Jamal kept tight reins on his wife: making decisions, controlling their money, and telling her how to dress. In his mind, he needed to stay in charge to keep her from embarrassing herself and him. He’s been humiliated enough in his life as a kid, and he swore he was never going to let it happen again. What Jamal discovered as he looked deeper into his abusive, controlling behavior is that it was being driven by resentment.
Shelly got pregnant when she was young and struggled for a while as a single mom. Then, she met Mark, a great guy with a good job and a big heart for her and her son. Lately, however, she’s realized she’s not been treating Mark well. She puts him down for not being as successful as he should and belittles him for being a “mamma’s boy” when he helps out his elderly mother. Shelly’s emotionally abusive actions also have their roots in resentment.
It may take some digging, but many people find that resentment is behind their acts of domestic violence or abuse. Resentment is a sneaky emotion that develops from suffering injustices, then stays with us for a lifetime if left unexposed. And, it can subconsciously propel conduct that harms our partners, damages our relationships, and ultimately hurts us.
What is resentment?
One good definition of resentment I’ve seen is “anger and indignation experienced as a result of unfair treatment.” It’s true that resentment can come from real-life wrongs committed against us, but it can also come from injustices that we have imagined. We also might feel the same bitterness over a small matter as we do a grave one.
We all feel resentment sometimes. Usually, it’s a temporary feeling that goes away when we receive an apology or realize we misinterpreted things. However, it can also be a persistent emotion that lingers with us for months or even years. The second form is, of course, the one that’s the most damaging to us, our relationships, and to others around us. Some signs you may be harboring resentment include:
- Continually feeling a strong emotion, like anger, when you think about a specific person or experience.
- Inability to stop thinking about an event that triggered strong emotions.
- Wanting to get revenge on someone or for something.
- Feeling deflated when other people succeed.
- Reveling in another person’s failure.
- Feeling invisible, inadequate, or less-than.
Resentment always has a blame component: “it’s someone’s fault that I feel bad.” We feel a need to retaliate and punish that person for causing our bad experience and resulting hurt. We also tend to believe we’re the only one who’s had to live through bad experiences. Everyone else is having a wonderful, carefree time, while we suffer day after day.
All this stops us from feeling peace and enjoying life—and worse, it can drive behavior that harms our intimate partners and ultimately, us.
Resentment from childhood
Like a lot of emotional baggage, resentment often has its roots in childhood. That was Jamal’s experience. The youngest of five, small for his age, and raised in a poor family, he was bullied by both his siblings and his classmates. As he grew up and learned to fend for himself, people stopped harassing him—but he vowed to himself: “I will never be disrespected again.”
We often form these kinds of thought processes early in life to protect ourselves from hurtful treatment. But if we don’t process our hurt, we can end up with a festering grudge that causes harm in adulthood. In Jamal’s case, the resentment he feels for the powerlessness and humiliation he experienced is now playing out as an excessive need for control.
Resentment from adult relationships
Resentment can develop in adulthood, too. Some common causes in this setting include:
- Unbalanced responsibilities. Resentment can seep in if one person feels they are constantly doing all of the difficult or thankless jobs. Being the primary breadwinner, the one who does all the housework and childcare, or the one who always initiates intimacy are common examples.
- Unbalanced power. If one partner in a relationship feels that their voice is being squelched or their needs made secondary, they may begin to harbor resentment.
- Medical issues. Sometimes, when one person becomes a caregiver for their chronically ill partner, they start to feel resentful. This is especially true when their own needs are not being met.
- Hurtful words. Over time, the effect of hurtful words can build up and do damage. This is true whether the words were intended to hurt or not. If the couple doesn’t talk through these incidents openly, resentment is likely to grow.
Shelly built resentment while she was a single mom. She bore the brunt of childcare while also working and trying to finish her schooling. While her resentment was mostly for her son’s father, it was also targeted at herself for her mistakes. She knows her husband is a great guy who caused none of her hurts, but she’s subconsciously channeling her regrets, resentment, and feelings of inadequacy toward him.
How we hurt ourselves by holding a grudge
Resentment is a poor prescription for happiness and a sure way to make the pain of injustice last longer. Nelson Mandela’s famously said, “Resentment is the poison you drink hoping to hurt your enemy.”
Over time, it can distort our thinking and makes us prone to oversimplification, confirmation bias, and an inability to grasp other perspectives or distinguish thoughts from reality. We latch onto lies about ourselves and others while dismissing the truth, finding more and more proof to validate how we feel and ignoring evidence that disputes it. Needless to say, this is an unhealthy worldview and way of life.
How resentment hurts our relationships and partner
Then, there are the adverse effects resentment has on our relationships and the ones we love. Resentful people often believe, perhaps subconsciously, that they will feel better by tearing others down. If we are chronically resentful, our relationships may be characterized by:
- Seeking external emotional regulation. We try to manage our own unpleasant emotions by attempting to control or devalue our partner with harsh, personal criticism.
- Defensiveness. We quickly and thoroughly deflect any criticism that comes our way, making it impossible for our partner to raise legitimate complaints with us.
- Power struggles. We try to exert power or win by force during conflict, rather than trying to reconcile and reconnect.
- Stonewalling. We either shut down or shut out our loved one, as a way to punish them or get them to give in.
- Contempt. We are unable to see our partner and their actions in a balanced, generous way.
- Anxiety or “walking on eggshells”. Our partner second-guesses themselves and tries, often in vain, to avoid upsetting us.
All of the above can lead to emotional or physical abuse that would justify our partner ending the relationship. If they hang in there, at best they will develop their own resentment, destroying all closeness and intimacy with us. At worst, they will suffer severe psychological, emotional, and even physical injury.
The irony is that these actions only make us feel worse in the long run. Making someone else feel bad about themselves provides no resolution for our feelings and no ‘payback’ for the past. Instead, every harsh word and cold shoulder turns on us, and we end up resenting ourselves more each day.
Breaking the shackles of negative feelings
Rather than punishing another for our negative feelings, we can use those uncomfortable emotions as motivation to heal ourselves. That healing process starts with acknowledging and facing our resentment, and the hurt that lies beneath. Often, simply talking about what’s bothering us reduces the resentment we feel.
The process continues when we move on and forgive. A note here—forgiving is not excusing or forgetting. In fact, we may still have every right to feel angry, hurt, or offended. But when we forgive, we willingly give up that right. In doing so, we remove the power of that event or person to continue hurting us and open ourselves up to a better future.
Strategies for stopping resentment
While releasing resentment can be difficult, it may help to:
- Reimagine your identity. Sometimes, anger or regret become part of our identity, especially when we’ve held on to them for a long time. Recognizing that we’re hanging on to resentment out of a sense of security or familiarity can help us to let go of it. Envision who you’d be without your resentment, then be that person.
- Practice self-compassion. Resentment is often linked to the lack of compassion you received in the past. Practicing self-compassion now can help fill that void and heal the hurts you endured back then. What would the adult-you say to comfort the child-you? What would you tell your best friend if they were in a similar situation? These are the same words you can—and should—tell yourself.
- Be empathetic to those who hurt you. Often the person or people that caused our resentment did not understand the damaging effects of their actions. Other times, they were acting out of their own woundedness. Our young, inexperienced, or substance-addicted parent may have been doing their best. Those school bullies were probably facing problems at home. Realizing that others may be hurting as much as we are helps reduce our resentment.
- Cultivate gratitude. When feelings of resentment start to bubble up, try listing things you’re grateful for. This is a powerful way to shift your mindset and literally make yourself happier. Push back on self-talk that says you’re a victim and reframe your experience. For example, our partner leaving us for someone else was really hurtful. However, it gave us an opportunity to grow, develop our self-esteem, and learn to be less needy in future relationships.
Counseling can help us discover the reasons for our resentment, learn how to communicate our feelings, and practice strategies for letting it go. If you can, I strongly encourage you to work with one to help guide you through this challenging process. Whatever work you do will pay big benefits in your quality of life!
This command is not to let bad people off of the hook or because they deserve our forgiveness. As Christians, we’re not required to forgive only when the other party apologizes. We’re required to forgive because that’s what will help you and me have a full and wonderful life, great relationships, and peace of mind. God knows if we are holding on to resentment, these won’t be possible.
In typical God fashion, he gives us everything we need to forgive. First and most importantly, he forgives us when we confess our wrong-doings and commit to following him. Allowing ourselves to receive God’s love and compassion is a powerful way to heal from the hurts we suffered in the past. When we put our trust in God, he makes us a new person and promises us a good future. Finally, he gets justice for us so we can let go of our desire for vengeance.