“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. ”
It’s been referred to as the cancer of relationships.
It’s one of the main reasons why relationships break-up over time.
It is a silent killer, sneaking up on couples slowly. It may seem like nothing at first-perhaps your spouse neglects his share of the housework or criticizes you in front of others. You may have ignored this trait at the start of the relationship. You used to think: “That’s just how he (or she) is”.
Over time however, for many couples frustration and resentment starts to build. What you once found amusing or quirky you now start to dislike. Resentment builds up, creating a wall between you and your partner that many couples simply cannot break-down.
Take John, for instance. He has been in relationship with Sandra for just over three years. Sandra is a loving, caring and organized person-but is often late to activities that she and John have planned. At first John didn’t mind-he was so happy to be in relationship with Sandra and thought: “So what if she is late? She is the best partner I am likely to get!”
Three years later John is not so sure. He is tired of waiting for Sandra and can’t understand her lateness. He knows that he cannot change her-but something is building up inside him. He is becoming more emotionally detached. Their communication is suffering as John begins to close down. Even their sex life is affected. Unless John finds some way to deal with his resentment, their whole relationship may be threatened.
What Is Resentment?
American psychotherapist Mark Sichel describes resentment as follows:
“Resentment refers to the mental process of repetitively replaying a feeling, and the events leading up to it, that goads or angers us. We don’t replay a cool litany of facts in resentment; we re-experience and relive them in ways that affect us emotionally, physiologically, and spiritually in very destructive ways.”
This reiteration of anger is the key pattern in feeling resentment, and the constant return of annoying or upsetting memories is the most distinctive sign that it’s present in you.
Resentment then, is a mental process. A past event or series of events has made us unhappy, so in our minds we:
Resentment is a very complex feeling-but for many people it is an easier feeling to experience than to take action on the issue that is causing the resentment.
Consider John again. Why doesn’t he just tell Sandra that her lateness is affecting him? There are many reasons for this-and in some situations he has expressed to Sandra how he is feeling. But there are deeper issues.
In counselling with John I began to explore the roots of his resentment. John said that he grew up in a very conservative household. “In my home feelings were just not expressed” he says. “My Dad would often say why even talk about feelings-he was a “just get on with it” sort of guy”.
“So I grew up avoiding any feelings” John added. “We didn’t even have any conflict in my family. We were taught not to hurt others-and that even raising issues might hurt other people. It is not healthy, I know. And I do it with Sandra-and I know that it is affecting our relationship.”
For John (and for many other people) the feeling of resentment offers an illusion of control. We believe that we can control the situation that we are in by rehashing the issue in our mind that we are resentful about. We may even think that we will eventually achieve the elusive prize of justice-or that we can finally be recognized as “right.” But in reality we are just hurting ourselves. As Carrie Fischer states, we are drinking poison that we have created and waiting for the other person to die.
Resentment almost always hurts us more than the person we resent. But there is good news! We can become free of resentment’s relationship poison. How? By learning new behaviours and approaches to events that are leading to our resentment and practicing better responses-either by ourselves or with our partner. Sometimes this is best done in with the help of a professional counsellor. But we can also do it ourselves. We can and will stop obsessing over the injustices (perceived or real) of the past. We can more forward together.
“Anger, resentment and jealousy doesn’t change the heart of others– it only changes yours.”
Acceptance is a powerful position to have on any event that has happened. The famous serenity prayer, used in many 12 step therapeutic programmes, begins as follows:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
In this prayer the word “God” may be replaced by any sense of a higher power.
Not to be confused with surrender or denial, when it comes to resentment acceptance is equally empowering. By accepting the situations that have led to our resentment we take huge steps towards understanding and conquering this resentment.
After working with clients over many years, I find the following beliefs to be most powerful in overcoming resentment:
Belief 1: Resentment is a negative state of mind-it is not useful for me to maintain my resentment
Belief 2: You cannot change the past. No matter how often you use resentment to replay old dramas, the outcome will never change.
Belief 3: It’s common for people feeling resentment to mentally punish present partners for the sins of past partners. You can choose not to do this.
Belief 4: You cannot control others, not even those who have hurt or rejected you.
Resentment is nothing more than the illusion of strength, power, or control. By choosing resentment, we are not validating our best selves. This means we are not bringing our best selves to the relationship. Instead of choosing resentment, choose to bring your best self to the relationship.
Some people I have worked with find it useful to make lists in which their best selves show. Start your list with something like: “I’m willing to own up to past mistakes, forgive myself, and move on”. Include all aspects of yourself that you like best!
3. Communicate Your Feelings
As Mark Sichel has said, resentment is the mental replaying of a feeling or action that has made us angry. We can replay this situation in a negative spiral over and over again.
One way out of this spiral is to take action. In relationships this often means to communicate to your partner your feelings about the event or events that is leading to your resentment.
For people like John who are not used to communicating their feelings this can be a hugely brave and courageous step. It also one that can lead to valuable growth opportunities-both individually and for the relationship.
When communicating your feelings it is best to:
For example, John may choose to say to Sandra something like:
“When we go out together you are often late. This makes me worried that people will judge us when we arrive, or afraid that I won’t be able to find a carpark in time. This stresses me out and means that I do not enjoy the evening with you as much as I would like to. It would be great if you could try to get ready on time (or even early) as I’d be much more relaxed and nice to be with!”
In this communication John is focussing on expressing his feelings to Sandra (and not blaming her for the situation). While this type of communication may not solve the problem all of the time, it can lead to more constructive and useful discussions about the issue that is causing the resentment. After all, Sandra may see the situation from a completely different perspective!
Resentment is a powerful emotion and sometimes the steps described above may not make much difference to the level of resentment that you feel.
For example, you and your partner may have communicated about the issue-but it has made no difference. Or you have become even more frustrated or resentful!
In these cases there’s still no reason for you—the partner holding onto the poison of resentment—to not find a way to productively deal with it. You can help yourself to do this by creating an amnesty ritual to help you let go of the resentment. You may do this by processes such as:
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
-Lewis B. Smedes
Forgiveness is a powerful feeling-and one that can set you free as much as the person you are forgiving. Forgive wherever, whenever, and whomever you can.
This applies especially in a relationship. After all, nobody is perfect. While John is focusing on Sandra’s faults, is he thinking about his own? Does he realise that he is late sometimes as well, or that he tends to be critical of others whereas Sandra is always kind and generous to others? Perhaps she feels a little resentful about this?
It is all too easy to focus on others faults and not to focus on ourselves. By forgiving others we are saying that there are more important things in life that the events that are causing our resentment. We can choose to forgive and move on-and even deliberately forget if we need to!
Resentment can create an impasse in any relationship-a brick wall that slowly gets bigger and bigger until both partners feel very distant from each other. As a relationship counsellor I use a variety of techniques to help couples get past issues that are causing them resentment. Often couples are not able to do this without professional help-just as I would not try to fix my car without professional help!
Seeking help for issues of resentment allows couples to move on in more loving and caring ways. If you are experiencing resentment towards your partner don’t wait until it is too late-get help now!