Though it might seem as straightforward as "I am always mad at you because you never remember to take out the trash," the way resentment works in relationships is pretty complicated. Resenting somebody isn't as simple as disliking them, or finding them annoying; it's actually about the repetition of underlying issues that have never been truly resolved.
“Resentment is often caused when someone feels slighted or harmed by another person in their life, and they do not feel that the person has apologized or made amends in a manner that is satisfactory to them,” psychologist Charmain Jackman Ph.D. tells Bustle. “As a result, the person may hold a grudge towards the perceived offender and may find it hard to forgive or let go of the harm that was caused.” This might look like a refusal to forgive them for crashing your car, or never adjusting to their decision to go vegan.
This kind of bitterness isn't just about the specific details of your own day-to-day life, though; it is also often related to gender roles and embedded inequality. A study published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2013, for example, found that heterosexual men sometimes feel subconscious distress when their female partners succeed, even if they consciously believe that they're cool with it. The researchers involved thought that the distress likely came from societal programming about men's role in families and relationships — even if the men themselves were deeply feminist. And while women are becoming less likely to bear the burden of sacrifices for a relationship or work-life balance entirely on their own, a 2015 survey found that cultural expectations about women, housework and childcare can be the seed for seething resentment. But couples can develop resentments about virtually anything.
How do you know that you're resenting your partner if you aren't, say, actually poking a voodoo doll with their name on it every night? If you're recycling the same anger over and over again without resolving it, the chances are strong that you've got a big case of discontent. But your relationship isn't doomed if you realize that you've been feeling resentful. Read on to see if any of the four signs below resonate with you — and find out what you can do about them.
1. You Dwell On How They've Upset You
Bringing up the fact that they met their ex for coffee four years ago — in totally unrelated arguments — is a classic sign of resentment, Dr. Jackman says. Repetitively replaying the feeling of a past wrong makes it sting even more intensely, as you relive your emotions every time.
Feeling repeatedly angry is a key aspect, and the constant return of annoying or upsetting memories is the most distinctive sign that it's present in your feelings towards your partner. If you find yourself constantly returning to particular incidents (say, that time you gave up a job to move to their city, or the time they forgot your birthday), you've started to feel resentment.
Resentment is also often tied to regret. If your regrets are related to the decisions you've made as regards your relationship (i.e. “I should have taken that job in Antarctica instead of moved for your job”), they're likely at the center of the indignation. A study in 2017 published in Scientific Reports found that holding onto this resentment may also cause people greater life dissatisfaction and lower emotional health.
2. Your Conversations Have A Loaded Edge
There are several conversational signs that you resent your partner, Dr. Jackman says. “Aggressive communication or responses that do not match the situation, for instance; responding with extreme anger for a seemingly minor situation.” You may be drawing on your anger about past behavior in reaction to something that’s happening now.
Resentment in relationships isn’t often not "open" or well-voiced; it tends to be more hidden and subtle. In Relationships And Patterns Of Conflict Resolution, a classic 2007 reference book for couples counselors, author Dr. Peter Ladd wrote that it’s actually a form of "civilized anger;" rather like passive aggression, it conceals the strength of its negative emotions rather than displaying them openly.
This, Dr. Jackman notes, is why passive aggression can be heavily tied to resentment. “Instead of directly addressing or discussing a situation that is frustrating to you, you conceal your true emotions, and when asked directly, you may respond, ‘Nothing is wrong,’ even when that is absolutely not true,” she says. Holding the expectation that your partner should know exactly how you are feeling about a situation, even though you haven’t openly communicated it, could be a signal that you’re holding on to past wrongs.
This bitterness tends to come from an ‘avoidance conflict resolution style’, according to a 2011 study published in Psychological Research Records. Conflict resolution styles are a way of describing the different ways in which people try to solve fights, whether it's with their workmates or their partners. There are four different styles of conflict resolution: competition, collaboration, accommodation, and avoidance. People who use the last style tend to be passive, unwilling to actually confront anything, and often deflect or try to escape dealing with the issue. If that sounds like you dealing with problems in your relationship, resentment can creep in very easily.
If you're in a relationship where you both try to avoid conflict as much as possible, your conversations about topics that shouldn't induce anger might show off your resentment anyway, by being weirdly nasty. Whether you’re aggressive or passive-aggressive, Dr. Jackman says, your ‘tude can reveal there’s tension boiling away under the surface.
3. You Can't Seem To Shift The Pattern
Guilt and resentment are often the two halves of the same problem. Say, for example, one partner earns more than the other, leaving the lower-earning one feeling bitter and the higher-earning one feeling guilty. While you’re wondering, “Why do I resent my husband?” they may be wondering, “Why do I feel so guilty?”
But Ladd has something to say about this phenomenon as well: the guilt-and-resentment pairing can become very entrenched in relationships. He uses the example of a couple consisting of an unreliable partner and a reliable one, where one person is responsible and the other one is an utter flake. "The unreliable partner's guilt may begin to feed off the reliable partner's resentment, and the reliable partner's resentment may be increasing the unreliable partner's feelings of guilt." It's a nasty cycle, and it can lead you to feel as if you're having the same arguments over and over (and over) again. Expressing these feelings may be one of the only ways to break the cycle, according to a 2017 study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; it found that people who accepted resentment and guilt were more likely to move on from them, while people who tried to push the feelings away were less successful.
4. You Don't Feel Heard
Because resentment keeps returning to the same issue because nothing has fundamentally changed about the problem, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel like your issues are being taken seriously. An apology hasn't been made, the structure of responsibility hasn't been shifted, and your partner hasn't tried to find ways to make you feel better about it (or if they have, it hasn't worked). So you just return to the same anger over and over again.
"We all know for a relationship to work, both parties need to learn to compromise," psychotherapist Adamaris Mendoza LPC previously told Bustle. "But if it's always you giving in, then something's wrong with this picture."
How Can You Get Past Resentment?
"Since resentment can be so detrimental to relationships, it's essential to develop an awareness of whether you're starting to feel resentful of your partner or detect if they're starting to feel resentment towards you," psychologist Nicole Issa Psy.D. previously told Bustle. Moving past this feeling needs to involve addressing and taking responsibility for the core issue in some way. Both partners need to openly discuss the problem and why it hurts, make sure to not dismiss each other's feelings, be empathetic, try to forgive, and communicate about the problem in future. A 2017 study published in Personal Relationships also found that dyadic trust, where both partners trusted one another, was crucial to dealing with resentment.
Regardless of what you’re indignant about — a cruel comment, an earnings or housework disparity, a lack of interest in physical intimacy, or something else — experts say the relationship is salvageable. It's crucial for couples to communicate in order to replace resentment with compassion and empathy, which are necessary ingredients for good relationships. And if you can't do it on your own, experts say, entering relationship counseling, where a professional can guide you through the journey, is another way to deal with that rising tide of resentment.
Nicole Issa Psy.D
Charmain Jackman Ph.D.
Adamaris Mendoza LPC
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