By Dr. Anne Brennan Malec, PsyD, LMFT
As a psychologist and marriage and family therapist, I often see couples who are facing an emotional chasm in their relationship. The chasm does not develop overnight, but is usually the result of long-simmering, mutual frustration and resentment within the relationship. Resentment can grow from relational conflicts, disagreements or hurt feelings that go unaddressed or are dismissed by a partner; and it is toxic to a relationship. When a partner continues to bring up a past event, it usually signifies the existence of unresolved emotional business. One partner’s repetitiveness can be exceedingly frustrating to another, but the underlying message is, “I need to talk about this and I need you to hear me, even if you disagree with me,” or, “You hurt my feelings, and I need you to know and be remorseful about it.”
In my experience, one of the most frequent causes of resentment is that, when an issue is mentioned by one partner, the other grows angry and shuts down the conversation. Does this exist in your own relationship? Are there topics that you avoid from fear of bringing up anger, emotional escalation or creating emotional distance? Have your past attempts at resolving conflicts led to oneof you leaving the conversation, either by physically exiting the room or by stonewalling and emotional withdrawal?
Trying to avoid tense relational situations is an understandable desire. Sometimes a little time and refocusing on th epositives of a relationship can allow the conflict to heal itself. But when conflict and hurt feelings do not resolve naturally with time, you should consider addressing it with your partner. Imagine, if you will, your resentments piling up in the corner of your marital bedroom. Over time the pile of resentments takes up more and more space in your relationship and life. You probably don’t want to spend time ruminating on the wrongs you have suffered, as this only results in more of your time being spent feeling hurt.
What to do? Choose to engage differently with your partner. Face your fear and give your partner the benefit of the doubt that they also want you to be happy in the relationship. Remind yourself that you are confronting your fear in order to limit your resentment, and this courageous step is intimacy-enhancing. Some tips for introducing the topic in a conversation: take a gentle approach; admit that it is difficult to talk about; share that you continue to raise the issue because it feels unresolved; and ask your partner if or when is a good time to discuss the issue at hand.
For instance, say you are concerned your partner is drinking too much alcohol, and you worry that he or she may become intoxicated at a work or family party, causing potential embarrassment, personally and/or professionally. Past attempts at discussion have led to anger and defensivenessso you have chosen to avoid the topic. However, just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist—it’s growing larger in the resentment pile in the corner. Being willing to face the issue does not mean that you will resolve it amicably, but it does mean that you are prioritizing your relationship—you are trying to protect and strengthen it.
Your preamble to the conversation might go something like this: “I need to talk about an issue that concerns me. Please listen to me in full before you respond. I do not raise concerns about your drinking because I am trying to control you or criticize you, but because I care about your health.I fear you are drinking to excess more often than in the past. It scares me because of your health, because of the alcoholism in your family, and because I am concerned that you are struggling emotionally. I worry that you are drinking to dull a pain you don’t want to feel or to escape. I want to tell you what I see, think and feel, with the hope that you will take my concerns to heart.”
This gentle approach can be effective because it demonstrates concern over criticism and focuses on your feelings and observations (“I” Statements) rather than on your partner’s character (“You” Statements). For more help in processing any feelings of resentment or in bringing them up with a partner, you may want to schedule an appointment with a counselor. Decide to work through that pile of resentments for your own good and the good of the relationship.
Anne Brennan Malec’s practice, Symmetry Counseling, offers a broad range of services. To learn more, please visit symmetrycounseling.com.