Choose between resentment and healing; you can’t do both.
Recovery from relationships that have suffered chronic resentment is long, complex and fraught with setbacks, whether the couple breaks up or tries to repair the damage done to the union.
Unlike anger, which is stimulated by discreet incidents or thoughts, chronic resentment is a general ego defense – the more fragile the ego, the more resentment is required for defense. For those most in need, ego-defense is more important than learning, truth, and reason. Hence resentment greatly distorts thinking – through oversimplification, confirmation bias, inability to grasp other perspectives, and impaired reality-testing (inability to distinguish thoughts from reality).
Steven Stosny, Ph.D., is the founder of CompassionPower in suburban Washington, DC. Dr. Steven Stosny’s most recent books are Empowered Love and Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain Under Any Kind of Stress. He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Today Show,” “CBS Sunday Morning,” and CNN’s “Talkback Live” and “Anderson Cooper 360” and has been the subject of articles in, The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, Cosmopolitan, O, Psychology Today, AP, Reuters, and USA Today.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Over time, resentment becomes a worldview or way of life. Because the resentful have to devalue others to protect their fragile egos, chronic resentment in intimate relationships inevitably leads to some form of verbal or emotional abuse and, eventually – if the couple hangs in there – to contempt and disgust.
Characteristics of Chronic Resentment in Relationships
- High emotional reactivity – a negative feeling in one triggers chaos or shut down in the other
- External regulation of emotions – unpleasant emotions are regulated by attempts to control or devalue the other
- Automatic defense systems (See ADS post)
- Power struggles – try to “win” or exert power rather than reconcile and connect
- Criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt
- Walking on eggshells – both parties feel this, but typically one will internalize, second-guess, and reangle the self in vain attempts to avoid the other’s resentment or abuse
- Narrow and rigid emotional range – the parties seesaw between resentment and depression, with little emotional experience in between.
Although it is better understood as a collection of bad habits rather than addiction, as some have suggested, resentment shares with the latter the need to “hit bottom” before there is motivation to change. That’s because resentment requires attribution of blame: “It’s someone’s fault that I feel bad or powerless.” Their negative emotions seem like punishments that require retaliation rather than motivations to heal and improve. Resentful people typically have to hit bottom – lose a relationship or get fired from a job or suffer yet another failure before there is sufficient motivation to reverse years of bad habits.
Successful Treatment of Chronic Resentment
Resentful people feel devalued and powerless without resentment. Before giving up a defense they have likely held since adolescence, their egos need a more effective way to feel valuable and powerful, i.e., able to act in their long-term best interests, without violating their deepest values. Successful treatment must employ commitment to their deepest values so that the motivation to build value outweighs the motivation to devalue. It must:
- Increase core value – the ability to create value and meaning in life and stay true to their deepest values (The resentful consistently violate their deepest values by devaluing the people they most value.)
- Emotional reconditioning – forming healthier habits of internal regulation.
In successful treatment, the resentful learn to focus on what they most deeply appreciate, what they most want to build, and the value they most want to create in life. Once they experience the enduring power and vitality of acting on the motivation to create value, compared to the constricted emotional range of resentful living, they can begin to develop a powerful sense of self that is less in need of ego defense and capable of maintaining a compassionate, loving relationship over time.