection. If you don’t talk about it, it’s not likely to change.

Although the choice to speak openly and honestly seems obvious, many people choose to say nothing. They don’t talk to their partner about their distress. And resentment builds and builds.

How people tend to respond to a situation is sometimes called an “action tendency.” For many of us, our tendency is not to talk about what is bugging us. People don’t speak to their partner about their hurt feelings for different reasons. Some feel it is unsafe. Others are unaware of their own feelings. Still others never learned how to have an effective conversation about a difficult topic.

Let’s first look at reasons a person may feel that it is unsafe to speak up. A partner may fear that talking about his or her complaint and the resentment anger that it causes will only make things worse. Many witnessed their parents’ loud arguments and hostility, and learned that getting angry is dangerous. The best course is to hold it in.

Others try to avoid uncomfortable feelings by various means, and can remain largely unaware of their own feelings of resentment. Alternatively, some of us never had successful experiences of talking comfortably about our feelings and really don’t know how to do this in our most precious relationship.

Self-protective behaviors

What are the consequences of not voicing your concerns? What happens when the anger of resentment builds? A variety of behaviors may appear.

Behaviors associated with resentment include indirect expressions of anger, including passive-aggression, sarcasm, grumpiness and irritability. There may be instances of being late, forgetting intentionally, the silent treatment or cold looks. Anger may explode into active aggression such as yelling, slamming doors or cheating.

The anger of resentment can escalate to a tit-for-tat of retaliation, keeping score or standoffs. Another way to avoid feeling is to numb out with drugs or alcohol. Other people may distract themselves by focusing on tasks such as work, sports or hobbies. Still others may become depressed when they turn their anger inward. All of these are self-protective behaviors, aimed at avoiding danger by withdrawing.

Of course, such bad outcomes lead to heartbreak and breakup. Instead, learning to become more comfortable discussing uncomfortable feelings or topics can lead to closeness and confidence in you and your partner’s ability to talk about the things that matter most to each of you.

Problems around resentment aren’t restricted to romantic relationships, but also impact family, social and work relationships.

If you suspect pent-up resentment in yourself or your partner, try a gentle “Let’s talk” to get things started. Try to focus on your feelings and experience instead of focusing on what you think your partner is doing wrong. Of course, if you are unsure how to proceed or feel stuck, with much at stake, please consider consulting with a mental health professional.

Nancy Andersen, M.A., licensed marriage and family therapist, provides counseling for couples and individuals in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit nancyandersenmft.com.

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