Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Holding Grudges Harms Marriage

September 4, 2006

One problem couples have is the inability to work through hurts and grudges. Problems are not resolved. Pain and bitterness linger long after the offense has occurred. Instead of feeling hurt, angry or anxious, the offended spouse feels resentful.

Resentment is an emotion that generally occurs when a partner whose help was counted on and was necessary, let us down and stopped us from achieving something we wanted. Resentment is based on an assumption that our marital partner was obligated to help and that we deserved to be helped. An important goal or need was blocked or hindered by the person who we counted on the most to care and help.

When our spouse fails us, we feel hurt, betrayed and confused. Rather than question the entitlement of our goal or need, it is easier to blame our partner for his or her failure to be there to fulfill an essential obligation.

In obsessing over the mistake, a resentful spouse builds a case that the offense was inexcusable. It is easier to devalue the offender than to accept the loss and face the failure or hurt. It softens the hurt somewhat to focus on our partner’s failure than to explore the meaning of the failure itself.

Trust is broken. Walls are put up. Without a meaningful apology, we stop believing that our partner really cares about us and what is important to us.

Anger versus resentment. Resentment is different from anger in the fact that anger involves an attempt to open a dialogue and a return to cooperation. Expressing anger is an attempt at communicating that change has to occur. However, a resentful spouse is not really interested in communication. If resentment is expressed, it comes out in hurtful or cutting remarks to "get even" and retaliate, not reconcile.

Anger is more related to assertiveness and moral outrage. Resentment is closer to feelings like envy, vengefulness, hatred and spite.

Anger is temporary. We think anger should "pass." We "count to ten." We "cool down." With resentment, the terminology is a little different. We "harbor" a resentment. Resentments "smolder" and "return with a vengeance." Actually, the word resentment from the French "re-sentir," which means literally, "to feel again."

Bad experiences. Outside of marriage, people carry resentments over things like a bitter divorce, a heated custody battle, a business dealing gone awry, termination from employment, being an accident or crime victim, betrayal by a best friend or it might be an adult child judging past parental deficiencies. Dependent or self-centered people are especially vulnerable.

Often a person assumes the existence of an unspoken contract between themselves and another person. The other person may not even know he or she was expected to help.

A resentful person doesn't want to hear explanations that might excuse or soften the offense. He or she is rigid to the point of not wanting to hear the other side of the story. There is a huge emotional investment in his or

her perception of reality.

Grudges in marriage. Within marriage, resentments come about at times when a marriage partner is left alone during a time of threat or harm. When a spouse feels not cared about, when repeated requests are ignored, when destructive habits persist, when there is betrayal and disloyalty - things that a loving spouse should "never" do - resentment is created. The foundation of the bond or connection is undermined by the violation of trust.

Resentment grows when attempts to address the issue are repeatedly rebuffed or when issues are not addressed in the first place.

Nourishing resentments. A resentful person actively seeks out allies to solicit agreement about what a terrible wrong had been inflicted. He or she returns to the transgression as the central meaning of what happened. Finding people to agree with them affirms his or her self-righteous stance in the matter.

People who harbor grudges "demonize" the offender. They are relentless in seeking out others with whom they can discuss the situation. They seem compelled to do so. As time passes, the negative characterizations of the offender become more extravagant and extreme.

Occasionally they may retaliate with remarks designed to punish and inflict guilt. Unlike anger, speaking one's resentment doesn't resolve the emotion or lessen the hurt.

Most resentful people alternate between seeking out sympathetic listeners and avoiding the offender or reminders of the hurtful event. They even try to block their thoughts about it. They may be successful in curbing their resentful feelings for a time. When a reminder occurs, they experience the intense feelings they had when the offense originally occurred.

Letting go of resentment. The resentful spouse needs to express him or herself in an unfettered way. It is important for the offending spouse to listen, understand and show appropriate empathy for the harm that was done.

The talk should focus on the hurt party’s understanding of the event itself, their feelings of being entitled to a different, more loving response than the hurtful one at the time.

The offending spouse can address the issue, showing a deep understanding of his or her role in the hurt, apologize, commit to making amends and "being there" in the future. The sincerity and emotional expression of the offending spouse offers an avenue of hope that the past will not be repeated. The old, rigid and judgmental perceptions are broken down and are replaced by hope that the future can and will be different.

Forgiveness becomes possible.