Resentment as a resource for connection and growth

How to resource feelings of resentment in your relationships

3/1/2024

couple holding hand front of body of calm water with mountain distance
couple holding hand front of body of calm water with mountain distance

Couples often come to therapy feeling stuck and disconnected. Report constantly fighting (or never talking), and tend to attribute negative feelings to the partner ('If he'd pick up his clothes, I wouldn't have to nag', 'if they cared more, I wouldn't need to worry about them forgetting to pick up the kids', etc.). Resentment emerges, then grows and drives disconnection. It’s part of the muck that couples find themselves in when they don’t even know how they got there. Oftentimes this is a place of hopelessness, where couples experience repeated failures at attempts to ‘fix’ it.

When we operate from a place of resentment we unknowingly fuel this self-fulfilling prophecy of hopelessness, of why things are this bad. As we dig ourselves deeper (often unconsciously) into that space, we are driven further away. It makes sense - if something hurts me, I should avoid it. Resentment may actually be a way of protecting ourselves from more uncomfortable or vulnerable needs.

In the language of EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy), underneath the angry resentment towards our partner(s) is a longing. Better understanding these forces underneath the resentment makes space for identifying what we’re actually needing, what we’re longing for. When seen as a resource, our resentments can help us hone in on what is driving the disconnection, on why this pattern of pulling away persists. We also can consider what behaviors are contributing to the resentment (that is masking a longing or need) rather than seeing the person as the object of our resentment.

If we can step aside and consider how we're feeling as information, resentment can be used as a resource [for connection]. We reflect on the actual source of this pain, of this thing hurting us. Where is it operating from? What's the purpose? Perhaps resentment is our own protective mechanism to keep us from experiencing the pain that will seemingly persist if I stay in this place with this partner. Perhaps it’s to protect ourselves from more fights that end in the partner seeing us as not good enough. Perhaps it’s to protect us from hurting our partner, from failing them again. When we can then turn to our partner and share what it is we’re longing for, we invite our partners to reconnect with us.

How to make it a resource for connection:

We reflect honestly and vulnerably on What is it trying to tell us? From this point of view we can see that it’s not the partner we resent, it’s the pain we want to avoid, the incessant fights that follow every attempt to get along. We gain new awareness of ourselves and our behavior. Then we can take this awareness and share it as a longing - longing to no longer carry this resentment, longing to be understood, longing to stop pulling further away but not knowing how. Maybe I used to know how but as we’ve been in this together longer, I’ve lost sight of it. We turn to our partners with these vulnerable feelings instead of criticizing and demanding. What if our partner can empathize instead of defend? If they can step into this with us to help us better understand what this resentment is and what it is trying to do for me? This is how it becomes a tool for reconnection.

Say you're part of a team at work tasked with a certain job. You get stuck on your part of the project and don’t meet a deadline. You feel frustrated about your own shortcomings, feel ill-equipped and unable to complete what's been asked of you, essentially that you’re not good enough at your job. You get so frustrated that you stop engaging at with the team. You even stop going to the meetings and withdraw completely from your colleagues. What started as resenting yourself for failing and not being good enough, has morphed into resentment for the project, for your team. It may even result in the team feeling negatively about you. But what If you could be aware of this then turn to your team and share it, share that you’re feeling like a failure and struggling to think more positively?

By turning to them, your colleagues can actually show up and support you. And in doing so, strengthen the unity of your team. Maybe they give you the reassurance that boosts confidence in your abilities. They can forgive you for bailing on meetings now that they understand why. Maybe they give you time to get over that block of feeling like you’re going to fail. Maybe they give you affirmation and offer ideas on how to reconfigure what each member of the team is tasked with. The end result? You’ve tended to your feelings (of not being good enough) that are masked by the resentment and resourced this experiential awareness to strengthen connection to your team.

tl/dr

When we get to the root of a problem we can find the underlying solution. Getting underneath the resentment, and seeing where it's coming from, what it may be protecting us from, it can be a tool for reconnection. When we can share what we’re longing for from a vulnerable place, we invite our partners to empathize, bringing us closer together instead of apart.