Resentment: The "Ruiner" of Relationships
Resentment is anger, disappointment, sadness, and let downs that are built up over time. The residual emotions from every negative interaction slowly accumulate overtime and take over all new (even positive) interactions. Couples become stuck in what Gottman refers to as “negative sentiment override” where even positive interactions can have a negative stigma attached to them because of the hurt, contempt and resentment that has built up between partners.
There are several reasons why resentment can build up over time. Some of the most common sources of resentment that I observe in couples counseling revolve around conflict with extended family, lying/cheating/dishonesty during the marriage, differing values or beliefs around having kids or raising kids, a move or change related to one person’s job or family, which leaves the spouse feeling unsettled and issues related to intimacy. All of these are serious issues which may feel unsurmountable if couples do not work through them together and early on.
While all of the above mentioned issues are very common predictors of resentment if not dealt with, there is one glaring theme that I see in both my couples therapy work and postpartum therapy work that takes the cake in terms of creating resentment. This is the idea of “sharing the load” in regard to daily things like household tasks, child-rearing, and the emotional demands of daily life. Many of the couples I see and many of the postpartum moms I treat are stuck in the “overfunctioning and underfunctioning” dynamic. I can write a whole blog on this in itself, but to quickly summarize, this is where one member of the couple (“overfunctioner”) takes on the majority of the task related to managing the household as well as becomes the primary person taking on the mental or emotional load for the family; the problem solver. The “underfunctioner” may be more passive and wait for/need direction from the other to perform all of the daily tasks associated with a thriving household. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the underfunctioning partner wants to or enjoys being that way (although sometimes they certainly do), it may mean that the overfunctioner does not create space that allows them to take over tasks for fear that there may not be follow-through or fear that they may not do it as well as or as quickly as they can if they just do it themselves. Both the overfunctioning and the underfunctioning partner can build up resentment because of the role they are in.
So, when we’ve built up resentment over time due to any of the issues above…how do we break this pattern and learn to let go? This is not easy to do and it takes effort and work from both partners to break down that wall that has built up over time.
Learning about and exploring the pattern of overfunctioning/underfunctioning and having candid conversations about how this plays out in your own relationship is crucial. However, even more crucial is that the overfunctioning partner learns to actually let go of control for certain tasks and the underfunctioning partner learns to take on those tasks, 100%, without the other having to direct them on what to do or check-in for follow through.
Another way to begin tackling resentment is to slowly work towards forgiveness. This is much easier said than done. It will involve a lot of work, time and trust to accomplish this. At times, we may need the help of a mental health professional to understand how to actually forgive in a meaningful way.
Below are some suggestions from relationship experts Dr. John and Dr. Julie Gottman to break the cycle of resentment.
“Communicate to Listen. Your partner has emotional injuries. “You did not stand up for me with your parents!” “You weren’t there for me when I was sick!” “First year of our marriage you belittled me in front of my parents!” Now, these hurts from the past become a perceptual filter through which your partner evaluates you. Talk about these concerns until your partner feels heard and healed.
Keep the Four Horsemen at bay. The Four Horsemen of Apocalypse are destructive to any relationship. Though these patterns are used as defense mechanisms many times, the words said leave back a deep scar. Rather than the root issues (e.g., feelings of unheard, rejection, loneliness, etc.) that need healing, the words of defense take the center stage in the conflict. The sore root feelings remain unaddressed, while the couples feel lost in endless bouts of arguments. Share these deeper feelings and needs instead of unleashing the Horsemen. See my previous blog post here to learn about the four horsemen
Accept Responsibility. Focus on the vulnerabilities rather than the logic of the argument. There is no right or wrong in the relationship. It is only the feelings that matter. Hear and understand. Accept responsibility for the part played by you that hurt your partner. Heal their wounds with acceptance and empathy.
Self-Soothe. Take a break for 30 minutes when flooded until you feel calmer. Words said in stress only cause escalation. Even if you walk away to avoid a stressful situation, it can be misread as left stranded. Keep your partner informed that you are stressed and need a break and let them know when again you can continue the discussion to give it closure. Let your partner know about your vulnerability so that they can understand it is as important to you as to them. Also, set a time to reconnect.”
Resentment leads to contempt which is one of the leading causes of marriage destruction. Addressing small resentments before they become insurmountable is key in maintaining a healthy relationship. At Quiet Light Counseling, I am here to help all couples, no matter what stage of life you are in, deal with resentment through my couples counseling services based in Gottman Therapy. Please reach out today if this resonated with you and you would like to take some steps to overcome the resentment that may be preventing you from having a healthy and happy marriage.