Resentment has been identified as one of the leading indicators of divorce and break up, but can be difficult to define or recognize. So what is it? It is not the annoyance you get when everyone gets their food at a restaurant before you, or when your vacation is over. Resentment is the feeling of anger, irritation, or bitterness when holding the belief that you have been wronged or betrayed by someone or treated unfairly.
Though all feelings are valid and deserve acknowledgement, our resentment may not be justified. Our subjective perception may influence what we see as fair and may not always be true to reality. Unfortunately, whether our resentment is based on fact or perception, acting on it can significantly impair relationships. Frequently, unaddressed resentment can lead to contempt, which The Gottman Institute identified as "the most destructive" to relationships (1).
It is important to identify and address resentment before it grows so here are 7 examples of resentment to look out for that I have seen working with individuals, couples and families:
1. Feeling hopeless about a conflict
If you leave an interactions thinking "it doesn't matter what I do, they/the situation wont change". Trying to talk to someone or fix something may feel like it's too much effort and not worth it. This thought may convince you to put your feelings aside and forget about your needs. However, it guarantees that the other person will continue their behavior and the situation will stay the same.
2. Feeling negative about a person or situation
Resentment may reduce your empathy to a person or limit your perception about a situation, leading you to feel anger and bitterness. You may start to see faults and increase in criticism, even to the point that you forget about positive qualities. For example, I hear people talking about their significant other negatively in general terms, such as "he is like a child, he can't do anything right" or "all she knows how to do is shop and sleep".
3. The feeling stays with you long after the interaction
You just can't shake the feelings of annoyance, anger, frustration, bitterness and general disgust after an interaction or even thinking about this person or event. You may feel the need to repeatedly complain to others, though the empathy or validation you get is not enough.
4. Feeling angry after an interaction and not knowing why
This is very common after an unsuccessful interaction and when our boundaries are disrespected or not communicated. We may experience the frustration and bitterness long after, even if we are no longer near this person. We may experience anger with them in situations that don't justify anger or are unrelated to the initial issue.
5. Stuck on fairness
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. 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 raise unrealistic comparisons and attempt to quantify the relationship, such as "I did the dishes 5 more times than her and it's not fair I do more for the house", or "How come I always have to take out the dog?"
Conflicts and agreements are uncomfortable so you may be tempted to avoid them, ghost them and cut them out. This may be necessary in some situations, but the discomfort is usually not worth losing the relationship or dealing with repercussions of disconnection. Avoidance does not solve conflict or make a boundary, and can be confusing to the other person.
7. Passive aggressive communication
This is communication that not only does not make your needs and boundaries clear, but it also leads to defensiveness, confusion, anger and resentment in others. Passive aggressive communication may feel like it brings mild relief, but can only add to conflict and miscommunication. Example of passive communication may be, "It's ok, I'll pick up your mother from the airport - it's not like I had anything to do today" or "I'm fine, nothing is wrong" (when we all know that's not true).
It is important to remember that resentment is an essential feeling as it is your internal red alarm to address a necessary conflict. Though disagreements are uncomfortable, discussing an issue assertively can feel relieving, create necessary boundaries in the relationship, and bring people closer.
To deal with resentment, you will need to identify the resentment, talk about your needs and boundaries assertively, acknowledge what and how you can make changes that meet those needs while also acknowledging the needs of your partner/family, and accept things you can't change.
If you meet the examples above, try taking some time out today to write down your needs, as well as a list of why you are in a relationship with this person or in this situation to increase gratitude and acceptance.