There’s a good reason why resentment has earned the nickname of “the silent killer of relationships.” It tiptoes into your mind and, if not nipped in the bud, grows into a rot that can destroy partnerships. It starts out innocuously. Your partner does something and you feel, rightfully or not, wronged, bothered, disappointed — something froths up. Instead of talking about the issue at hand, you ignore it. Over weeks or months, the same thing happens. And because it was never addressed in the first place, the resentment only grows and starts to have major consequences.
Resentment is often difficult to define and recognize. “It is the feeling of anger, irritation, or bitterness when holding the belief that you have been wronged or betrayed by someone or treated unfairly,” says Elinor Bawnik, a Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist. “Though all feelings are valid and deserve acknowledgement, our resentment may not be justified. Unfortunately, whether our resentment is based on fact or perception, acting on it can significantly impair relationships.”
Over time resentment can result in major rifts and conflicts. “It generally starts with small signs, where the partner who is feeling it, may not even realize that they are acting any differently,” says Michaela Decker, an Arizona-based licensed marriage and family therapist with more than a decade of experience addressing relational issues. “Resentment rarely looks like ‘I am feeling hurt because of…’ but instead manifests in many different, subtle ways.”
When you feel yourself resenting your partner, the resentment needs to be acknowledged and interrogated. But before you can do that, you must recognize the signs of resentment and the little ways it infects your relationship. Here are some ways resentment manifests itself.
1. Clamming Up
As resentment grows, often the desire for communication shrinks. You don’t want to talk, or be spoken to, so you retreat inwards. “Since we have perceived emotional pain, we often make ourselves less emotionally available,” explains Decker. “We may not text or call as much throughout the day and share fewer details of our lives with our partner. Doing so doesn’t feel as emotionally safe as before.” The dangers here are the “What Ifs” that can enter your partner’s mind as he or she tries to figure out the reason behind your radio silence.
2. Using Generalized Statements
The words “always” and “never” are rarely accurate. Using them when describing frustrations with your partner can indicate your fixation on what’s wrong, instead of what can be done to make it right. “When we resent someone, our minds can become hypervigilant and look for themes related to why we feel resentment,” says Decker. If a partner doesn’t follow through on, say, cleaning the kitchen before company comes, for example, we feel or say that we can ‘never’ rely on them. “Doing so results in our partner feeling like we only focus on their negative attributes and don’t acknowledge their positive ones,” says Decker. There are times and places for absolute superlatives, but the throes of resentment aren’t them.
3. Being Passive Aggressive
“We tend to act out our feelings of resentment indirectly, at least at first,” says Decker. “We are often triggered by smaller things that normally wouldn’t bother us and our reactions can become more intense than usual. We deliver veiled messages and use sarcasm to express frustration instead of being explicit.” In our minds, minor annoyances become major issues, and a quick sigh, snide comment, or mocking gesture is easier to express than a deep emotional dive and conversation. According to Decker, though, if left unchecked, the passive-aggressiveness can fester and manifest as bitterness, anger, and disdain in the future.
4. Comparing Your Partner to Others
Jealousy preys on our insecurities. And when we’re feeling wronged by or resentful of our partner, we begin to wonder what’s keeping us from being happy like all of those ‘other couples’. “When resenting a spouse or partner, we may longingly think of times where we felt like our needs were met in other relationships, whether romantic or platonic,” says Decker. The danger in doing so is that we create unrealistic expectations that neither we nor our partner may be able to live up to.
5. Feeling Hopeless About Conflicts
When you’re resentful, conflicts can start to seem unsalvageable and you may feel like you don’t have the willpower to get through them. “If you leave an interaction thinking, It doesn’t matter what I do. The situation won’t change, you’re setting yourself up for disaster,” says Bawnik. “Trying to talk to someone or fix something may feel like it’s too much effort and not worth it, but not doing so only guarantees that the other person will continue their behavior and the situation will stay the same.” In short, you’ve got nothing to gain and everything to lose by inadvertently harboring resentment after a disagreement.
6. Focusing only on “Fairness”
You may have heard already, but life isn’t fair. Relationships aren’t either. But resentment can leave you stewing about your spousal scorecard when it comes to everything from doing chores to raising children. “Resentment raises focus on what is fair, what you are worth, and what you get out of a relationship, but not in an effective way,” adds Bawnik. “You may have thoughts that you are being taken advantage of or undervalued in an interaction or not getting your fair share. It may be true, but resentment may lead you to quantify the relationship by counting how many times you took out the dog or cleaned the house compared to your partner.” No matter the score, both players lose.
7. Complaining Excessively
As anger and frustration tend to stay with us, it’s common to seek validation through the opinions of others. But, according to Bawnik, we may not always get the empathy we want, which can lead to even more resentment. “Resentment is very common after an unsuccessful interaction, when we feel our boundaries are disrespected or miscommunicated. We can’t shake the feelings of annoyance or bitterness immediately, so we may feel the need to complain to others. Often, the empathy or validation we get is not enough to justify the anger, and we’re still left with those feelings.” Our resentment can grow — and show — through the feeling that no one understands why we’re so upset.
8. Saying Things You Can’t Take Back
“Resentment often goes hand-in-hand with feeling as if you are not being heard. This can result in arguments becoming more frequent and intense,” says Decker. “These types of arguments, built up from resentment, can include threats to the relationship which can have devastating repercussions. We say more hurtful things to our partner in the heat of the moment and then become filled with more regret and shame.” So, even though acknowledging and admitting resentment may be difficult, the alternative is often eruption. And that does considerable damage.
What to Do if You Feel Resentment Bubbling Up
If you find yourself resenting your partner, you’re already a step ahead. “Identifying the resentment is the first step,” says Bawnik.
To figure out a solution, Bawnik adds that you’ll need to talk about your needs and boundaries assertively, acknowledge what and how you can make changes that meet those needs. You must also acknowledge the needs of your partner. Bawnik suggests writing down these needs, including the things you can’t change, while also keeping listing what you’re grateful for in the relationship.
Decker advises doing whatever you can to break the inevitable cycle of mutual resentment. “Over time, your showings of resentment can create more hurt in the relationship, which will lead your partner to resent you,” she says. “This cycle can cause us to focus only on the negative aspects of our relationship when, instead, we can use the experience to cultivate healing with each other.”
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