Why Resentment Forms in Relationships and How to Overcome It

by | Last updated Apr 22, 2024

Resentment is a complex and corrosive emotion that can slowly poison even the strongest of relationships. It’s a mix of anger, disappointment, and fear that festers when one partner feels consistently mistreated or taken for granted.

If you find yourself wondering what resentment is in a relationship and noticing potential signs of resentment between you and your partner, you’re not alone. Many couples struggle with resentment and its toxic effects. The good news is that by understanding what causes resentment in relationships and how to recognize it, you’ve already taken the first steps toward healing.

What is Resentment in a Relationship?

Resentment in relationships is characterized by persistent anger, frustration, and bitterness towards a partner. It often stems from unresolved conflicts, unmet needs, or a perceived lack of fairness in the relationship.

This sense of unfairness leads to simmering anger, frustration and even contempt toward the other person. Rather than expressing these feelings directly, the resentful partner often pulls away emotionally, and they may become increasingly bitter and hypercritical.

Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman describes resentment as a primary factor in the erosion of fondness and admiration between partners. As resentment takes root, partners lose their ability to give each other the benefit of the doubt and tend to respond to conflicts with increasing negativity.

What Causes Resentment in a Relationship?

Resentment in relationships often stems from deep-seated differences in expectations and unmet emotional needs. When we feel consistently deprived of the love, respect, and support we desire, bitterness and animosity can steadily take root. Some of the most common sources of resentment in relationships include:

  • Unmet Emotional Needs: One partner consistently feels emotionally neglected. Their bids for attention, affection, and reassurance go unreciprocated leading to feelings of rejection.
  • Unfair Division of Labor: One partner feels overburdened by housework, childcare, or earning responsibilities while the other neglects to contribute their fair share.
  • Power Imbalances: One partner dominates decision-making in the relationship or has significantly more say over finances, leading the other to feel unimportant or controlled.
  • Inconsistent Commitment: One partner is “all in” while the other blows hot and cold in terms of their dedication to the relationship and investment in its future.
  • Betrayals of Trust: Lying, emotional affairs, and breaches in privacy leave one partner feeling exposed and deeply hurt.
  • Invalidation: One partner’s feelings, thoughts, and perspectives are regularly dismissed, downplayed, or judged, leading to a sense that who they are is fundamentally unappreciated.

For those seeking a deeper understanding of the various relational theories linked to resentment, the following sections will explore the psychological foundations of resentment in relationships. If you prefer to bypass the detailed discussion, feel free to skip ahead to the the section on signs of resentment in relationships.

Emotional Abandonment and Attachment Insecurity

Renowned relationship therapist Dr. Sue Johnson – author of the book Hold Me Tight (a book I recommend couples of all stages read together) and the developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (one of the most popular models for couples therapy used today) – emphasizes the central role of attachment in understanding resentment between partners. According to EFT, we all have fundamental longings for secure attachments, to feel safely bonded to and loved by our significant others.

When a partner is emotionally present and attuned, we develop trust that they will be there for us when needed. But when a partner is distant, dismissive, or unreliable, a sense of abandonment can trigger primal fears, leading to resentment over time.

Unmet attachment needs often lurk beneath the surface of more obvious conflicts. A partner who angrily criticizes may be masking a fear of rejection and an anxious need for reassurance. An emotionally withdrawn partner may be numbing against the pain of feeling neglected.

These “Demon Dialogues,” as Dr. Johnson calls them, can take three main forms:

  1. Pursue-Withdraw: The pursue-withdraw pattern occurs when one partner increasingly makes demands while the other pulls away. The pursuer feels increasingly frantic and abandoned while the withdrawer feels attacked and suffocated.
  2. Criticize-Defend: Conflicts escalate as one partner blames and attacks while the other counterattacks or acts like a helpless victim. Both feel misunderstood and resentful.
  3. Mutual Withdrawal: Both partners shut down and stop risking vulnerability. They simmer in private resentment without actively bridging the gap.

Example of Attachment Insecurity Leading to Resentment

Imagine Susan and David, a couple locked in a pursue-withdraw dance. Susan longs for more time together, but the more she reaches for David, the more he immerses himself in work, claiming he’s too pressured to connect. Underneath, unspoken resentments churn on both sides.

Susan feels abandoned, interpreting David’s unavailability as proof she’s unlovable. Her critical jabs – “Why even be married if we never spend time together?” – mask a craving for reassurance. David, flooded by her criticism, reads it as a sign of disrespect and pulls away to avoid feeling controlled. Privately, he stews with resentment over Susan’s apparent neediness and the feeling of being unseen and misunderstood.

Susan and David would greatly benefit from learning healthier communication strategies to break their pursue-withdraw cycle and heal their resentment toward one another. Later in the article I’ll discuss specific steps you can take to overcome resentment in a relationship.

Inequity and the Struggle for Fairness

Resentment also thrives when partners experience real or perceived unfairness in the relationship. When couples feel that the give and take of their relationship is out of balance, bitterness and animosity can take root.

The Importance of Positive Interactions

Dr. John Gottman’s research highlights the significance of maintaining a positive equilibrium in relationships. Happy couples, he found, have a high ratio of positive to negative interactions. They build goodwill through consistent acts of turning towards each other – responding to bids for attention, showing interest, and expressing appreciation.

Conversely, when the ratio dips too heavily into the negative – with more moments of criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, or contempt – resentment is often not far behind. Left unaddressed, these negative interactions can bleed goodwill from the relationship.

Social Exchange Theory and Equity in Relationships

Social exchange theory provides a useful framework for understanding how perceptions of fairness impact relationship satisfaction. According to this theory:

  • We approach relationships with an expectation of reciprocity and equity.
  • We mentally tally the costs (time, effort, compromise) and rewards (love, support, pleasure) of our relationships.
  • We feel most content when there’s a positive balance of rewards to costs and both partners are investing relatively equally.

Disruptions in this delicate balance can lead to feelings of resentment in two key ways:

  1. Under-benefitting: Partners who feel they’re putting in far more than they’re getting back – whether emotionally, domestically, or financially – may grow resentful. They may feel unappreciated, exploited, or like their needs don’t matter.
  2. Over-benefitting: Interestingly, research suggests partners on the receiving end of an imbalanced exchange may also experience resentment. Receiving more than they’re giving can trigger guilt, fears of inadequacy, or anxiety about the implicit strings attached.

Breeding Grounds for Resentment

Everyday pressures can easily disrupt feelings of equity and fairness in a relationship.

  • Imbalanced Workloads: Inequitable division of household chores, childcare, or earning responsibilities can leave partners feeling unsupported and underappreciated.
    • Example: A working mother carrying the brunt of “invisible labor” at home while her partner remains oblivious to the scope of her efforts.
  • Mismatched Contributions: When one partner feels they’re sacrificing more for the relationship (financially, emotionally, or logistically), seeds of resentment may grow.
    • Example: A partner accepting a demanding job to support the family, while the other fails to recognize their career compromises.
  • Neglected Needs: If one partner consistently feels their emotional needs (for affection, quality time, appreciation) are neglected, they may stew in the perceived unfairness.
    • Example: A husband stung by his wife’s lack of interest in his hobbies and conversation attempts.

As these examples illustrate, perceptions matter. Even if a partner is investing heavily in the relationship, failure to invest in the ways that matter most to the other can breed resentment. The key is maintaining a positive ratio – with more moments of appreciation and responsiveness than criticism or dismissal.

Negative Attributions and Distortions

The feeling of resentment can distort the way we perceive and interpret our partner’s actions (i.e. distortions). This is a common source of conflict and disconnection for couples. These distortions often lead to negative attributions, which is when we ascribe their actions to factors such as personality flaws or malicious intentions, rather than considering the situation or giving them the benefit of the doubt.

For example, imagine a situation where a partner arrives home late from work. In a resentful mindset, we might attribute their lateness to a lack of respect or consideration for our time, rather than considering the possibility of unexpected traffic or a last-minute work emergency. Similarly, if a partner forgets to complete a household chore, we may attribute it to laziness rather than acknowledging the genuine busyness of their schedule. Over time, these negative attributions can solidify into rigid, negative beliefs about our partner’s character and the relationship itself.

Cognitive distortions and negative attributions can fuel destructive communication patterns, such as criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. When we approach our partner with a hostile or accusatory tone, it often triggers a defensive response, leading to a spiral of negative interactions. Each hurtful exchange reinforces our belief that our partner is selfish, inconsiderate, or intentionally hurtful, further entrenching the cycle of resentment.

Consider a couple caught in this negative cycle:

Partner A, feeling neglected, accusingly asks, “Why do you always prioritize your friends over me?”

Partner B, feeling unfairly attacked, responds defensively, “Sorry, I didn’t realize I needed your permission to have a social life.”

In this interaction, Partner A’s negative attribution (assuming their partner intentionally prioritizes friends over the relationship) leads to a critical question, which in turn triggers Partner B’s defensive response. Both partners are left feeling misunderstood, unheard, and attacked, fueling further resentment and distrust.

As this pattern repeats, the atmosphere of resentment grows thicker, and partners begin to filter every interaction through a lens of negativity. They become hypervigilant for signs of threat or disrespect, reading malicious intent into even innocent comments or actions. This distorted perception perpetuates the cycle of conflict and withdrawal, making it increasingly difficult for the couple to break free from the grip of resentment.

To overcome this destructive dynamic, couples must learn to challenge their negative attributions and distortions. This involves practicing empathy, considering alternative explanations for their partner’s behavior, and communicating their own needs and feelings assertively, without blame or accusation. By replacing the lens of resentment with one of understanding and compassion, couples can begin to heal the wounds of the past and build a more loving, trusting connection.

Betrayals of Trust

Perhaps no wound strikes as deep as a major betrayal of trust. Infidelities, lies, and boundary violations can shatter the safe haven of a relationship, leaving the hurt partner fearful and vigilant.

As Dr. Harriet Lerner discusses in her book The Dance of Anger, a history of serious hurt can leave us braced against further pain. The once-betrayed partner may vacillate between clinging and pushing away, torn between longings for reassurance and fear of future betrayal.

Even years after the fact, unprocessed pain can keep couples locked in a cycle of blame and defensiveness. The hurt partner feels unable to forgive without a guarantee of safety. The offending partner grows resentful and impatient, falsely assuming wounds should have healed.

Overcoming resentment after a major rupture requires a delicate rebuilding of trust, with the offending partner taking gradual steps to demonstrate reliability and the wounded partner incrementally risking vulnerability.

For example, a couple healing from an affair might start with small moments of restored trust – the offending partner consistently checking in by text as promised. Over time these low-cost/high-frequency deposits in the “trust bank account” can help counteract the tendency to view every mistake through a lens of suspicion.

Signs of Resentment in a Relationship

Resentment can be an insidious presence in a relationship, slowly eroding connection and goodwill. It’s not always easy to recognize when this corrosive emotion has taken hold. Here are some of the most common signs of resentment in relationships:

  1. Persistent Irritation: You find yourself feeling chronically annoyed or frustrated with your partner, even over minor issues. Their habits, quirks, or simple requests grate on your nerves, sparking disproportionate anger or irritation.
  2. Hypersensitivity to Slights: You’re quick to interpret your partner’s actions or words as disrespectful, uncaring, or deliberately hurtful. You may read malicious intent into innocent mistakes or oversights, feeling chronically slighted or attacked.
  3. Keeping Score: You mentally tally every instance of your partner falling short or letting you down. You keep a running list of grievances, silently stewing over each perceived slight or inequity. This scorecard of offenses looms large in your mind.
  4. Withdrawal and Avoidance: You find yourself pulling away from your partner, both emotionally and physically. You may minimize interactions, avoid intimacy, or detach during conversations. The thought of vulnerable connection feels exhausting or futile.
  5. Sarcasm and Contempt: Your communication is laced with biting sarcasm, eye-rolling, or dismissive language. You may mock your partner’s feelings, engage in name-calling, or use a condescending tone. Even “jokes” have a sharp, hurtful edge.
  6. Lack of Empathy: You struggle to see situations from your partner’s perspective or acknowledge the validity of their feelings. Their distress is met with coldness or indifference rather than compassion and understanding.
  7. Fantasizing About Escape: You frequently daydream about life without your partner. You may fantasize about leaving the relationship, having an affair, or starting fresh with someone new. These mental escapes provide a sense of relief or excitement.
  8. Withholding Affection: You withhold physical affection, praise, or expressions of love, perhaps as a form of punishment or self-protection. You may also withhold forgiveness after conflicts, refusing to grant absolution or let go of past hurts.
  9. Loss of Fondness and Admiration: The positive regard you once held for your partner has faded. You struggle to remember their admirable qualities or the experiences that once drew you together. Warm feelings have been eclipsed by disappointment or bitterness.
  10. Assuming the Worst: You automatically jump to negative conclusions about your partner’s motives or character. You may catastrophize minor frustrations, viewing them as evidence of an irredeemably flawed relationship. Benefit of the doubt is in short supply.

It’s important to note that experiencing one or two of these signs occasionally doesn’t necessarily indicate deep-seated resentment. Conflict and negative feelings can be a normal part of intimate relationships.

However, if you’re consistently grappling with several of these experiences, it may signal that resentment has become an undercurrent in your relationship. This is a cue to pause, reflect, and consider what unmet needs or unresolved hurts may be fueling your feelings of resentment.

Steps to Overcome Resentment in Your Relationship

Overcoming resentment in a relationship is a process that requires introspection, communication, and a willingness for partners to challenge entrenched patterns of thinking and relating to one another. Resentment thrives in silence and isolation. When we bottle up our hurt, anger, and frustration, these feelings can fester and grow, slowly eroding the foundation of our relationship. Breaking the silence and openly acknowledging the presence of resentment is a critical first step in the healing process. It takes courage to voice our feelings and vulnerabilities, but doing so opens the door to understanding, empathy, and positive change.

As you embark on this journey, consider the following questions to guide your reflection and dialogue:

  • When did we start feeling resentful? Was there a specific turning point or has it built up slowly over time?
  • What unspoken needs or hopes do we each have that don’t feel met in the relationship right now? Where have we felt disappointed or let down?
  • In what ways have we each contributed to the dynamic of resentment? What tends to trigger us and how do we typically react?
  • How can we take turns listening to each other’s perspectives with empathy and acknowledging each other’s feelings as valid, even if we see things differently?

Exploring these questions together can help you gain clarity on the roots of your resentment and develop a shared understanding of the work ahead. Remember to approach these conversations with patience, openness, and a commitment to mutual growth.

Here are some additional key steps to guide you on the journey to overcoming resentment in your relationship:

1. Acknowledge and Validate Your Feelings

The first step in overcoming resentment is to honestly acknowledge its presence in your relationship. This means giving yourself permission to feel the hurt, anger, and frustration that have accumulated over time. Validate these feelings without judgment or self-censorship.

  • Take time to sit with your emotions and understand their roots. What unmet needs or unresolved hurts lie beneath your resentment?
  • Practice self-compassion. Recognize that your feelings are valid and understandable given your experiences. Extend the same kindness and understanding to yourself that you would offer a close friend.

2. Shift from Blame to Understanding

Resentment often thrives on a diet of blame and finger-pointing. To break this cycle, work on shifting your focus from assigning fault to seeking understanding.

  • Challenge the fundamental attribution error. Remind yourself that your partner’s actions are influenced by a complex mix of situational factors, not just stable character traits.
  • Practice empathy. Try to see situations from your partner’s perspective. What emotions, needs, or fears might be driving their behavior?
  • Recognize your own role. Reflect on how your own actions, assumptions, or communication style may be contributing to the dynamic.

3. Express Your Feelings and Needs Assertively

Resentment often grows when we fail to communicate our feelings and needs directly. Learning to express ourselves assertively can help break this pattern.

  • Use “I feel” statements to express your emotions and experiences without blame or accusation. For example, “I feel hurt and alone when we go long periods without meaningful conversation,” instead of “You never make time for me.”
  • Be specific about your needs and requests. Instead of making global criticisms (“You’re so selfish”), express specific, actionable desires (“I need us to set aside quality time together each week”).
  • Approach the conversation with a spirit of collaboration, not combat. Frame it as an opportunity to work together to improve the relationship, not an attack on your partner’s character.

4. Cultivate Gratitude and Appreciation

Resentment narrows our focus to the negative aspects of our partner and the relationship. Consciously cultivating gratitude can help rebalance this skewed perspective.

  • Make a daily practice of noticing and expressing appreciation for your partner’s positive qualities and actions, no matter how small.
  • Keep a gratitude journal where you record things your partner has done that you’re thankful for. Review it regularly to counteract the pull of negative thinking.
  • Verbally acknowledge your partner’s efforts and contributions. Let them know you see and value the ways they show up for you and the relationship.

5. Nurture Friendship and Shared Joy

Resentment can make us forget the friendship and shared history that form the bedrock of our relationship. Actively nurturing these positive elements can help reignite feelings of warmth and connection.

  • Prioritize quality time together. Set aside regular opportunities to have fun, laugh, and create new positive memories.
  • Engage in shared activities and hobbies that bring you both joy. Look for ways to re-experience the playfulness and adventure of your early days together.
  • Try some emotional intimacy building exercises for couples.
  • Express physical affection (if and when it feels safe to do so). Physical connection can help soften the edges of resentment.

6. Practice Forgiveness

Holding onto past hurts and grievances is a surefire recipe for ongoing resentment. Learning to forgive – both your partner and yourself – is essential for moving forward.

  • Recognize that forgiveness is a choice you make for your own well-being, not a free pass for hurtful behavior. It’s about releasing the pain of the past so you can heal in the present.
  • Communicate your forgiveness directly to your partner. Let them know you’re choosing to release past resentments and start fresh.
  • Extend forgiveness to yourself, too. Acknowledge any ways you’ve contributed to the negative dynamic and commit to making amends and learning from these experiences.

7. Establish Healthy Boundaries

Sometimes, resentment arises from a lack of healthy boundaries in the relationship. Learning to set and maintain clear limits can help prevent the buildup of toxic feelings.

  • Get clear on your non-negotiables. What behaviors or dynamics are unacceptable to you in a relationship? Communicate these clearly to your partner.
  • Practice saying no when you need to. Don’t take on more than you can handle or agree to things that breed resentment.
  • Hold your partner accountable. If they cross a line or break an agreement, address it directly and request a change in behavior.

8. Consider Professional Support

If you’re struggling to break free from the grip of resentment on your own, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. A skilled couples therapist can provide invaluable guidance and tools for navigating this challenging terrain.

  • Couples therapy offers a safe, neutral space to express your feelings, needs, and concerns.
  • A therapist can help you develop more effective communication and conflict-resolution skills.
  • They can also guide you in uncovering and healing the deeper attachment wounds that often underlie chronic resentment.

Remember, overcoming resentment is a journey, not a singular event. It requires ongoing commitment, patience, and a willingness to lean into vulnerability and growth. Be gentle with yourself and your partner as you navigate this process. Celebrate each small step forward and trust that, with intentional effort, a renewed sense of connection and understanding is possible.

Final Words: From Resentment to Renewal

Resentment is a complex and painful emotion that can slowly erode a relationship. When left unchecked, it can create a vicious cycle of negativity, coloring our perceptions, interactions, and sense of connection with our partner.

However, by understanding the roots of resentment and recognizing its signs, we empower ourselves to break free from its grip. We can choose to replace the lens of bitterness and blame with one of empathy, curiosity, and understanding.

The journey of overcoming resentment is not an easy one. It requires courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to challenge deeply ingrained patterns of thinking and relating. But the rewards of this work are immeasurable. As we learn to communicate our needs assertively, practice gratitude, nurture our friendship, and establish healthy boundaries, we create space for genuine healing and reconnection.

As you embark on this journey with your partner, hold fast to the knowledge that transformation is possible. With patience, perseverance, and a shared dedication to growth, you can gradually replace the toxicity of resentment with the nourishing warmth of connection, trust, and love.

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