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This Emotion May Explain the Lack of Intimacy in Your Relationship

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Several of my clients haven’t touched their spouses in more than a decade, or they only have sex while drunk or they “accept” having sex two or three times a year. The reason? A number of them have realized — many sessions and/or disputes later — that the reason behind the lack of intimate connection is not lack of desire or libido, but the presence of resentment.

In a previous article, I explained how You Are Not Your Emotions; here I want to invite you to explore with me how resentment can become a hindrance to your relationships. Specifically, when you don’t have your emotional needs met and you feel powerless, which feeds resentment. Hopefully, we will discover how to get your needs met by replacing resentment with more effective ways to communicate your emotional states.

Resentment is not universal

Resentment is not one of those emotions that manifest the same way across cultures, like sadness, joy, surprise, disgust, trust, fear, anticipation and anger. Those are called primary emotions and are connected to a popular theory called facial-feedback theory. The theory proposes that we contract muscles involved in facial expressions to show the world what we are feeling inside (J Res Pers. 2009).

In trauma therapy, we ask clients to connect with their emotions when we are helping to process some of the loaded material, because we need the energy of the emotion in the room to help them release it. When I observe individuals manifesting their resentment while in session, I have noticed it doesn’t show the same way in the face on those talking about it and that it reveals itself in almost imperceptible ways. It makes me think of it as a hidden emotion.

Not everyone is able to manifest their feelings with the same amount of freedom, because the expression of emotions is ruled by social norms. That may be at the root of resentment. We could hide (or as we mostly refer to it, repress) emotions, holding them inside, so we avoid showing others how we feel. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware we are doing it. The definition of repress is clear: to suppress (a thought, feeling or desire) in oneself so it becomes or remains unconscious. Not being able to manifest our feeling with the same amount of freedom may be at the bottom of resentment.

Resentment is a secret emotion.

Resentment has a secretive quality that attaches to it a desire for revenge, punishment, frustration, alienation and other emotions that could make interpersonal relationships more difficult. Fantasizing revenge is one of the byproducts of resentment — we’ve all seen it portrayed in movies as if revenge is the right thing to do when someone causes pain to others. When we hide something, we may succeed in making sure others don’t know about it, but it also means we may not be able to remember it or find it. In the same way we use facial expressions to protect ourselves, we may contain our emotions as protection, too.

This need for protection — by not showing — is one of the most important points I’ll make in this article. Because resentment is hidden, the receiver of the emotional reaction may be clueless about being the “instigator” of such a difficult emotional state, and that they could be becoming the target of an “evil-intentioned” plan. This shows how resentment deeply affects both the person feeling it and the person who is the target of it; relationships grow apart without a conscious awareness that it’s happening. It becomes part of the dynamic instead of the solution.

Resentment is a consequence of other emotions.

Warren D. TenHouten classified resentment as tertiary emotion. Tertiary emotions are those that come after a secondary emotion is experienced, which come after a primary emotion gets triggered. In the case of resentment, a person may feel resentfulness as a result of becoming angry or enraged. In this case, anger is the primary emotion while rage would be the secondary emotion, and resentment the tertiary one.

Some people condemn themselves by experiencing certain emotions, and could have it as a goal not to ever have some of them; you may believe that being angry is inappropriate, dangerous or it could portray you as a bad and rude person. Those would be the reasons you repress emotions, and to end up resenting the consequence.

Most people notice when someone is angry at them, but if that anger towards them is being repressed, many others may generate resentment for years without realizing it, which means they would not be proactively stopping it. In that sense, anger is a more corrective emotion, since it obtains protective results almost immediately.

When a client describes resentment, I notice how the original emotion is in the background and probably unrecognized, while a “secretive” set of thoughts and feelings hidden behind a suppressed contemplation that sounds like:

“I will never tell you how I feel when you do that to me”

“This is so unfair”

“You should not be treating me like that”

“Why don’t you just go away”

“You really think you are better than me, right?”

“I should have never married you”

“I’m so weak.”

I have noticed that while resentment comes from anger, it can also manifest as a protest for neglect, disappointment, envy, disgust, exasperation and irritation.

Resentment is rooted in being overpowered.

The same author (TenHouten) who defined resentment as a tertiary emotion coming from anger and rage only, also wrote that resentment manifests as the result of “being subjected to inferiorization, stigmatization, or violence.” And that it’s an active form to respond to acts that have created “unjustified and meaningless suffering.”

Nietzsche was also very interested in resentment and wrote of it as arising out of powerlessness and the experience of brutalization, neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Carrying a negative feeling in your system, as in “not forgotten, nor forgiven,” is equivalent to carrying a poisonous food without digesting it.

Resentment then, is different from holding a grudge, because besides carrying the unmetabolized anger, it gets mixed with a sense of impotence that stays in the system. The offenses will be re-lived, anger will continue being triggered and the impotence will grow. If anger is part of the well-known fight-flight response that gets the body ready to attack, how come resentment as a consequence of anger and rage is not reactive?

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As opposed to anger and rage, resentment is a passive phenomenon, at least until it’s acted-out.

Anger will be used not to drive the person to attack back, but as a motivator for faking submission while generating a strategy to defeat the offender at some point.

Resentment is seen historically embedded within frustration, contempt, outrage and malevolence and has been linked to “relative deprivation” — the perception you are worse off than the other people you compare yourself to, leading to feeling frustrated and crushed.

Emotions are supposed to protect us, giving us the message that we need to act. If anger doesn’t protect you from the offender, resentment could arise — not as a way to surrender, but as a plan to retaliate for not being capable of fighting back. It the moment, it becomes about holding rancor as the solution to attain temporary safety.

Resentment is an adaptive strategy.

I’ll argue — as a trauma therapist, and to give room to the redeeming quality of this particular defense — that resentment has the ability to be an effective way to stop the autonomic nervous system from dysregulating on a permanent basis, which means it could stop trauma from developing.

If we assume that resentment comes after anger/rage gets activated and not utilized — as the primitive defense primes us with the fight-flight defense — we see that those emotions accumulate and lead to feelings of impotence. Resentment becomes the lasting consequence to advise us to overcome that impotence or sense of defeat.

During traumatization, not being able to fight back and feeling helpless activates a more extreme defense where the system goes into immobilization and collapse. If the person stays in that defenseless state of mind, all the defense mechanisms will make the alterations “to make it” the new way to function, which is called trauma.

By developing resentment, the aggravated person, instead of going into defeat, will stay in fight mode and generate options to act-out that anger in order to avoid the feeling of being subdued. Instead of giving up and submitting — as in traumatization — an alternative defense is set into action to stay afloat. This is how resentment emerges.

In that scenario, resentment would be an adaptive way to tolerate defeat without revealing it, or better yet, without accepting defeat completely. Accepting defeat would mean giving up the fight at the cost of losing the vitality and “soul” that many traumatized people experience.

So resentment could be the best option to carry a sense of inability, together with the hope of becoming able at some point. It defends the person by generating solutions to regain control, as in the case of the clients I mentioned before, depriving their partners of sexual interactions as a way to avoid subjugation.

Resentment is self-destructive.

In extreme cases, resentment could drive the resented person’s thoughts and actions into self-punishment, and the person could actually lose self-esteem, motivation, agency and the sense of who the person is. The person could become their emotions and lose a sense of self as I explained in another article. That should always be avoided because it creates severe emotional problems, including mirroring personality disorders traits.
In mild cases — actions like depriving a partner of sex — could be a way to execute resentment; it could be a conscious or unconscious way to retaliate.

As I mentioned before, the “resented” — the person who is the receiver of the resentment — may not even know there has been an in-progress plot against them in the mind of the “resentful.” Therefore, they may have never made any changes to improve, which may be hurtful in itself and could have triggered more accumulation of “poison.” I have observed, over and over again, the surprise of the partner when they find out they are resented.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” is the common phrase from the puzzled partner after the revelation. Resentment becomes a dreadful vicious cycle that destroys relationships.

Resentment is “curable.”

Sex is an act of surrender and avoiding sex is a way to hurt by not surrendering your body. But who gets more hurt? If any of this sounds relatable to you, I have good and bad news.

First, the bad: holding grievances makes you lose the opportunity to have an intimate connection with the person closest to you, and most importantly, to miss the opportunity to correct the actions or faults that are creating the separation and punishment. It also divests you from attaching to others, which is an essential need; not having that particular need met leaves you alone, which is one of the scariest and most painful mental states.

The good: instead of secretly feeling defenseless and accumulating resentment, it’s possible to be more proactive in defending and empowering yourself. Drawing boundaries or speaking up are good ways to start. That would be a less emotional defense and a more sensical one.

Negotiating and moving towards improving your dynamics, instead of being vindictive, will offer a better outcome.

Release the accumulated heavy load you have been carrying, through:

  • Exercise and physical movement providing an outlet for the repressed or suppressed anger;
  • Recognizing the needs that have not been met: validation, approval, recognition, appreciation, gratitude, safety, loyalty, attention, privacy, etc.
  • Acknowledgment of the role resentment has played, to make it conscious for you and in the mind of the other;
  • Sincere communication to express how your needs were not met;
  • Therapy or couples counseling to work on your relationship dynamics that, by now, may be vicious;
  • Appreciation for what you have in the relationship and in how the emotion had the good intention of defending you. Appreciation in general for whatever positive you find in your life;
  • “Confess,” as in saying sincerely how much hurt you have been carrying and how many grudges you have held. They need to know, and it will start the repair you have been craving to obtain. Even if not coming from them, it will come from within;
  • Accountability on how you have hurt back with either your silence, your actions or your retaliative stance;
  • And yes, sex. Among all the techniques you can learn and practice to regulate your emotions — like breathing and meditating — to reconnect with your partner through sex provides efficacious hormone production to make you feel good and to bond. It creates light between you and your partner and brings you closer.

As we are primed to defend ourselves from harm, we are primed to forgive. Karremans and Aarts (2007) argue that the cognitive processes underlying the closeness/forgiveness link demonstrate that thinking of a transgression leads to enhanced accessibility of the construct of forgiveness. “In close relationships, the natural inclination to forgive arises in a relatively effortless, habitual manner.” Karremans adds that the level of forgiveness tends to be quite malleable, forgiveness is a deliberative and intentional act, and it is at least partly determined by automatic and unconscious processes.

Instead of secretly feeling defenseless and accumulating resentment, you could try to be more proactive in defending and empowering yourself. For example, drawing boundaries or speaking up.

Emotional defenses are primitive because mammals have to fight for their lives every day, and emotions let them know what to fear. As humans we count on mental control and cognitive assessment designed to help us make less visceral decisions.

Carrying a never-ending victim attitude puts you in a defenseless place. Looking for the moment to victimize the “oppressor” gives space to develop a moral injury. In the case of an abusive, unfair or controlling partner, you could put your foot down and talk about those things you find hurtful, unfair, lopsided, oppressive and disempowering.

Getting rid of resentment creates space for enjoyment.

Resentment could be depriving you of a fulfilling romantic and sexual life; working on finding understanding and peace of mind may get you closer to that fulfillment.

Getty image by robodread

Originally published: July 27, 2020
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