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Resentment: The cancer of relationships

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. JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images

“I feel upset because you said or did something that I believe hurt me or was not fair.”

Most people would have no problem admitting that a loved one has made them feel this way at times. Yet, when I try to get patients/clients to acknowledge that they feel resentment toward their significant other, there is often significant apprehension and resistance. Probing usually reveals that their reluctance stems from the mistaken belief that “I resent my partner” equates with “I don’t love my partner” or something similar. It can consequently take many sessions to get the reluctant partner to finally recognize or admit to their true feelings.

Untreated resentment is like cancer: It is insidious. It festers. It spreads and grows. And, in my clinical practice, one or both partners’ inability or unwillingness to acknowledge and deal with their resentment in a healthy manner is the most common factor underlying dissatisfaction with and eventual breakup of their relationship.

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Many times, relationship problems can be resolved when resentment is addressed properly. A common problem brought to my office by heterosexual couples of all ages is that the man has begun to show little or no interest in sex; the most common reason given is that he is exhausted due to work (or school). Yet, when the couple is guided to constructively discuss whatever issues are fuelling his anger or resentment, their sex life invariably improves dramatically.

This is just one example of how unacknowledged resentment can end up harming a relationship. It is important to understand the nature of resentment: When someone has been wronged, they are usually driven by biological or neurological urges to get back at the offender. Even if the person cannot consciously recognize or admit to their resentment, they still harbour the need for revenge or justice—but are not fully aware of these feelings and processes or cannot make proper sense of them.

When the need to retaliate does not get acknowledged and addressed directly, it tends to get expressed indirectly or passive-aggressively. For example, the person might start to forget to do things their partner asks them to do, to make uncharacteristic mistakes when trying to help the partner, to keep the partner waiting when they are going somewhere, to make unintentionally hurtful comments to the partner, and so on.

When the person is genuinely not aware of their resentment, their negative actions against the partner are truly unconscious or unplanned. More commonly, the person may have some inkling that they are upset at their partner and therefore may feel some sense of justification for their cold, hostile or otherwise harmful behaviours—even if they have never told the partner why they are upset.

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If the resentment and its cause(s) are not addressed adaptively, the aggrieved person will not feel a sense of validation by their partner—especially if the offence was unintentional or due to a misunderstanding that the partner was not aware of. This lack of validation then serves to increase the feelings of resentment, which in turn further fuels the unconscious or conscious retaliation.

As important as it is to admit to and deal with resentment in a non-critical and productive manner, couples also need to be able to recognize when one or both parties have built up too much hurt, anger and/or bitterness to overcome. In those unfortunate cases, the most rational decision is often to end the relationship, as painful, complicated or difficult as that may be; my next blog will address the all-too-common situation where this course of action is not taken.