Reining in resentment

Bitterness is a toxic element in a relationship and left unresolved, it can break up couples. Here’s how to defuse grudges and grievances before they become unmanageable.

You get home after a long day at work, exhausted from driving through two hours of traffic and shopping for what you’ll need to cook for dinner. On your way to the front door, lugging heavy parcels, your foot lands in a pile of poo, courtesy of the family poodle. Furious, you barge inside, screaming at your husband: “You didn’t clean up the dog poop – again! You only have one responsibility in this house, but even that’s too much for you! Must I do absolutely everything myself!?”

To which he replies: “What’s the point of trying to help when you criticise everything I do? You never stop nagging and finding fault with me.” His calm tone makes you even angrier, and you yell back: “If you were willing to pull your weight around here, I wouldn’t have to nag. I’ve been asking you to fix the leaking loo for three weeks and you still haven’t sorted it out!”

Does this slanging match sound familiar? These are typical signs of anger that’s been building up over issues you’ve never resolved, or may never even have expressed – and it’s not about the leaking loo or the dog poo. In fact, it’s not about your partner’s laziness at all. It goes far deeper than that, possibly to experiences from your past that long predate your marriage.

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For example, if your partner was unfaithful to you in the past, the hurt you felt at his betrayal may still be festering and now you’re picking on him to keep guilt-tripping him. Perhaps you had a parent who abandoned the family, or a boyfriend who exploited you and then dumped you, and you still haven’t forgiven them. These old resentments can break up marriages and families, unless they’re resolved.

Pretoria-based clinical psychologist and author Thabang Tlaka explains how to identify them, defuse them and then let them go, so that you can move past them.

All couples argue once in a while: it’s a normal and healthy part of a relationship

Where it all begins…

“Most people are well-versed in the art of avoiding difficult conversations. They’d rather wait for heated moments to bring up a past situation they perceived as an offence to them,” says Thabang. “Resentment’s typically born of a sense of injustice. We become angry when we believe others have hurt us intentionally. When we feel that we’ve been unfairly treated, we develop negative feelings towards those who’ve wronged us.

“Misunderstanding the actions, intentions and criticism of others also tends to make us resentful. Anxiety, anger and a low mood may be the resulting emotions.”

How bitterness manifests itself

All couples argue once in a while: it’s a normal and healthy part of a relationship. However, they can end up hurting each other deeply – whether deliberately or unintentionally – if they hurl painful reminders of the past at each other. The key to a healthy argument is to stick to the issue causing the conflict, realise you’re being triggered and be able to either direct your anger to the issue at hand, or admit that it’s tapping into other, unrelated ones and that you need time out to control it.

First prize is to avoid resentment accumulating in you by telling your partner when you’re unhappy about something, rather than suppressing it and nurturing a festering wound. “Issues that aren’t ventilated effectively breed animosity that can be poisonous to your bond,” cautions Thabang.

Stages of resentment

There are generally four stages of tension that build up between couples:

  1. Stage 1: Resistance: At this stage, you start feeling less emotionally connected to your partner. “You find yourself becoming irritable, annoyed or bothered by certain things he does,” explains Thabang. This would be the best time to express your concerns, he adds.
  2. Stage 2: Resentment: During this stage, those minor irritations develop into full-blown resentment. “Now you begin to actively display passive-aggressive behaviour, such as being emotionally distant, spiteful, critical for no reason and frustrated with your partner.” An example would be waiting until he’s watching a soccer match on TV to start noisily vacuuming the carpet in the lounge, when you could have left it for later. Or him buying full-cream milk instead of the low-fat one you usually drink, and claiming that he didn’t realise that he’d picked up the wrong item. Sexual intimacy may also be affected now, with you pushing him away. “This is when you and your partner’s level of emotional, physical and psychological connectedness begins to decline and your relationship begins to suffer,” says Thabang.
  3. Stage 3: Rejection: At this point, one or both of you may start toying with the idea of separation. “Because you’re emotionally distant from each other, it becomes easier to get distracted by external forces,” explains Thabang. You may start becoming responsive to a colleague’s flirtatious behaviour, or find the thought of going out on your own more exciting than going home to your partner. “You’re both physically living together, yet are psychologically and emotionally apart. Your bodies may be in the same house, but your
    hearts have already left.”
  4. Stage 4: Repression: “By now, if you haven’t separated, you may enter into the repressive stage, where you’re both living in a fantasy world in which issues simply aren’t dealt with. This is characterised by pretence,” says Thabang. You carry on your shared lives as if nothing’s wrong, pretending to be fine and even convincing those around you that everything’s fine in your relationship. However, deep down, you’re both aware that there’s nothing left between you. Unless you get professional help resolving the many layers of anger and bitterness – on both sides – which have now grown onto your original hurt, it’s likely that you’ll end up going your separate ways.

It’s been said that holding onto bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die…

Beyond bitterness: Letting go of resentment

It’s been said that holding onto bitterness is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The person who suffers most is the one clinging onto the past – and this can result in permanent damage not only to your present relationship, but to your ability to connect with others. Bitterness eventually turns into depression, robbing you of your ability to enjoy life, love spontaneously and react proportionately to the knocks and bruises we all experience.

However, that doesn’t have to be your reality. If you truly still love each other and both want to make it work, you can make the effort to create a happy ending for yourselves. Thabang suggests ways of rebuilding your relationship:

  • Make peace with the fact that you won’t always see eye to eye. There are some things that even lovers disagree on, and that’s okay. This simply means that you need to learn how to argue in healthy, non-destructive ways.
  • It’s better to have frequent intense discussions – even if they hurt – than long, icy periods of silence, as these eventually culminate in a major fight that could end the relationship completely. Don’t leave for tomorrow what needs to be dealt with today.
  • Re-evaluate your partnership: identify the events that led to where you are; acknowledge and own up to your mistakes together.
  • Learn to forgive, be patient and respectful to each other, as well as truthful as soon as something’s happened that’s seriously impacted your feelings towards each other.
  • If you’re unable to find your way past resentment or anger, consider seeing a psychologist, a relationship therapist, a pastor or a trusted family friend who can play an impartial and mediatory role.
  • Don’t become a disaster zone among children, other family members and friends. If you’re angry with each other, keep it at home. Venting to others and badmouthing your partner only makes the situation worse and won’t achieve a thing – and you don’t need a bevy of girlfriends, your mother, sister and aunts adding fuel to the fire.

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