Communication — 29 October 2003
Avoiding resentments in relationships

Resentments are simmering coals of anger, which gradually blacken a
loving heart. The fire within these feelings is contained and subdued,
yet may unexpectedly burst into flames of rage. In Nietzsche’s words,
“nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of
resentment”.

For many couples the cumulative damage of non-extinguished resentments
leads to irreparable damage. The goal in healthy interactions is to deal with arising hurts so that they do not mature into full- blown resentments.

Feelings of resentments arise from the perception that one’s needs, from
ordinary to serious ones,  are disregarded or violated. The injured
party feels a deep sense of insignificance at not being seen or heard.
In times of special need, the lack of support is often viewed as a deep
and even unforgivable betrayal. It may be perceived as the ultimate
proof of one’s deepest fears about not mattering. To some people it
feels like a mini-homicide.

In my practice I have heard partners talk about a profound shift in
their relationship because of a “deep betrayal”. Some women see their
husbands unavailability at the birth of their child as a major
unforgivable abandonment. In parenting a special needs child, some
spouses develop resentments about the reactions or behavior of their
mates. Others painfully relate their partners non-supportive attitude
in the care of an aging parent. Some speak of their disappointment about
their mates responses to a disabling or life threatening illness.
Grieving couples, handling a loss of a parent, sibling, child, a job, or
even a beloved pet, may find themselves deeply hurt by each other’s
inappropriate conduct.

Not only do major life cycle events, when handled poorly, produce
resentments. Many minor unmet needs also create a basis for feeling
unloved. Thoughtless reactions, forgetful oversights and insensitive
comments may be used to inflame resentful feelings. Keeping your
partner’s needs foremost in your mind helps reduce the chances that
resentful emotions may be born.

Resentments are often recorded, stored and not shared. As they
accumulate, they slowly erode the trust, an essential ingredient of
committed love. The loss of trust in a having an available, supportive
partner breeds a sense of loneliness, fear and the need for complete
self-reliance. These feelings may lead us to questioning the value of
the partnership.

Much of the destructive damage done by accumulated feelings of
resentments is internal and secretive. Many spouses are shocked to hear
the list of grievances by their partners. Many live for years, unaware
of the quietly burning resentments against them. They may be aware of a
growing distance, detachment and perhaps intermittent outburst of
specific anger without absorbing the depth, duration and intensity of
their partners hurts.

The practice of concealing these resentments is unproductive and unfair.
It does not allow the “resented” partner an opportunity to help
alleviate the mate’s pain, apologize for wrongdoing, explain or clarify
his conduct, or learn about his hurtful ways. It is analogous to being
tried and convicted without a trial or legal representation. The
“resenting” party has concluded that the “resented” person’s conduct is
evidence that he no longer loves her. She may withdraw, be unkind,
punitive or unloving. While one or both partners may be oblivious to the
underlying reasons- their relationship is in ruin.

On occasion, the person holding the resentments is only vaguely aware of
the depth and damage caused by these old, unforgotten memories of pain.
Yet, upon questioning, the angry hurts are easily elicited. It is very
important to address every hurt feeling as it occurs, no matter how
trivial it may seem, to help your partner understand you better.
Relating your painful feelings in a non- accusatory way will improve the
chances that you will be heard and heeded.

For example: “I felt hurt when you did not introduce me to the woman we
met at the store.” Or “I feel ignored when you continue to read the
paper while I am speaking to you”. Or “I find it hurtful when the tasks
you promised to help me with- get postponed for extended periods of
time.” These sentences avoid accusations and state the feelings clearly.

Fortunate couples can recite contrary experiences to those cited above.
They praise each other’s availability, concern and tenderness in their
times of greatest need. They admire their spouses capacity for the
right words and conduct, for sensitivity, patience and sacrifice. For
those partners, love continues to grow, as each of them feels deeply
seen, heard and honored.

How did they get there? And how can you be equally successful in
preventing resentments from ruining your love?

  •  Ask your partner frequently, whether he feels supported and loved by
    you. If he does not, clarify how you can better express your love.
  • Make honoring your partner’s needs a high priority in your daily life.
  • Tell your partner frequently how much you treasure him or her.
  • Ask your partner whether she harbors any resentment. If she does,
    prepare to listen NON-DEFENSIVELY. Mirror her feelings, validate her
    perceptions, and ask for forgiveness-if appropriate.
  • Decide to be open about your hurt emotions as they occur. Do not
    suffer them silently. Sharing your feelings lovingly only makes you more
    intimate.
  • Once both of you shared your old hurts, let them go.
  • Use your birthdays to express your appreciation for the birthday
    person and your anniversary to enumerate the blessings of your union.
  • Realize that what you may resent is the behavior  not the partner.
  • Avoid concluding that your partner’s behavior means that you are not
    loved. It is often a wrong conclusion.
  • Your partner loves you- if his behavior does not exhibit it-he may
    need your help in better expressing his caring.

Redirect the fire in your love, from simmering resentments to honest
sharing of your feelings. Freeing yourself from accumulated hurts, will
open your heart to a more deeply felt love.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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