Resentment: The silent relationship killer

Resentment: The silent relationship killer

“Do you think your wife would ever leave you?” It was a jarring question, one that shook up routine coaching session. “Absolutely,” I said without any hesitation. I surprised myself with my answer’s assertiveness. It was a bit like jumping off a cliff at an amusement park. You trick your legs into jumping, a split second before your brain processes the “Holy sh*t” moment. But my wife (Lisa) and I both knew that there was resentment in our relationship. And understood its potential to wreck havoc.

The marriage overconfidence trap

Lisa and I often discuss the grim prognostications for marriage in the US, headlined by the 50% divorce rate. One out of every two marriages will end in divorce.

93% of drivers think they're above average. Does this overconfidence seep into your relationship?
Yup – and we’re also better than average at relationships

But it was the directness of my coach’s question shook me out of my overconfidence. 93% of drivers believe they’re better than average drivers – a statistical impossibility. The intellectual part of my brain clearly understood the statistics, yet my emotional brain said “Sure, but not us.”

So what’s the issue?

After all, on the surface we seem to have all of the preconditions for a thriving marriage. We’re financially secure. I’m not beholden to the 9-to-5, don’t have a boss, and complete professional autonomy. Heck, we’re even done saving for college. But during that split second, was my body telling me something that my brain wouldn’t acknowledge?

Kids, man. Kids

John Gottman is a psychology professor who studies marriage stability and divorce prediction from his famous “love lab.” In his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he confirmed what many new parents have experienced firsthand: marital satisfaction plummets after the birth of a first child.

67% of couples report a decline in marital satisfaction after the first child is born
New baby, who dis? Satisfaction plummets, resentment spikes

Why do 67% of couples “become very unhappy” during the first three years of their child’s life? Gottman’s research identifies a few reasons:

  • The frequency and intensity of relationship conflicts increases significantly
  • The fatigue makes it impossible to have an emotional connection
  • A baby does not emotionally “retreat” from an unhappy parent (and mom, in particular)
  • Though both parents work much harder after the birth of their child, they both feel unappreciated

Resentment: The inverse of appreciation

Appreciation is defined as the “recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of someone.” Simple, right? Not so fast. Appreciation – or should I say, the lack thereof – is the seedling of relationship resentment. Resentment acts as a relationship tax, forcefully injecting itself into every dimension of our marriage: money, in-laws, chores, vacations, and parenting philosophies. And left unchecked, it has some gnarly compounding effects.

This is just so damn hard

What’s more difficult, being the primary breadwinner or caretaker? The appreciation/resentment paradox is our post-industrial version of “To be, or not to be.” (Here, it’s important for me to disclaim that I can only speak about our own situation where we’ve consciously separated the breadwinner and caretaker roles.)

The fight for appreciation can look like a boxer's stare down.
You’ll appreciate me, by the time this is over

As the primary breadwinner, I think I have it harder. When I was part of the corporate grind, I’d point to the non-stop email and conference calls, navigation of internal politics and banality of corporate bureaucracy. Today, as a solopreneur, I’d add to the list cash flow volatility, untested business models, and watching your savings go down for nearly three years.

But being a primary caretaker is also damn hard. There’s the straight up physical (pregnancy, labor, soreness), emotional (post-partum, the “WTF is going on”), societal (the elusive hunt for the pre-baby bod, mom shaming), fatigue (breast-feeding, all-nighters, sleep training) and loss of freedom (naps, seriously, naps). And let’s not forget the emotional labor.

What's harder: Caretaker or caregiver? This is where the resentment begins

The kicker: identity

But on the caregiver side there’s the big kahuna: the loss of identity. With the snap of a finger, Lisa went from professionally-trained fine artist… to a Mother. Here’s how the (aptly named) Scary Mommy blog describes this shift:

I’m talking about the fact that in one quick instant, you go from being woman, girlfriend, wife, professional, artist, lover, free-thinking-doing-being-person to MOTHER. Just like that. And mother, at least at first, is bigger than all those other things, whether you want it to be or not.

During some of our trying moments, Lisa would lament how once paternity leave ended “You get to go back to being Khe from RadReads.”

Culture portrays women as mothers and wives and men as heroes
A true hero’s journey

Caregiver versus breadwinner: what’s harder?

This is the part where the Bros on the Internet like to hit back. A sampling of their arguments:

  • Have you ever been reamed out by your boss?
  • Do you know how much it sucks to fly cross-country for one meeting?
  • Have you ever had to update a PowerPoint at midnight on Friday?!?!

(Yes to all of the above, btw) And in the quiet corners of the Thursday Happy Hour you’ll start to hear the paternal grumblings: “What can possibly be so hard about napping all day, going out on mom dates (they drink, don’t they?) and playing peek-a-boo with a cute baby?” I know, because these thoughts have all crossed my mind.

The final verdict?

Guess what: Being a caregiver and breadwinner are both hard
Spoiler alert: Both of you deserve to be appreciated.

I hate to break it to you, but they’re both hard. In different ways. At different times. With different combos of physical and emotional. So let’s move on. But one thing is for damn sure: Everyone loses by dwelling on the unanswerable question of “Who has it harder?”

Resentment in action

Let’s leave the abstract and identify two specific examples where a droplet of resentment can quietly start sucking all of the air (and joy) out of a relationship: Economy Plus and Date Night.

Economy Plus

The decision to buy the extra legroom has always been a divisive issue within the RadReads community. It’s the classic paradox of delayed gratification – do you optimize for the journey or the destination?

But for us, the blow-out fights over $59 upgrades can be reduced to the resentment-driven question of “who has it harder?”

As the primary breadwinner, this frivolous purchase triggers hyper-vigilance against lifestyle creep, angst about our income uncertainty and fear of going broke. (All harbingers of the pernicious scarcity mindset.) And having gone from a really high income to a virtually non-existent one, makes me really insecure. So during that fight, deep inside there’s a scared little boy (I’m not being dramatic) pleading “Do you know how hard it is to make money on this path?”

The primary caretaker has their own gripes about the non-upgrade. The kid(s) will probably be more on her lap – she’s the gatekeeper of all the snacks, an on-premise supply of milk, and possesses the uncanny superpower to get them to nap in 17 inch seat. Come on, splurge on the $59 bucks for crissake.

Here’s the thing: this had nothing to do with Economy Plus and everything to do with years of built up resentment.

Date night

The next example is date night, long heralded as the savior to any marriage. Yet how does this act of relaxation turn into a source of resentment? Once again, the caregiver-breadwinner conflict rears its ugly head (courtesy of emotional labor). Let’s examine what happens from each perspective:

The Breadwinner (i.e. me) waltzes home, proud to have made the reservation on OpenTable and counting down the minutes until that first cocktail. After all, there was a big board meeting that week, so this is the night to blow some steam with your boo.

On the other hand, the Caregiver (Lisa) needs help getting the babysitter situated. The kids are hysterical because they’re not feeling the new sitter. Dinner needs to be prepped. Are the PJs out? Is the Apple TV set up? Oh and did you get the cash, like I asked? (Crap!) Next thing you know, we’re 45 minutes into dinner staring down at our plates in silence.

This dynamic – and how it builds up resentment – is perfectly encapsulated in Emma’s viral comic You Should Have Asked.

Date night doesn’t just involve opening the OpenTable and Uber apps.

Let’s examine the tape (and again, I can only speak to our marriage). On date night, I feel that I deserve a relaxing night out. And because I made the economics of the night possible, all I need to do is open the Uber app.

On the other hand, Lisa feels that date night starts with the coordination of the kids and sitter, long before we even step foot in the restaurant. And if all that coordination falls on her, the date’s no longer a date. We might as well save ourselves the drama and stay home.

Who is right? Who is more deserving of a break at this juncture?

Date Night: Who deserves a break?

This is the part of the post where the Bros reappear – calling me whipped or denuded of my God-given masculinity. It turns out that letting go of your ego is a much easier route than digging your heels and trying to win the battle of who’s got it harder. And even if you do “win,” (whatever that means) you’ve paid a hefty price: emotional detachment.

Resentment compounds (just like interest payments)

It’s hard to pinpoint when the seeds of resentment were planted. Having kids is an obvious marker, but I truly think it started long before we met. Why? For each partner, it’s a manifestation of their own insecurities. For me, the scarcity mindset turns so much of life into an ongoing struggle. And if everything is a struggle, goddammit – I want to feel appreciated!

The author Malachy McCourt wrote: “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” That’s bit dramatic, but left unchecked resentment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Twitter friend Visakan Veerasami succintly describes how relationships need a “waste elimination system” and how “hitting snooze” on difficult conversations can have some serious ramifications.

1. Hit snooze on difficult conversations
2. Backlog from 1 overwhelms
3. Start spacing out in each other's presence
4. The spark is gone.
5. Fights become trivial
6. Cycle worsens
The resentment “death spiral”

How to deal with resentment

With time, resentment in a relationship acts accumulates and hardens like wet leather. But our minds and hearts are more malleable than we think. Curiosity, empathy, and trust can quickly rightsize a relationship that feels like two ships sailing in the night.

1. Name it, to tame it

The philosopher Carl Jung wrote: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” It’s much easier to see recurring behaviors if you can identify them with a name.

Understanding that the date night fight is really about appreciation can help you cut through the noise and get straight the heart of the issue. And you can get there with some simple questions:

  • What are you feeling right now?
  • Where is this coming from? (Note: not in a passive-aggressive tone)
  • How can I best support you right now?

2. Share your own introspection

One of the hallmarks of difficult conversations is that they tend to be conversations about identity. Being a good partner bears striking similarities to being a good boss. So we can draw lessons from the management classic Difficult Conversations, as Doug Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen devote entire chapters to the link between difficult conversations and our sense of self. The Harvard professors describe how looking inward gives us significant leverage in managing our anxiety during these tense situations:

To become more familiar with your [particular sensitivities], observe whether there are patterns to what tends to knock you off balance during difficult conversations, and then ask yourself why. What about your identity feels at risk? What does this mean to you? How would it feel if what you fear were true? It may take some digging. 

3. Turn towards, instead of away

In Gottman’s Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work he introduces the concept of bids. Bids are “any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection, or any other positive connection” and can show up “in simple ways, a smile or wink, and more complex ways, like a request for advice or help.”

In my experience, bids can be reflective “Look at that moon,” subtle (grabbing your hand during a walk), or explicit (“I’m really struggling with my mom right now.”) How the bid “receiver” reacts is critical as they might:

  • Be distracted (i.e. Thinking about work) and just ignore it
  • Be stressed and therefore dismissive (or even worst, condescending)
  • Or feel outright resentful, twisting the logic in a manipulative way to clap back (“My mom doesn’t stress me out that way.”)

Bids are “little moments” that slowly build up mutual trust, funding what Gottman calls an “emotional bank account” that one can draw on later when things get tense. His research shows that 86% of couples that “turned into their bids” stayed married and found that “arguments between couples were not about specific topics like money or sex, but instead failed bids for connection.

Yet to their subtle nature, bids can be easy to miss – especially once resentment has hardened a relationship. And Gottman details the serious repercussions to missing a bid:

To “miss” a bid is to “turn away.” Turning away can be devastating. It’s even more devastating than “turning against” or rejecting the bid. Rejecting a bid at least provides the opportunity for continued engagement and repair. Missing the bid results in diminished bids, or worse, making bids for attention, enjoyment, and affection somewhere else.

As a simple first step, Gottman suggests openly taking inventory of your bids with your partner with the following questions:

  • Could or should I get better at making bids? How?
  • What keeps me from making bids?
  • What is my impulse for turning?
  • Do I turn away or against more often than I turn towards?

4. Don't go to sleep mad

So we've established that resentment compounds and accumulates. Yet after a fight it's actually possible to abate the ensuing death spiral - it just requires setting aside your ego.

The biggest realization that we've had is that in the heat of the moment, you don't have to resolve the particulars of a conflict. And if you've read this far, you know that these are complex issues without black-or-white solutions. Apologies quell resentment's powerful momentum.

It helps to make the apology specific. "I apologize for raising my voice. I apologize for saying this mean thing." The specificity of the apology honors the fact that a broad solution isn't possible whilst passions are flaring. And with any accelerating conflict - a brief pause (combined with a night of sleep) - can defuse any tense situation.

5. Go heavy on the attaboys and attagirls

Three words. (And nope, not the L-Word.) You can never say them enough. "I appreciate you."

I appreciate you. I love you.

Say it as often as possible. Just make sure you mean it. Just make sure you feel it.

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Khe Hy
[email protected]

Khe Hy is the creator of RadReads.