What causes resentment in a relationship?

It is difficult for a relationship to thrive on its own, as any healthy and functional relationship involves active participation from both partners. If we simply wait for our partner to fulfill all our needs and desires without even expressing what those needs and desires are, and then complain and criticize them when they fail to meet our unrealistic expectations, we shouldn't be surprised when emotional distance between us grows, and we start feeling increasingly frustrated, upset, and conflicted.

Love is shown not only through words, as words unsupported by actions mean nothing. It is also shown through consistent behavior, a willingness to invest time and energy in the relationship, a willingness to communicate, even about painful things if it helps overcome certain relational obstacles or blockages, through respect and appreciation shown to each other, and through wanting them to be well, even if their wellbeing doesn't align with your own idea of what is “good”

When you love, you build together, you truly listen to them, and you don't try to impose your point of view just to satisfy your need to be right and your need for control. You take their wants and needs into account, but you don't forget about yourself. You don't give up on your dreams, aspirations, needs, and desires because you know that doing so will only make you build up frustrations when the "reward" you expect is delayed. If your partner doesn't reciprocate your efforts, sacrifices, and compromises, it's very possible that you'll start to be resentful. You might feel like you've invested so much for nothing. You might feel betrayed. You might feel humiliated or "taken for granted."

The mistake you make is that even though you notice that you don't have that much in common, that you have different future visions and what you want from a relationship, that there are more and more things you dislike about your partner, and that the relationship between you has considerably cooled, you start deluding yourself into thinking that if you make enough sacrifices and compromises, if you give up enough of yourself, if you change yourself so your partner will like you more and behave the way you want, they will do the same for you.

You cling to your partner because you need someone else's attention, affection, and love. You still don't know how to provide these things for yourself, to value and love yourself. You still have wounds and traumas from the past to heal. You end up doing anything for that person hoping that you'll be rewarded for your efforts. The more a person gives of what they lack themselves, the more they will cling to the person they've invested in, hoping for an equivalent return on their investment. If you don't get the response you want, you might try to manipulate and emotionally blackmail your partner: "after all I've done for you, you can't even do this for me...," "You've ruined my life," "I've sacrificed so much for you, and you don't show even a bit of gratitude," etc. This kind of relational dynamic is destructive for the relationship and gradually leads to resentment, contempt, anger, and even hatred towards the partner you once loved.

In addition to the sacrifices and compromises made while waiting for a reward that never comes, trying to change your partner  is another factor that leads to resentment.

When someone doesn't appreciate or like you for who you are (because that is why they want to change you), when they make you feel like you're not good enough (if you were good enough, they wouldn't try to change you), when they constantly criticize you, nag you incessantly, compare you to others to induce feelings of shame or guilt ("why can't you be like X's husband/wife?," "why can't you do what X did, look how well they're doing?"), when they use what they know about you to manipulate you in an attempt to transform you into their ideal partner, it's impossible for you to feel good, confident, satisfied, and fulfilled in that relationship.

Like a Chinese water torture, continuous criticism and disapproval erode your self-esteem, attack your masculinity or femininity, because these roles are primarily subject to accusations and reproaches: "what kind of man are you if you can't even...," "what kind of woman are you if you can't even...". Your partner becomes an aggressor from whom you gradually distance yourself. You might feel angry or sad because you feel despised, because you feel that the other person doesn't treat you with respect, doesn't like you, and doesn't admire you for who you truly are.

These two situations described above are examples of situations that fuel the negative thoughts you have about your partner. The more time you spend nurturing such behaviors and attitudes, the more these negative thoughts intensify, and the multitude of negative thoughts and emotions towards your partner can lead to resentment. For example, if you feed a behavior like "I sacrifice myself for you, so you should, whether you want to or not, sacrifice yourself for me," but you don't receive the expected reward in return, you begin to think negatively about your partner and feel anger, a desire for revenge, contempt, and become hostile, and so on. If you try to change the other person just to better fit an ideal in your mind, it's as if you're disregarding them from the start. The more they resist the change you're trying to impose, the more you end up despising them.

The expectation that the other person should fulfill all your dreams, expectations, desires, or needs, and that they should take responsibility for your life and wellbeing regardless of the costs they have to bear, turns your partner into a tool for satisfying your selfish interests. If they no longer submit to you, if they don't fulfill the obligations you've imposed on them, they're no longer good, no longer worth much in your eyes, and you stop loving them. A person who is treated this way, who is emotionally manipulated and blackmailed, who is not appreciated and loved for who they are but only for how they do or do not meet the other person's interests and demands, will eventually (or not) open their eyes and realize they've been used, manipulated, and lied to, that they haven't actually been loved. When they reach that point, they will inevitably start feeling anger, resentment, disgust, and disappointment. They will feel hurt and betrayed, as if they've been fooled or cheated, and they will start to despise you.

Other negative and destructive behaviors that stem from negative feelings and lead to more negative feelings include:

Your partner belittles, criticizes, and humiliates you - no matter what you do, nothing is ever good enough for them, and their criticism is more like insults than suggestions for improvement.

Your needs and desires are ignored, and you don't feel supported, understood, listened to, or seen - what you feel and what you want don't matter, and you constantly find yourself doing things against your will or desires, either because you're coerced or manipulated or because you want to avoid an argument.

You are mocked and ridiculed - your partner gives you derogatory nicknames and names, is sarcastic towards you, your words and opinions are ridiculed, and there is nonverbal language through which your partner shows disapproval (for example, rolling their eyes).

Your partner tries to control you, and you feel trapped, and all you do is satisfy their need to hold power over you, to dictate what you can and can’t do, when, how, with whom.

Your partner constantly corrects you -whether you're wrong or not, your partner always finds fault and comes up with even the most insignificant reasons to contradict you and prove how wrong you are. This is a way to make you doubt yourself so they can manipulate you more easily.  The goal is for you to please them and submit to their every desire.

Avoiding intimacy - there are many excuses for avoiding intimacy, but the truth is that every day you can dedicate certain moments to strengthen your relationship and connect emotionally, physically, or intellectually. It's about setting priorities and paying attention to your partner. When intimacy starts to be avoided, your partner may accumulate more and more frustrations and resentments.

The best antidote for the negative feelings you have towards your partner is to express what bothers you when it bothers you, not allowing frustrations and negative emotions to build up. Make your voice heard, express your needs and desires. Say what you no longer want and what you want from your relationship.

Also, become aware of what stops you from saying these things, why you're afraid, and work on yourself to resolve those issues. Once you communicate openly, try to reach a consensus if possible, and if it's not possible, carefully consider what keeps you in that relationship (you can even make a list of pros and cons) because often the reasons are just excuses and justifications: "I won't leave because I think about the kids," but in reality, you're afraid to take charge of your own life and thus find a reason to stay in an unhappy or toxic relationship.

Another important aspect is not to forget that where you direct your attention, you also direct your energy, and you end up nurturing those aspects. For example, if you focus on your partner's negative aspects, you'll likely experience more of those aspects. Instead of imposing, criticizing, focusing on the negative, or finding fault, focus on the positive aspects (they certainly exist), express appreciation and encouragement to your partner, praise them. Do nice and positive things for them every day, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. People become defensive or withdraw when they feel judged, when they feel we're not interested in them and what they have to communicate, when we try to manipulate them because we have hidden intentions, when we treat them with superiority, or when we try to control them.

In the long run, an attitude based on nurturing feelings of mutual admiration and appreciation strengthens the relationship. Where there is admiration and appreciation, there is no room for contempt, but we can’t fake these feelings; they must genuinely exist for us to nurture them later. For example, if you are in a relationship crisis, the first step is to resolve that crisis, not to pretend that everything is fine and that you appreciate each other in the hope that it will erase everything problematic. Problematic aspects must be confronted and resolved just as positive aspects must be nurtured and appreciated.

Observe yourself honestly - before blaming your partner for the relationship problems, for your unhappiness, or for anything else, ask yourself what your contribution is in that situation, what your share of responsibility is, what you could do better next time, and what you need to respond differently next time (for example, better self-control).

Observe and evaluate the relationship honestly - relationships based on compatibility, respect, and love can eventually stop working because partners neglect each other, no longer communicate, or fail to communicate effectively, or a life situation shakes their relational balance, etc. These situations can be overcome through efforts from both sides, through both partners' willingness to work on the relationship. However, there are also situations where the relationship may not have been based on love and compatibility but on interests, needs, momentary attraction, or the desire to have a family (even with the wrong partner). In such situations, when there is no solid foundation, conflicts, reproaches, resentments, and disrespectful behaviors can easily arise.

Your goal is to be honest with yourself and recognize your reasons for being in that relationship and whether you see a future together. For example, if you can't stand the mere presence of your partner in the same room anymore, well... Or if there has been abuse for years and years, this kind of behavior leaves such deep marks that they can’t be overlooked, and the relationship has nothing left to support it but resentment.

Seek professional help - therapy or couples counseling can help you realize whether the relationship can still be saved, whether you genuinely want to continue that relationship, what you need, what changes you need to make, and how you can make them to both feel that the relationship is a place where you are safe, appreciated, pleased, and at peace. The necessary condition is that both partners want to start and actively participate in this process.

Unresolved issues in a relationship that are denied or repressed instead of being solved lead to resentment. Suppressing your own voice, refusing to say what bothers you or harms you, difficulty in setting healthy boundaries and limits, submission, compromises, and sacrifices made at the expense of your own wellbeing lead to resentment.

Not feeling heard and valued, feeling that you don't matter, that your partner ignores you or treats you with indifference - all of these lead to dissatisfaction, frustration, conflicts, and the withdrawal of affection, and nothing is ever resolved that way.

It's important to be aware of the direction your relationship is heading and to have an honest and open discussion with your partner about what's happening. Calm and rational communication, empathy, understanding, and respect for your partner instead of mutual accusations help you learn to function together as a team rather than as rival camps on a battlefield.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


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