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The poison of resentment and its antidote

If you could take one name, who would you choose to see in the rear view mirror of life? Is it your kid, spouse, a friend or someone from an old relationship? In the final moments, that one person is all that matters. All those words that were left unsaid, promises that you didn’t keep, the what ifs and could haves, flood your mind. You find yourself drowning in melancholy as you rewind your life to figure out where it all went wrong. That’s when you realise you took life for granted, and along with that, your relationships too.

Often, we stop cherishing relationships the way we used to once upon a time. Of the many reasons for it, resentment tops the list. A son hasn’t spoken to his father for a decade; a wife walked away from her marriage of 20 years; a couple who were once inseparable can’t stand each other now—the stories of dysfunctional relationships are everywhere, although with different spins and backdrop. Unless the bitter emotion of resentment is addressed and eliminated in a relationship, it turns sour.

What is this resentment anyway? According to Claire Hatch, a relationship counsellor, resentment is a sneaky emotion that takes more forms than people might realise. It may look like boredom at first, small talks or like an everyday routine of finding flaws in your partner. But eventually, it takes the shape of “less everything”. Less warmth, less affection, and of course, less curiosity and less fascination. In many ways, resentment is like those chronic illnesses that show the standard symptoms in the beginning but destroy the nervous system a few years later. It does the same to a healthy relationship—killing it slowly and silently, without raising any red flags.

Sometimes, you give the “silent treatment”, in the hope that things will get better on their own. But they never do


Shapeshifting thoughts

Fighting an invisible enemy is not easy. To win, you need to keep your eyes open. In the case of resentment, it means to identify the symptoms in their nascent form. And in its early stage, resentment is nothing but suppression of negative thoughts—it could be fear, anger, disagreements, disappointments, or all. In the long run, these emotions shapeshift into resentment, if left unaddressed.

You might be harbouring discontent for your parents, sibling or your partner, for something they did or said. But instead of addressing these feelings, you retain them as they are. Sometimes, you give the “silent treatment”, in the hope that things will get better on their own. But they never do.

Dr Meredith Hansen, a clinical psychologist from Laguna Niguel, California, calls this silent treatment “read my mind” attitude. “I believe that when someone does not express their needs and expects others to read their mind, they will feel disappointed and over time disappointment leads to resentment and eventually contempt,” Dr Hansen explains. She says ‘read my mind’ is like drinking the poison and expecting the other person to die. While it never works, silence ends up giving resentment more space to grow. Days turn into weeks, and weeks into years. In the end, all that remains is the painful memory of once a loving relationship and the emotional scar left by its broken pieces.

The more direct and clear a partner is with his or her feelings and needs, the easier it is for their spouse to understand the core issue


The invisible scorecard

Resentment in a relationship also grows when there is an imbalance of power in a relationship. When there is an absence of the true spirit of equality and respect, resentment starts to take over in those relationships. “An invisible scorecard begins to be kept by one or both members and the smallest as well as the largest infringements are silently recorded to be brought up and used out of context at a later time, which is part of what makes resentment poisonous,” says Gina Barreca, world-famous author, and humourist. She believes as the counts on the scorecard increases, resentment starts fuming from smallest of events—when somebody spends too much money, throws a tantrum or whines, forgets to pay a bill, or won’t wash the dishes. Those are signs that the issues need to be addressed immediately.

Resentment can cripple any relationship, but it affects a marriage the worst. It accumulates in a marriage when one partner—or both—feel neglected, hurt, disappointed, and these feelings are not directly expressed or validated. When a baby comes into the picture, the situation can become worse. “New moms often feel overwhelmed and neglected and begin to resent their husband for getting his needs met, like playing golf, staying late at work, not having to shoulder as much of the baby duties,” Dr Hansen explains. It could well be the start of the end of someone’s marriage. So what to do in such situations? If resentment is the poison, what is its antidote?

Communication is key

According to Dr Hansen, communication is the solution to all the problems associated with resentment. She believes that when a new mother directly expresses her feelings and needs, resentment begins to decrease. For instance, a new mother who feels resentment towards her husband should be direct. “She could say something like, I feel sad and lonely on the weekend when you play golf. I’d love to have more family time. Also, I know that you need time to yourself, but so do I. Can we make a plan for the weekends so we’re each getting a little alone time and we have some quality time as a family?” Dr Hansen explains. The more direct and clear a partner is with his or her feelings and needs, the easier it is for their spouse to understand the core issue. Once both are on the same page, the couple can then work together to identify a solution.

And, finding that solution is the key, not just for couples but also for families and friends. Whoever harbours resentment should say exactly what they feel, expect, and need. While doing so, the person with resentment and contempt should ask themselves what do they love about the other person; what do they appreciate in them; and how do they add value to the person’s life? As Barreca says, only by combining the interest in a relationship and not seeing it as adversarial, by respecting and admiring people as an equal, and by agreeing to examine with genuine honesty the patterns of inequity in the relationship, can people move forward toward a future where they feel fortunate to have a healthy, loving relationship.

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