Chains of Resentment After Intimate Betrayal

Being resentful as a defense strategy can put you into shackles.

Posted Sep 13, 2013

Resentment is a derivative of innate anger, although it emerges later in childhood, as children develop a strong sense of fairness. Inherent in resentment is a perception of unfairness — you’re not getting the help, appreciation, consideration, affection, reward, or praise you deserve.

Resentment shares the physiological characteristics of anger but is less intense and of longer duration, i.e., it occupies lower levels of arousal but lasts much, much longer. Where anger (when directed at others) is an aggressive exertion of power to get someone to back off or submit to what you want (either in reality or in your imagination), resentment is a defensive way of devaluing and mentally retaliating against those whom you perceive to be treating you unfairly.

Another difference between resentment and anger is that the latter is triggered by a specific stimulus — you insulted me (or I thought you did), so I got angry. The anger goes away soon after the stimulus attenuates — you apologize or I forget about it or choose to ignore it. In stark contrast, resentment is never specific and rarely goes away. It’s a generalized defense against unfair relationships or environments, not just certain behaviors.

Hence resentment persists, despite changes in the behavior that may have stimulated it. Even if you apologize, I’ll resent that you didn’t do it sooner or that you weren’t sincere or contrite enough, because I’m pretty sure you’ll do it again in this unfair relationship or environment.

Where anger is a tool to put out fires, resentment is more like a smoke alarm that’s always on, just in case a spark should ignite. Other people might think your resentment is about the past and urge you to “let it go.” But resentment is really about the future. After an intimate betrayal, it seems to protect you from the danger of trusting again.

The Resentment Experience: More Than a Feeling

Describing what resentment feels like is difficult, because it builds mostly under the radar — by the time you know you’re resentful, it’s in a highly advanced stage. People often give vague descriptions like, “I’m in a sour mood,” or “I’m just irritable.” If you ask how they feel, they’ll likely talk about other people cheating, lying, manipulating, or abusing them. At the same time, they will describe resentful others as having “a chip on their shoulders.”

The experience of resentment is hard to pinpoint because it’s really more of a mood than a discrete feeling. Emotions occur like waves that rise and fall, usually within a few minutes, while moods are like a steady current flowing beneath the surface of consciousness, always there, but rarely perceptible without careful self-reflection.

This is an important distinction, because we tend to deal with resentment by trying to change how we feel when the problem is the mood supporting the feelings. A change of feelings does little to alter moods.

For example, if your underlying mood is positive, you are most likely feeling something like interest, enjoyment, compassion, or love. These emotions motivate behaviors that are caring, playful, romantic, supportive, cooperative, analytical, or creative. With this kind of behavioral reinforcement, a few negative feelings here and there, caused by disappointment, loss, or even transient thoughts of the betrayal are not likely to change your mood. That’s why, when you’re in a good mood, things that might ordinarily hurt or offend you just roll off your back.

But if your underlying mood is resentful, it’s most likely causing visible waves of anger, anxiety, jealousy, or envy, which motivate behavior that is controlling, dominating, impulsive, possessive, confrontational, vindictive, dismissive, withdrawing, or rejecting. With this kind of behavioral reinforcement, a few positive feelings here and there will do little to alter your mood. For these reasons, the popular self-help suggestion of “sorting through your feelings” will not relieve resentment for very long.

Resentment as Distrust

Resentment has a strong component of self-punishment. Though usually obscured by the inclination to devalue those we resent, the self-punitive nature of resentment is revealed in sentiments like:

“Why did I ever trust her!”

“I knew he’d let me down!”

“How could I have been so stupid to believe him again?”

The false appeal of self-punishment is that it seems to keep us safe from future hurt and disappointment. If you get mad enough at yourself — and punish yourself sufficiently — you might not be “so stupid” as to trust or rely on that person (or someone like him) again. 

This illusion of protection from hurt is the “great lie” of resentment. In fact, you get hurt a lot more often when resentful, for the simple reason that people react to what they see. And resentment looks very different on the outside from the way it feels on the inside. To appreciate this important point about resentment, try the following “mirror test.”

Sometime when you’re alone, look in mirror for at least 30 seconds, before you begin the test. (We tend to pose in the mirror rather than look candidly at it. But it’s difficult to hold a pose for more than 30 seconds.)

Begin the test by thinking about the unfairness of your betrayal. As you do, you will notice your heart rate increase slightly, your neck tighten, and your shoulders and jaw stiffen. You will probably look down and away from the mirror as you think about the unfairness of the way you were treated. But try to hold onto those thoughts and force yourself to look back at the mirror. When you do, you’ll see what the world sees.

On the inside you feel abused, victimized, hurt, and vulnerable. On the outside, you look unfriendly, at best, or, at worst, a little mean-spirited. The look of resentment completely belies your internal experience. It is likely to prompt negative reactions from others, through no fault of your own.

If you feel that other people just don’t understand you, resentment is probably not allowing the real you to show.

Please check out my free webinar on living and loving after betrayal.