Resentment – Causes, Consequences, & Cures

Resentment – Causes, Consequences, & Cures

older couple conflictAs a relationship, communication specialist I spend a vast majority of my day working with couples and/or families who face challenges in sustaining healthy relationships.  They often seek my services to help them learn how to communicate, find respect, resolve conflicts, and form meaningful connections.  I enjoy working in this arena because change is possible.

Indeed, my work is often very fulfilling. In the years of my work, I have witnessed dramatic and pervasive change in relationships that barely had a pulse when they arrived.  It is amazing to watch what happens when individuals use the tools and make choices that promote positive change.  Our motto at LifeWork Counseling is: “We work ourselves out of a job by giving away our tools.”

Not only do clients learn from me but I also learn from them.  One of the lessons I have learned in my work with clients is that tools cannot do their job if resentment is in the way.  Tools are tools.  They perform a function.  However, if resentment exists in one or both individuals, they are not likely to pick up the tools and use them.

Resentment fuels resistance.  Resistance is a major foe counseling professionals face in our work with clients.  More importantly, resistance is a major contributor to relationships in a rut.  It lays underneath the surface and in a stealth-mode quietly informs behavior.  This is why partners often do not do what they know they should.

Causes of Resentment

Resentment is a condition that usually builds over time.  It is imperceptible at first, but over time develops layers as disappointments mount and nothing changes.  Here are a few causes I often observe in couple/family relationships.  This is not a comprehensive list, but highlights some of the major contributors.  Place a check next to the ones that apply to your experience.

One-sided relationships 

Individuals who are the primary givers and rarely the receivers in relationships are likely to form resentment over time.  Why?  Their basic needs within the relationship are being ignored!  Healthy relationships are based on reciprocity, give and take.  If you are giving but not taking, you are in a one-sided relationship.  This needs to be addressed or the resentment will ruin you.

Little things become big things

Adjustment is an important task in the early stage of relationships.  Here is where couples learn how to live together and develop a rhythm of relationship.  Accommodation is a key element in the adjustment phase and throughout the course of life together.  Mutual accommodation is the solution.  Everyone has certain little things they like or don’t like that they make known to their partner.  These little things matter to them.  If they do, then they should matter to the partner.  When a spouse/partner dismisses these little things as being “ridiculous”, “stupid” or “a pain in the butt” they are conveying a negative message to their partner that wounds a fundamental need within everyone– “I matter.”  Over the course of time, the little thing becomes a big message – “I don’t matter enough to you.”

Holding on, not letting go

For some individuals, letting go and forgiving an offense is a difficult thing to do.  Typically, these are people who operate with strict rules for themselves and others.  They tend to exhibit a form of rigidity and perfectionism.  Consequently, they become punitive toward others who violate their rules and standards.  Unfortunately, there is little “wiggle room” for mistakes.  They may take great offense at minor offenses.  The offender is in detention and may experience a coldness from their partner.  These individuals struggle with forgiveness.  “I forgive, but will never forget!”  Over the course of time, resentment builds on both sides of the relationship.  The “holding on” person is unforgiving and resentful.  The “forever guilty” person thinks they are never good enough and will develop resentment over time.

Unfulfilled dreams

In the course of time together couples/families experience things that interrupt the pursuit of their dreams.  Various types of problems: loss of employment/business, bad investments/spending habits, untimely death, chronic illness, addictions, or misaligned priorities, to name a few.  Over the years, disappointment and unhappiness turn into resentment.  Individuals wonder if they should stay together or be better off on their own.

Consequences of Resentment

Resentment serves a basic function in relationships.  Distance.  It establishes physical and emotional space between people.  It is aself-protective measure designed to avoid harm.  “I won’t let you hurt me.”  It is also a punitive measure designed to pay back.  “You hurt me, so I will hurt you back.”  Unfortunately, unchecked resentment harms both parties and places the relationship at risk for further erosion.  Here are some consequences of resentment you may want to consider.

Difficulty in achieving and maintaining connection

If resentment equates with distance, forget about connection.  It is hard to achieve.  Resentment creates a gap between people that communication tools can only fix if the resentful party will pick them up.  Remember, “belonging” is a basic human need with which we are born.  Resentment deprives you of this basic need.

Maintains a battleground for further conflict and potential harm

Unresolved conflicts result from resentment.  The emotional and physical distance sets the stage for further conflicts, more harm, and deeper resentment.  See where this pattern leads?  Not good.

The resented person faces a tough challenge resolving the problem with an adversarial partner

The person with resentment places the relationship in an adversarial position.  The resented partner may want to resolve the problems.  However, if the person with resentment holds on to it, the partner is in a double-bind.  They want to come close to resolve, but are pushed away when they do.

Resentment is ultimately self-inflicted punishment

Unfortunately, the person who is affected most by resentment is the person who holds it.  Resentment is a negative sentiment that deprives the individual of personal happiness and fulfillment in relationships.  Over time, resentment can skew an individual’s view about relationships in general.  They may find it difficult to trust others and therefore may struggle to engage in close relationships.  Resentment may create walls so insular that some people never allow themselves to experience true intimacy.

Cure For Resentment

Now that you know some of the causes and consequences of resentment you are probably wondering what cures it.  I wish I could offer you a serum to ease the discomfort of resentment.  If the cure was this simple, people would be lining up at my door to purchase some!  Actually, the cure for resentment comes from within, not from without.  Don’t wait for the person who causes resentment to remove it.  The decision is up to you.  Here is the cure.

Admit your resentment

If you are reading this article and you see resentment in yourself toward a family member admit it.  Don’t minimize or justify it.  Resentment is not something others give you.  You choose to be resentful.  Admit it and you have taken the first step in finding the cure.

Acknowledge how the resentment is causing harm

Who is being harmed by your resentment?  Does it rob you of enjoyment?  Does it keep you up at night?  Resentment not only harms the intended target, but it hurts you worse.  Acknowledge the harm done by resentment and you will likely do something about it.

Address the underlying problem

Are you in a one-sided relationship?  If so, you are being deprived of a fundamental need for belonging and care from another.  We enter relationships to experience a meaningful bond with another.  It is a connection that conveys the message “you matter”.  If this is not happening, I recommend you address this problem head on.  On the other hand, if you are a person who holds on and does not let go of things easily you need to take a hard look at this pattern.  Your rigidity and stubbornness is stifling your relationships.  Perhaps there is an underlying fear or false belief that gets in the way..  If you don’t address this, it will deprive you of happiness.

Take some form of action

Do something about your resentment.  Don’t let it remain unchecked in your life.  Perhaps you need to talk with a counselor to get at the root cause.  Maybe you need help processing what to do about a one-sided relationship you are in.  If your problem is holding on and not letting go of offenses, it would serve you well to get help with this pattern in your life. There are better solutions to your problems than resorting to resentment.  Remember, in the end it hurts you the most.

I hope this article helps you learn how to deal with resentment.  If you think this will help someone you know who is struggling in this area, I encourage you to forward them this article.  If we at LifeWork Counseling can help you in your battle with resentment, don’t hesitate to contact us.