How to Get Over Resentments
Resentments can poison a relationship slowly over time. For that reason it is very important to remove past resentments and to stop the process that is creating new ones. Maybe it will come as no surprise that dealing with resentments is a common problem that I help with in couples therapy. Because I do deal with this issue often, I’ve come up with some quick ways of getting to the root of this challenging problem. Here is one.
What is resentment?
Before I share the tool for handling resentments, I want to make sure that you are interpreting the word resentment the same way that I am. For me, resentments are different from grudges or holding onto past pains. For example, if you are still holding it against your partner for an affair, that may not be a resentment. It could be mistrust, self-protection, or just pain and hurt. To be sure, these can also challenge a relationship and I have tools for dealing with them. But to me “resentment” refers to a bitter response when you feel someone has treated you in a way you feel they shouldn’t. The bitterness is the key to destructive power of resentment in a relationship.
What I’ve learned in my practice is that when a member of a couple is experiencing resentment instead of anger or another protective impulse, it is because they feel violated by their partner but they don’t know how to stop the violation or to protect themselves from it in the future. In other words:
Resentment is the feeling when someone is or has violated your boundaries but when you aren’t defending those boundaries.
How does therapy resolve resentments?
The most common way that resentment becomes a focus of couples therapy sessions is when one member of a couple, often with a voice dripping with spite, accuses their partner of hurting them in the way they are resentful for. The accusation is usually an invitation for me to jump in and begin working with the offending partner. But I turn my attention instead to the person with the resentment.
Over the next few minutes, I ask a series of questions designed to help me understand the emotional needs and the ability of the resentful partner to get their needs met or to set boundaries about things that don’t meet their needs.
- How do you want to be treated?
- What is it about this behavior that doesn’t work for you?
- How do you share with your partner that this behavior doesn’t work for you? What happens next?
- If your partner repeats the violation how do you ensure that you are safe from this boundary violation?
- If you aren’t safe and if your partner keeps violating your boundary this way, why are you still with this partner?
- Why do you want to be with a partner who treats your boundaries with such disrespect?
Together, with their partner listening, we begin to devise strategies for helping the resentful partner to defend their relationship boundaries. I might ask questions like, “Since your partner never gives you orgasms, would you like to stop having sex with them?” or “Since your partner never thanks you for cooking would you like to stop cooking?” or “Since your partner just schedules time with their friends without consulting with you, would you like to begin saying ‘No, I don’t want you to go out’ the next time this happens?”
Somewhere in the development of the strategy to hold the boundaries, there almost inevitably comes a decision point. Am I willing to risk a conflict in order to try to get my needs met or not? When clients answer this question, No. That’s fine with me but then I point them back at their resentment as I invite them to change their inner narrative from a negative one about how their partner takes advantage of them to a positive one about how they are choosing this course to strengthen their relationship and to keep it peaceful. When the resentful partner answers, Yes, I’m willing to risk conflict to get my needs met then I try to help them do that skillfully and compassionately.
Why is this couples therapy?
What I have described so far is an asymmetric line of questioning about the resentments with one partner. So you might wonder why this is a couples therapy intervention.
Somewhere in that line of questioning and in devising the solutions, the offending partner usually begins squirming. It can be uncomfortable to hear how you are hurting your partner. This might be the first time they’ve heard in detail how their behavior has hurt their partner. Sometimes, they don’t want to face the consequences for their behavior if their partner defends their boundaries from now on.
So, even though it appears that I’m focused on one person during this line of questioning, both people begin to feel pressure to change. Once they both identify what they want to do differently, they actually have to try out those changes. So, at the end of the session, I write down their intentions for change at the bottom of my note. As we begin checking in at the beginning of the next session I ask how their change efforts went.