There are plenty of articles and studies that tell us why marriages fail, and they usually start with the “M” word – Money – or the “I” word – Infidelity. But one of the words that is less-often mentioned, yet has as much or more of an impact, is the “R” word – Resentment. I talk with my couples about this word more times than they can probably count, and I do it for a very raw and honest reason: resentment is toxic to relationships.
Resentment is the slow chug up the rollercoaster, the hill that gets steeper and steeper with every inch, yet doesn’t hit you until you are on the way down. It is the dust bunnies under the rug that gather and gather until they reach the edges. Resentment, like dust bunnies, builds slowly. It is not an overnight phenomenon, or something that jumps from the bushes and yells “surprise!” It’s sneaky, and can mask itself as other issues such as boredom or anger, yet completely erode a relationship if not dealt with effectively. We often don’t realize the “R” word is in our relationship vocabulary until years later when any and every little thing our partner does drives us crazy, when we view them as foe instead of friend.
That undercurrent of anger and frustration may have been building, but it is not until we find ourselves completely disconnected from each other that we recognize the problem or seek help to address it. Sometimes the distance becomes too great of a divide; other times we can close the gap.
So, how do you address the “R” word? Well, that is a much longer conversation than I have space for, so I will hit the highlights. The first step is to take an honest, introspective look at how you communicate with your partner and manage conflict. If an issue comes up, do you address it within a reasonable time after it happens, or do you hide the dust bunnies under the rug and hope they will magically clean themselves? Are you open to identifying concerns and discussing them, even if it may hurt your partner’s feelings? Or would you rather poke your eyes with needles than deal with difficult topics and conflict?
Being able to communicate openly and honestly with your partner about tough, personal topics is crucial to the success of any relationship. Your level of avoidance affects how open you are to identifying issues; the less you discuss, the more frustrated you become, and the more you begin to build up an emotional wall. The higher that wall becomes, the greater the level of resentment that comes with it.
If you are feeling frustrated with your partner, be open to acknowledging that feeling with him/her and identifying the reasons why. Have a calm, vulnerable, collaborative conversation, address the concerns together, and come up with a way to problem solve and work on ways to strengthen your relationship instead of quietly harboring resentment and frustration and hoping that it will go away. Use “I” statements, be respectful, make liberal use of the Fair Fighting Rules, empathize with and validate your partner’s feelings and concerns, and approach the concern as teammates, not as “me versus you.”
If you avoid communication and conflict with your partner, or have difficulty expressing your feelings, I suggest enlisting the help of a relationship coach who can provide you with skills to help you become a better communicator. We often learn how to communicate from our childhood relationship role models, whether that be our parents or other adults. It takes time, energy, and effort to learn how to best use those learned communications skills in our own relationships, to make changes to our communication patterns, and learn how to communicate more effectively.
It takes two willing and open partners to find balance and learn how to communicate more effectively, and it can be done. However, if you put in the work and find you are the only one in the partnership willing to put forth the effort, you may have a decision to make. The important thing is to recognize and address frustrations before they become a ball of dust bunnies, instead of avoiding them for months until you become so “R” that your relationship is beyond repair.