Resentment in Relationships

In my memoir, This Particular Happiness: A Childless Love Story, I explore the journey Bill and I took, from falling in love to the normal power struggle of two people making a life together, a power struggle that eventually became complicated by our different desires regarding children. We found our way through by constantly looking at our own selves, by understanding how resentment can destroy a relationship, and by keeping the dialogue between us ongoing, even when it was hard, even when we were hurt or angry.

A friend of ours once told us, “Resentment is the result of unmet expectations.” This has been one of the most helpful concepts we’ve learned, both as a couple and as individuals.

Resentment shows up in many forms:

  1. Scorekeeping — That tally you keep in your head of what you did or did not do and what your partner did or did not do. Sometimes the scorekeeping is out in the open. But often it running in the background of your unconscious attention and reveals itself amidst stressful times or in new disagreement.

  2. Contempt – A disdain for your partner or marriage that comes out in cutting or disparaging remarks.

  3. Pettiness – You find yourself picking on the small things because you feel powerless to address the big issues.

  4. Bitterness or Apathy – The relationship has lost its passion because you are working hard to bury the resentment.

Intervening on Resentment

  1. Be curious – notice where the resentment is, where do you hold it in your body. What shape does it have, what weight? Recognize it and own it.

  2. Notice how you express your resentment—Cutting remarks? Silence? Distance? Being nitpicky about other things? Sadness? Resignation? Counterpointing?

  3. If you are feeling resentful toward someone, ask yourself, “What was my expectation?” and then ask yourself, “Did I share my expectation?” Often we have not, or we have not been specific. So backtrack and share the expectation you had and how it is now fueling resentment. The conversation might start like this, “I notice I have been feeling resentful about (…..). I realized “I never told you (….).” This opens a conversation.

  4. Relationships succeed through keeping watch on where we are keeping score, often unconsciously, about what one is giving or taking.

  5. Balance – if the giving and taking have gone out of balance in your relationship, it is important to consciously balance things again.

The Beauty of Conflict for Couples by Susan Clarke and CrisMarie Campbell is a great resource for using curiosity and vulnerability as tools to intervene on resentment and other conflicts in relationship.

Listen to this lively conversation at the Thrive, Inc. podcast, where Bill and I talk about how we have worked to avoid the damage that resentment can do to a relationship.