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Marriage Problems: Resentment and the Decline of Interest

When interest fades, either compassion or resentment remains.

Resentment can begin to threaten the survival of your relationship without either of you knowing it and with neither of you doing anything wrong. You start to forge chains of resentment when one of you inadvertently lets your interest in the other decline. That's not hard to do, since interest, left on its own, naturally wanes with familiarity.

Novelty stimulates interest; once anything becomes familiar, you have to work to sustain it. Many people don't understand this; they believe that if their partners are less interested it means there is something wrong with the relationship. The truth is, over time the familiarity of experiencing the same good thing over and over will cause you to lose interest in it.

If the decline in interest is equal in both parties, the couple has a good chance of remaining connected as they put more energy into things that indirectly support the relationship, such as work, children, and social networks. Unfortunately, the decline in interest is rarely equal.

To understand the painful effects of one party losing interest, think of a time when you wanted to talk or do something with your partner but couldn't engage his interest, or worse, she lost interest while you were talking or doing what you wanted to do. Your gut emotional response was rejection, which stimulated shame or fear of isolation. Because these are such painful experiences, you were likely to avoid them by shifting interest into something else or, more commonly, with blame and resentment. The trouble is, declining interest can be so subtle that couples are completely unaware of what is happening to them, until the chain of resentment, which builds mostly under the radar, chokes the life out of their relationship.

Two for the Seesaw
Imagine a see-saw with fear and shame — almost always expressed in relationships as resentment — on one end, and interest, compassion, and emotional attunement (connection) on the other. As interest, compassion, and attunement go down, fear, shame, and resentment go up. As interest, compassion, and attunement go up, fear, shame, and resentment go down.

The best way to lighten the burden of resentment is to increase attunement. And the best strategy for doing that is to focus on compassion. Now here's your dilemma: You get trapped on the wrong end of the seesaw because, when you're resentful, you want your partner to show compassion for you. (Yes, you really want your partner to care about how you feel more than do what you want.) The trouble is you are not likely to get compassion when you're resentful. If you've ever tried to show compassion to a resentful person, you know it is not easy. That's because resentment desensitizes us to the internal world of others. We feel treated unfairly and don't care about how they feel. So we get stuck saying: "I don't care about how you feel, but you have to care about how I feel."

Couples miss the absurdity of resentment because they succumb to the urge to justify it by pointing out how unfair the other is. Convinced that they have a right to feel resentful and to express it (which only makes them more resentful), they miss the sad fact that their resentment has made them just as insensitive as the partner they resent.

If you want to tilt the see-saw in favor of connection, you must be the first person in your relationship to replace resentment with compassion. That is how you escape the powerlessness of reactivity and realize the true power of fidelity to your deepest values.