Resentments and grudges can hurt relationships, but…
We have learned a lot about relationship stability from Drs. John & Julie Gottman’s work. What’s interesting about resentments is that we can think about them as falling in three different categories, with thoughts that might go something like this: 1) “On second thought or in the big picture, maybe this isn’t really that important, and I can let this go”. 2) “I’m feeling resentment here and this is irritating and this is important to me, (but not particularly meaningful)”, and 3) “This is serious and painful, and has meaning to me related to an important value, belief, or strong feeling.”
It’s important to know that, the very same behavior for three different couples could fall in three different categories based on our histories, experiences, perceptions and other factors.
managing them well can lead to increased intimacy.
We can’t avoid all negativity in a relationship. In fact, intimacy occurs when we can express our deepest feelings to our partner and feel heard and respected. Addressing grudges and resentments, when done in non-blaming ways, opens our inner emotional world to our partner. Just how do we do this?
The three categories? Here they are:
Category 1 Resentment
In a “Category 1 Resentment” we can let things go without necessarily talking about it with our partner and, most importantly, we feel okay about doing that. Generally this happens when the relationship is in a good place and we feel mostly positive about our partner and the relationship. We may feel a bit under the weather in the relationship because of this resentment, but it isn’t all clouds, there is some sun breaking through. In other words, the positive outweighs the negative in the relationship and we are able to give our partner some slack and see the bigger picture – the issue isn’t that big to us, no real triggers are set off. “OK, on second thought this isn’t that important”, or “Well, I could have used more help from my partner at our dinner party Friday night, but I realize work has demanded a lot of me and I might be over-stressed and over-reactive. Usually we work well together and this isn’t an issue. I can let this slide”.
Category 2 Resentment
In a “Category 2 Resentment” we are dealing with something that may cause negative feelings, it feels a bit charged, and if not managed could lead to increasing resentment if not talked about. However, it doesn’t threaten the security of the relationship or have particular meaning other than irritation, anger or frustration. What to do with Category 2 resentments? Tell your partner what you need instead of holding on to the resentment. We have learned from research that couples who manage conflict well, know how to start a conversation without attacking the partner. There tend to be three elements in a good start to talking about upsets: 1) Talking about one’s own perceptions by describing the event, recognizing this is your own perception and not probably your partner has a different perception; 2) Expressing your feeling about what happened; and 3) Stating what you needed at the time, or need now. One formula for this “softened start” is the following:
“When (describe the behavior that happened or is happening),
I feel or felt (upset, angry, frustrated, confused, hurt),
I need (this to happen, or I need this now, please).”
Category 3 Resentment
In a “Category 3 Resentment”, meaning is given to the incident or behavior that can drive the resentment to a level of great distress in the relationship. The resentment is experienced as very painful and is perceived or explained either as a fundamental flaw in the partner and/or is triggering some deeply felt feelings or core beliefs. These are the majors storms in the relationship that can create a lot of damage if not managed, eventually leading to bickering or to an emotionally disengaged relationship of withdrawal. When not talked understood or talked about these resentments can lead to a gridlocked impasse in the relationship that feels overwhelming and usually is confusing to the couple because they aren’t really having the conversation they need to have yet about the story underneath the resentment.
What causes these feelings? Often it’s because something from the past is triggering the emotions, or the incident represents something very important to the individual like, trust, safety, teamwork, inclusion, etc. These resentments need to be understood as representing something core to the individual, a dream, a hope, a deeply held desire. Without blaming your partner, focus on your own feelings, telling your partner what this issue represents and what the issue means to you; ask for understanding. The listener’s role would be to try to deepen understanding of what happened to have made this event or experience painful to the partner. Focus on:
- “Here is the incident and the feelings I have about the incident_____________”
- “What I really would have wanted to happen instead was_____________”
- Check to see if this is an old and familiar feeling that has roots in your history. For example, “I have a sensitivity to criticism because that’s what my family did best”.
- It really helps if you can share what beliefs and core values you have about what this incident means to you. For example,”I want to feel heard when I express my feelings and perceptions. This is important to me in our relationship”
Category 3 resentments can be difficult to manage, and a couple therapist may be needed to work through these types of resentments. It may be that more conversations may need to happen.
Oh Yea, Don’t Forget the Positive
Couples that have the strongest relationships have learned to focus on the positive in the partner and in the relationship, developing a mindset of “Catching your partner doing something right and telling him or her, in other words, developing a culture of appreciation, one of the best preventative measure couples can take to avoid resentments. We have learned that stable, long-lasting relationships are characterized by couples who daily show interest in each other, asking questions, making attempts to connect. When there are issues that are important to talk about, they tend to avoid criticizing the partner and state what you need and why. Otherwise, Category 2 resentment can turn into Category 3 resentment. Finally, develop a daily ritual involving checking in with each other, and taking time to really know your partner thoughts, feelings and needs. The resentment storm watch will likely downgrade Level 3’s, to Level 2’s and Level 1’s.