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The Danger of Misunderstanding Resentment

It begins with conflating preferences, desires, and needs.

Key points

  • Resentment resists simple therapeutic interventions that can be effective with other emotional or relationship issues.
  • It’s impossible to resolve resentment with focus on emotional needs and getting your partner to meet those needs.
  • Resentment is inherently devaluing and coercive.

Most attendees of the Love Without Hurt Boot Camps for chronic resentment and emotional abuse have terminated couples counseling and individual therapy more resentful than they started. That’s because so many clinicians make the mistake of focusing on what clients resent and why they resent it, without addressing the function of resentment.

Preferences and Desires vs. Needs

A sure way to increase resentment is to adopt the pop-psychology notion of “needs.” In our narcissistic times, “I love you” is supplanted by “getting my needs met.”

The pursuit of “needs” is qualitatively different from the pursuit of preferences and desires and much more difficult to gratify. The perception of needs breeds entitlement. Your perceived need will supersede your partner’s preferences and desires. If you need something, of course you’ll resent not getting it in exactly the way you think you need it. You won’t feel disappointed by unmet needs; you’ll feel rejected and unloved, with a retaliation impulse that is sure to make things worse.

If you recognize that perceived needs are desires and preferences, your pursuit of them will be more appreciative, more solicitous, less demanding, and more likely to be satisfied. If you want more compassion from your partner, for example, you’ll be more compassionate to your partner. If you need more compassion from your partner, you’ll be less compassionate and more critical.

The Focus Effect

The reason why focusing on what you resent produces more resentment has nothing to do with what you resent. Mental focus amplifies and magnifies; what we focus on becomes more important than what we don’t focus on. Due to their immediate survival utility, negative emotions get priority processing in the brain and seize control of consciousness. We’re more likely to focus on what we resent than what we love. And we're likely to get more of what we focus on.

Resentment and Fairness

Resentment is a perception of unfairness; you’re not getting the help, appreciation, support, praise, reward, or affection you think you deserve. Trouble is, we’re hypersensitive to the unfairness of our partners, but on autopilot, hardly sensitive at all to our own unfairness. To objectively evaluate our own fairness requires effortful reflection, a process inhibited by guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, perceived need, and exhaustion. We automatically judge other people’s unfairness but need a weekend retreat to appreciate our own.

We sense this intuitively; that’s why people feel compelled to justify their resentment with evidence of their partner’s unfairness. But justification is embedded with confirmation bias—the tendency to cherry-pick evidence that supports the judgment of unfairness, while overlooking contradictory evidence. That’s part of the reason why negative emotions are self-validating:

If I’m resentful, you must be unfair.

Resentment as a Coping Tactic

Resentment protects us from vulnerable feelings—guilt, shame, anxiety, sadness, grief, physical discomfort—by blaming them on someone else. It’s not a question of whether our partners are deserving of blame. More importantly, the act of blame renders us powerless over the vulnerable feelings, which are motivations for us to do something. The pain in your bladder isn’t telling you that your partner must go to the bathroom. The pain in your heart is telling you to be more compassionate, kind, and loving, or to make yourself safe.

You’ll never make yourself safe with blame because it always gets a negative response, if not overtly then passively. (If you think your partner is passive-aggressive, you’re probably a blamer.) The principle of emotion reciprocity holds that we’re likely to get back what we put out. Try to think of a time when you blamed someone and didn’t get blamed for something in return, if not immediately, soon after. Resentment breeds resentment.

Resentment as a Defense System

The function of resentment is to protect us from unanticipated disappointment. When we resent someone, we’ve judged that they’ve disappointed us and will likely do it again. Since unanticipated emotion is more intense than anticipated, we look for early warning signs of disappointment, lest it sneak up on us. In other words, we look for things to resent, forming a self-linking chain of offenses. Defense systems are general, not specific to any one kind of offense. No resentful person resents just one thing.

Some of the links on the chain of resentment are big and heavy, things like deceit, infidelity, and abuse. But most are trivial, things like forgetting to take the trash out or leaving crumbs on the counter. (Nothing is too petty to resent when disappointment seems like rejection.) If you pick up a chain by one link, whether it's big or small, you hold the weight of the whole chain. That’s why resentment leads to overreactions and arguments after which neither partner can remember what started it or even what it was about.

The therapeutic failure of dealing with the content of resentment lies in the fact that by the time people come to treatment, the chain of resentment is quite long. The brain’s tendency to mash negative experiences together in memory means that the chain goes well into the past, including past relationships. Resentful partners resent their partners for things done to them in previous relationships, going back to childhood. But the chain of resentment grows most insidious when it goes into the future:

Things are OK now, but she’ll find some way to screw up the weekend.

He’s on his best behavior, but just wait; the real him will come out.

At this point, resentment becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, filled with negative projections (assuming the worst about our partners’ intentions or personalities) and invoking projective identification, as partners unconsciously conform to the negative attributions.

Unless tempered by compassion for self and partners, resentment inevitably turns into contempt, bitterness, and emotional abuse.

Self-Regulation

Once resentment is part of a defense system, change in a partner’s behavior will not relieve it. The resentment invariably attaches to something else. Thus, the familiar refrain:

No matter what I do, my partner will resent me.

I discovered this the hard way. When we started the boot camps three decades ago, they were just for the partner identified as emotionally abusive. When graduates of the program showed more compassion and thoughtfulness for their loved ones, the nonattending partners became more resentful because it didn’t happen sooner:

All these years I’ve had to put up with you being a jerk and now you go to that boot camp, and all of sudden want to be good partner!

Resentment requires self-regulation because it always includes hidden self-contempt:

Why did I trust him!

How could I have believed her!

Self-contempt requires self-compassion, not more resentment. We must restore self-value before making behavior requests of partners. The interaction won’t restore self-value; only fidelity to your deeper values will.

Devaluing, Coercive

It’s impossible to negotiate or make reasonable behavior requests with resentment because it’s inherently devaluing and, in relationships, coercive. It’s devaluing because it implies that there's something wrong with you for not doing what I want. (Moral, intellectual, or emotional superiority is implied with resentment.) It’s coercive because it requires submission:

Do what I want (meet my need), or you’ll be punished.

Early in relationships, the punishment is the withdrawal of affection, chilliness, or diminished interest. Near the end of the relationship, it’s emotional abuse—deliberately making the partner feel afraid, ashamed, or demeaned.

Submission vs. Cooperation

Humans hate to submit, even when it’s to our advantage. However, we like to cooperate—do something for the well-being of loved ones. We feel good about ourselves when we’re cooperative, as long as it doesn’t smack of submission.

The formula for cooperation:

The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resents.

We elicit cooperation by recognizing that our partners don’t have to do what we ask and by appreciating what they do. We increase resentment by seeming entitled to their compliance (because we need to get our needs met).

Attempts to negotiate or make behavior requests with resentment invoke the painful stand-off:

You: “If you loved me, you would do this.”

Your partner: “If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do this.”

This is heartbreaking because what we most resent is the sense that our partners’ don’t care how we feel. Yet, when we are resentful, we don’t care how our partners feel.

Pros and Cons of Journaling

Journaling is a favorite tool of therapists—many of whom, I argue, misunderstand resentment. Although journaling can be helpful, it entails risk.

Journaling is harmful if it reinforces entitlement and justifies resentment, which it will certainly do if it’s about “identifying your basic needs.” Journaling is helpful if it compensates for biases in the perception of unfairness and if it considers evidence that dis-confirms the perception. It should exercise binocular vision—the ability to see your partner’s perspective alongside your own—and compassionate assertivenessstanding up for your rights, preferences, and privileges, while respecting those of your partner.

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