Laura Gilliom, Ph.D.
A question I often hear in both couples and individual therapy is, "How do I let go of the resentment I feel toward (my partner, my family member, my friend, my co-worker, etc.)?"
Resentment is basically a cooler, less intense version of anger, a long-standing feeling that we have been wronged in some way. It may linger long after the event, and it may erupt into fury under the right circumstances. It can poison a relationship, it can poison the person holding the resentment, but it is very unlikely to change the resented behavior. Often the resented person is completely unaware. So, how does one let go of resentment? The following process can help.
First, examine your feelilngs.
What is it you resent, and why?
Is there hurt or fear underneath the resentment?
What are the assumptions and beliefs underlying the feeling of being wronged?
Do you resent others for similar behavior, or just this person?
What does holding onto resentment do for you? (For example, it can give you a feeling of righteousness or superiority, or it can keep you from facing your own role in the problem.)
What would be the benefits of letting go of resentment?
Second, consider the pros and cons of expressing your feelings to the resented person.
Is it something that can be changed?
Is it ongoing?
Is this person close to you?
Are you prepared to hear resentments they may feel toward you?
If yes to all, it's probably worthwhile to say something to the "resentee". Examples of situations that could probably benefit from honest communication: Your next door neighbor constantly lets his dog poop on your lawn. Your mother frequently interrupts you to tell you about something that happened to her. Your spouse regularly leaves dirty socks on the floor. Your best friend shares your confidences with others.
Examples where it may not help and may possibly do harm to express your feelings: Your father married a woman you can't stand. An aquaintance made a thoughtless comment. An elementary school classmate bullied you years ago.
Of course, there are many gray areas and situations where it's less clear. And in some cases it may help to say something even if happened long ago or only once. In particular, hurt and anger over something your intimate partner did, whether recently or much earlier in the relationship, should usually be expressed. Then there are some things which should not be simply let go. Serious violations such as abuse, harassment, or clearly illegal or unethical behavior are a different matter and require professional assistance.
If you decide to express your feelings, the way you do it is very important. Rather than simply blurting out your pet peeve, give some thought to how to approach it constructively. It may help to keep in mind three aspects of good communication outlined by David Burns, MD: Empathy, Assertiveness and Respect (EAR)¹. Say that you can see why they might be doing it, but that it has been having a negative impact on you. You may want to share some of what you've realized in thinking about the problem. Convey how much you value the relationship. Be open to hearing their perspective. For more about how to bring up a difficult topic in a close relationship, see my blog series on How to Fight Successfully.
If you decide not to express your feelings, OR if you express them and nothing changes (keep in mind that it may take more than one conversation to bring change), it's time to refocus your energies toward letting go. Letting go is a conscious choice not to dwell on the matter, and it is something you decide to do for your own benefit. It will take time and practice -- if it were easy, you would have already done it! You may need to find a new way to talk to yourself about it. For example,
"That's the way he is; he can't help it."
"I know she means well."
"I can handle it."
"I choose to focus on what I like about the person"
"I'm sure there are things about me that they aren't crazy about."
"It's not worth getting upset about."
"I'm freeing my mental space for something better."
It can also help to try and find compassion for the person. There may be a good reason they are not capable of better behavior. You are probably not the only person who resents their behavior.
Letting go starts with a decision, but it rarely ends there. You will probably have to take a deep breath and remind yourself of your intention to let go, and why, repeatedly. But it will get easier with practice, and the benefits to your sanity and to the relationship are priceless!
¹Burns, David (2008). Feeling Good Together: The secret to making troubled relationships work. Broadway Books, NY.
I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, but there are some things I have come to believe strongly about what constitutes being a "grownup." It doesn't always happen automatically as we achieve chronological and physical adulthood; sometimes we get stuck in childish ways. Growing up can be a lifelong process, in fact. However, it is my belief that striving to "grow up" will bring a more rewarding and meaningful life.
So, what characterizes a grownup? In my view, a grownup is someone who
These are a few of the characteristics that I see as being central to a "grownup" life. They are simple but certainly not easy. Often, learning these abilities is central to the work of therapy.
¹Weinberger, D., Giedd, J. & Elvevåg, B. (2005). The Adolescent Brain: A Work in Progress. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.
It is easy to think of lots of things that your partner could do better, or ways that he or she is just not measuring up to your idea of the ideal spouse/significant other. But how much time do you spend thinking of ways to make your partner happier? Be honest. Unless you are still in the early stages of romance, you probably spend a lot more time thinking about what to have for dinner than how to please your partner.
"But why should I?" You ask. "He/she is certainly not making any efforts to please me, at least not that I can see." That may or may not be true. But here is why you should give this some attention.
Are you convinced yet? I hope so. If not, let me tell you Sheila and John's story. After 15 years together, Sheila thought everything was fine, even great, in their marriage. Then she discovered that, unbeknownst to her, her husband was feeling sorely deprived of physical affection. Not sex, just the everyday hugging, kissing, cuddling kind. It took a crisis in their marriage for this to come out, because he'd never been one to complain even when he should. As someone who grew up in a family that was loving but not particularly touchy-feely, she didn't realize how important touch was for him in conveying love. In fact, she felt sort of smothered by his affection at times and would push him away. But once she realized that physical touch was her John's primary love language, she made a big effort to "speak" it more often. As she did so, she realized how little she had been touching him and how easy it was to give this gift to him. The more she did it, the more natural it felt and the more enjoyable it was for her too. He responded with lots of gratitude and with efforts to make her happier too. Their marriage is stronger than it has ever been.
If you want to take action to improve your relationship, think of what small everyday things make your partner feel loved and valued. Is it touch, like John? Is it making time for them? Is it complimenting them, cooking for them, writing love notes, laughing at their jokes? It's not necessarily the things you like best or the things that come most naturally, but if you think about it you probably know what it is. For more help, I highly recommend The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman.
Once you've identified one or two things, do them! Make a point of doing them every day, at least once, for at least a month. After that it will become much more natural and habitual to do. Chances are good that your relationship will be improved. And even in the worst case scenario -- if your partner does not reciprocate by making more effort him- or herself -- you will still be a better partner and a more generous person.
One of the most common problems reported by couples who come to therapy is "poor communication." By this they usually mean they either don't talk about difficult issues, or when they do, they get into fights. That in turn often leads to more avoidance of discussing difficult issues.
There are lots of ways of working on couple communication, including looking at deeper underlying factors. But one simple tool I often recommend to couples is a regular "couple meeting" where they can check in with each other and address any issues that may be bothering them. For couples who are not addressing problems effectively (or at all, in some cases) it provides structure and safety for bringing things up. The idea of a "meeting" can be less threatening than a "discussion" for some people, especially if there is a tendency toward conflict avoidance for one or both partners.
Couple meetings can also be a time for connecting at a deeper level on what's going on in each person's life. It is easy to become distant from each other when you don't make an effort to stay connected. Relationships need nurturing, and I often tell people that when it's most difficult to make time is when you need it the most. Of course, there are lots of ways to spend time together and connect besides a "meeting," but they can be one way that connection happens.
If you decide to try couple meetings, here are some basic guidelines to follow.
1. Agree on a time and place ahead of time. I usually recommend weekly couple meetings, but for some couples it works to simply call a meeting when one person has something to discuss. Ideally, it should be sometime when both partners are rested and won't be interrupted. Turn off phones, TVs, etc. Make sure children are occupied and know not to interrupt. If it's feasible, you may want to make it an outing for coffee/tea (not alcohol) or a meal.
2. Set a time limit. The amount of time can vary, but sticking to the agreed-upon limit is important. One big reason that some partners avoid communicating about problems is that they fear it will turn into a long, drawn out argument. If you have a time limit and stick to it you won't have that problem. If you reach the limit and are not finished, set a time to resume the discussion if it can't wait until the next scheduled meeting.
3. Establish some ground rules. In addition to a time limit, you may want to establish other rules for your meetings to ensure that they are a time for constructive discussion. It probably goes without saying that you should prohibit name-calling and yelling. Another ground rule might be that any topic that is brought up must be taken seriously.
4. When bringing up problems, express things in terms of how they affect you, not in terms of what your partner is doing wrong. Avoid blame and criticism. I discuss this in greater detail in my blog series on How to Fight Successfully.
5. Focus on one problem at at time. In fact, don't try to tackle more than one problem in a meeting. Limiting it to one will give you a greater chance of a good outcome and will avoid overwhelming either one of you.
6. Make sure each person gets to share their perspective on the problem. Again, see my previous blog posts for more on how to do this.
7. Use the meeting as a chance to express appreciation for the partner's efforts during the week, or for their willingness to listen and address problems. Even if there is a long way to go, look for reasons to be appreciative. Research on successful couples shows that they have a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Expressing appreciation whenever you can will help boost your ratio in the positive direction. And it's a good idea to end the meeting on a positive note.
8. At the next meeting, be sure to check in about how it's going with the issue addressed at the last meeting.
When couples are discussing a problem in their relationship, a very common pitfall is to go for solutions too soon. It's common because it's natural to want to reduce the tension by trying to solve the problem as quickly as possible. (This also happens for issues that are not couple issues. So many times I have heard one partner, usually the woman, complain that when they are venting about an issue at work or with a friend, the other keeps telling them what they should do about it, rather than just listening.) And men in particular are wired toward action and problem solving. So what's wrong with that? Why is it a pitfall?
Relationship problems are not like mechanical or technical problems; there are often complex emotions involved. If solutions are proposed too soon, they will likely fail, for two main reasons:
1. The partner bringing up the issue may not feel fully heard. He or she may feel patronized or that the other person just wants to get the conversation over with. As I emphasized in part 2, being heard is extremely important.
2. The issue has not been fully understood from both perspectives. If the husband brings up the issue of the wife working late, and the wife says, "Fine, I'll come home earlier," they have likely not solved the problem. They may be ignoring real pressures on the wife at her job, or her history of perfectionism, or the husband's feeling of being unappreciated. A solution that does not take these factors into account is not likely to succeed.
So, even though it can be anxiety-provoking to postpone the solution part of a discussion, it's important to do so until each side has been fully expressed and heard. The good news is that once you have done that part, it is much easier to resolve. In fact, sometimes just hearing and understanding each other's point of view is all that is needed. Once you understand the reasons for your partner's and your own behavior, it may cease to be a problem, because you may find that it was your interpretation of the behavior that was bothering you and not the behavior itself. For example, when I was staying home with our children I used to be offended when my husband would come home and immediately start straightening up the kitchen. I felt he was silently criticizing my failure to keep things neat, when clearly he had no idea what a challenge it was with two small children around. After we discussed it, I learned that he felt guilty about being away all day and was simply trying to contribute to the housework. From then on, I didn't mind his straightening one bit.
In the cases where change is still needed in addition to understanding, it is usually much easier once you have that understanding. Sometimes the solutions are obvious. You will be much likelier to come up with something that takes both partner's perpectives into account. And, when changes don't happen instantly or perfectly, you will likely be much more forgiving.
If solutions are not obvious at this point, here are some ways to move toward resolution:
Say what you want. Example: "When your mother is here, I'd really like you to back me up if she criticizes my parenting." The other partner should repeat back what they heard, and say whether they are willing to try to make the change.
Say what you're willing to do to help support the change. Example: "I will try extra hard to tell you how much I appreciate it when you do back me up. Also, I will let you know when it happens if you miss it."
Do not agree to a change that you will resent or are not motivated to make. If this is the case, further exploration may be needed.
Revisit the issue soon. Ask how your partner is feeling about the issue and anything they have been trying to do differently. Be sure to show appreciation for efforts to change or efforts to be more accepting.
Recognize that some changes will take time and some may not be possible. For example, one husband asked his wife to read the newspaper more often so that they could discuss current events. She tried to comply but he wasn't really satisfied. Eventually, it became clear that what he really wanted was for her to be more intellectually curious, which was not something she was able to change about herself. Sometimes you need to work on acceptance of the other's limitations while appreciating their strengths.
If you follow all or even some of these guidelines, you and your partner should become more successful at "fighting." That is, you will identify issues, hear each other out, and make progress toward a solution. It may not even look or sound like a fight at all!
So you've taken the plunge and brought up a difficult issue with your partner, or maybe they've brought one up with you. Good! The next step is to make sure both partner's perspectives are really and truly heard -- otherwise you won't get very far. If you've been thoughtful about how you brought the issue up, you are more likely to be heard, but that's just the beginning.
Making sure both sides are heard:
Each partner should have a chance to express their views and feelings while the other listens. Depending on the complexity of the issue, this may take one brief conversations or several longer ones. (Some issues may be ongoing conversations you have throughout your partnership, such as those involving political or religious differences. Obviously such big topics are never "resolved," but they can become a source of lively debate and discovery.)
When you are speaking, you should express your feelings, acknowledge your part in the issue, and be respectful, as described in Part 1. For example, "I've noticed you've been sleeping later and later on weekend mornings, which leaves me to deal with the kids all by myself. I know I said I'm a morning person, but that doesn't mean I want to do morning duty every weekend. I've also realized I'm sensitive to this because my dad used to sleep most of the day on weekends because he'd been drinking all night, and we had to tiptoe around so we wouldn't wake him. I hated it!"
When you are listening, try to put aside your own feelings for the moment and be open and curious about what your partner has to say. You may very well learn something new if you are open to it. This means not preparing your defense or looking for holes in your partner's argument. The goal is not to win the argument but to try to understand each other. It's quite likely your partner has very good reasons for doing the things that you don't like, and that understanding those reasons will get you closer to a solution. Listening well is actually quite difficult, especially when you may feel defensive. For an excellent book on this topic, see The Lost Art of Listening, by Michael P. Nichols.
A really helpful technique for the listener is to periodically reflect back or paraphrase what you've heard your partner say. You may have heard this called "active listening." For example, "What I heard you saying is, 'When I sleep late on weekends, you feel resentful because you end up having to take care of the kids all by yourself for several hours. Not only that, it reminds you of how your dad used to be hungover every weekend, which you hated.' Is that right?" This is not the way most of us have conversations, so it can feel strange at first. However, it's very valuable for making sure you are understanding what your partner is trying to say, because we frequently mishear and misinterpret things. Even more crucial, your repeating things back lets your partner know you've heard them. Never underestimate the importance of being heard. It can heal old resentments, bring immense relief, and allow us to let go of our anger and become open to our partner's point of view.
When the first speaker has said all he or she wants to say about his/her feelings on the subject, switch roles. In some cases you may need to take a break before doing so, either because there is a lot to say or to let the other partner gather his or her thoughts. Just make sure to come back to it. When both partners have expressed their perspective and have felt heard by the other, you are ready to move toward a solution.
All couples fight (or at least disagree), but not all couples fight successfully. What is a successful fight? One where
1) an issue is brought up,
2) both sides are heard, and
3) there is progress toward resolving the issue.
Is it resolved forever? Probably not, but usually there is some new understanding and possibly some ideas for how to do it differently in the future. I can always tell when couples have had a successful fight when they call it a "talk" instead of a fight! Let's talk about the three components of the "fight." In this post I'll address the first one:
Bringing up a difficult issue: The way you bring up your concern or complaint can make all the difference in whether you have a productive discussion or a fight.
Timing is key. Bad times include right when your partner walks in the door, when they are in the middle of something that takes concentration (even if it's "just" a TV show), right before going to sleep, or when you're extremely angry. It's best to check whether it's a good time to talk. If it's not, ask when would be a good time.
Even more important is how you bring it up. If you accuse or blame, your partner is likely to get defensive immediately. Instead, talk about how the issue affects you. Notice the difference between, "I can't believe you're going out with your stupid friends again tonight -- it's so selfish of you!" and, "I've been missing our time together. When you see your friends so often it makes me feel like you'd rather be with them than with me."
Acknowledge that you may play a part in the dynamic, without assuming it's all your fault, e.g., "Is there some reason I've been less fun to be around lately?"
Describe behavior, not personality traits or pathology. "You've gone out with your friends three nights this week," is much better than, "you're becoming way too dependent on your friends."
Be respectful. Calling your partner names or swearing at them is guaranteed to escalate the fight and lessen your chance of being heard, even though it might feel good in the moment. This is a good reason not to bring things up in the heat of anger.
It may seem obvious, but your partner can't read your mind -- no matter how much they love you. To have a productive discussion, you have to bring up what's bothering you. It takes some maturity and self-awareness to know what you're feeling and to express it clearly and kindly. Holding it in for the sake of avoiding conflict just creates resentment and distance in the long run. This doesn't mean you should complain constantly, either. Don't sweat the small stuff, but don't ignore the big stuff.
Since the way you initiate a discussion is so important, it's a good idea to take some time to get clear in your mind what you want to say before saying it. You don't have to have a whole script written out (although if you are very conflict avoidant this could be helpful), just be clear about how you see the problem and what your feelings are.
In the next posts, I'll address how to make sure both sides are heard and how to move toward resolution. Hint: Be ready to listen as well as talk!