Understanding the poison pill of resentment

Dear Paul

These last few years in my marriage have been strenuous ones. I’m feeling unhappy and almost bitter. I do so much for everyone in my family and so little is done for me. What can I do with this resentment that’s building in me?


I’ve said before in this column that it is common, even normal, for difficulties and challenges to appear in relationships. These problems appear precisely to encourage us to learn and grow in the understandings and skills we bring to life.

Relationships are a curriculum like none other, always inviting our personal growth and development. Yet so frequently we ignore our lessons.

Why? For the simple reason it seems much easier to look at our partner and make them responsible (blame them) for the problem we are experiencing: “If they would only…. then I’d be happy. If they would just stop … then things would work.” With blame there is no looking, no inquiring, no learning at all.

The posture of blame  appears real and correct. We can find lots of evidence that our unhappiness is due to them and their behaviour. Yet if you look closer, you will see that while perhaps valid, this view gives us no real power or effectiveness in the matter. It gives all the power to our partner. Yes, we are “right” — it is them after all — and we remain ineffective and miserable.

What is this problem, this particular difficulty, trying to teach me? Now I say that’s a much more powerful question — that sadly few ask themselves.

Now let me be clear. Exploring this question, being responsible this way, does not mean making yourself wrong or at fault somehow. It is not meant as blame or self judgement. It is meant as the doorway, entered into lightly and curiously, for learning and new understanding.

So Tanya what can you see when you explore resentment? What is resentment trying to teach you?

Someone once said, “Resentment is like eating poison and hoping that the other person will get sick.”

Here’s where we begin, by noticing what the experience of resentment is really doing to us. It is destroying our sense of enthusiasm, optimism, our happiness, our aliveness, our satisfaction. It leaves us feeling powerless and victimized. It results in distance blame and protection.

So what are we not seeing clearly, what are we not understanding here?

Many of us live in relationships with the promise or hope that if we just take care of others, in turn, we will be looked after. This is not necessarily so. After some experience with this, we see that being satisfied requires much more attention and skill from us. Being satisfied requires a clear commitment to self care.

In this view resentment can be a very valuable and powerful inner signal. Resentment can let us know we have forgotten ourselves, that we have failed to check in with ourselves, to see if whatever arrangement we are agreeing to takes care of us.

For example, say you’ve just given your support to your husband to take the day to go to his brother’s and to go golfing and you’ll be home with your two young kids. You notice a twinge of resentment.

Noticing this, you remember to check in. Have I asked myself: Does this really, genuinely, work for me? If your answer is yes, fine. If the answer is no, the question becomes: In order for this to work for me, what do I need here? What would take care of me here?

Perhaps the answer is “I will be fine. No problem.” Or “It would work fine for me if we have our sitter come over for the afternoon. I really wanted a few hours to get at the garden.”

Yet so many of us have been trained not to look at what we need or what we require for something to work for us. We’ve been trained out of our “self signal giver.” This failure to take care of ourselves blossoms into resentment.

Now Tanya, we have learned something. We have seen that looking after ourself includes a clear remembering of ourselves and a negotiation with those we live with. We can do that.

Resentment is now your friend and brings a new clarity. Resentment becomes a strong and clear signal for our own self care.


— Paul Beckow is an individual, marriage and family therapist on the West Shore. See www.paulbeckow.com.



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