Overcoming Resentment in Relationships

Sad girlfriend sitting on bed edge, holding her legs, her partner is lying in bed in background, his face is lit by smart phone


It’s normal to feel resentment, which involves feelings of anger or bitterness, over a slight injustice or a major incident. Continuing to hold onto these feelings, however, can have negative consequences for your physical and mental health.

Some people avoid addressing their feelings and continue to harbor anger at their family member or significant other. For example, maybe your sister started dating your ex after you told her it was okay, but you can’t believe she went ahead and did it. As a result, you avoid seeing her or make snide comments when you’re with her as you are so angry.

Others act out because of their resentment. Maybe you said something rude to someone at work because you can’t believe they were chosen over you for a special award.  Or after your significant other was unfaithful to you, you lashed out by choosing to revenge cheat as a way to get back at them.

This article will discuss the causes of resentment, signs to look for and feelings that are common with resentment, information on its benefits and why resentment is especially toxic in a relationship, as well as good strategies to help you manage your feelings of resentment.

Causes of Resentment

A variety of things can cause this complex emotion. Resentment happens when you feel like you’ve been taken advantage of, have been mistreated, or aren’t being heard. It’s often defined as a feeling of indignation. Unfortunately, resentment can unleash other destructive thoughts and emotions. Resentment can ultimately poison relationships if left unchecked.

Common sources of resentment that lead to this intense emotion:

  • Jealousy
  • Betrayal
  • Embarrassment
  • Shame
  • Trauma
  • Sharing your needs and not having them met (feeling entitled/believing they should be met)
  • Not sharing your needs and not having them met (feeling entitled/believing they should be met)
  • Not identifying and setting your boundaries and having them violated
  • Communicating boundaries and having them violated
  • Hoping someone will read your mind and then becoming resentful and upset that they do not

In romantic relationships, especially long-term ones, one partner might resent the other because of an imbalance in power or work load. For example, it’s not uncommon for a wife or woman in a heterosexual relationship to feel like she has to work a job, take care of most of the housework, and oversee childcare and household labor while her partner focuses only on work.

Resentment in an intimate romantic relationship might flourish when one person always initiates sex and the other never does. Or in a case common to seniors, when one person faces medical challenges and their significant other steps up to be their caregiver. The caregiver might grow resentful as their own needs go unmet and that can create tension in the relationship.

Scientific research explored the effect of tension on the well-being of marriages across the marriages’ first 16 years. Investigators defined tension as feelings of irritation, resentment and disappointment about the relationship.

Results suggest that when separated away from overt behaviors like conflict, negativity should be assessed broadly, and early marital tension has proven especially damaging when experienced by both partners.

As tension plays a significant role on the well-being of the marriage, interventions designed to improve marital well-being should asses both partners’ tension levels and how they handle tension to determine the couples’ relationship functioning.

Signs of Resentment

It’s tricky to recognize signs of resentment. That’s because it’s a multi-layered emotion that may combine myriad feelings at the same time. Overall, a resentful person feels like they’ve been wronged. They may:

  • Be tense when they’re around the person they believe wronged them
  • Avoid conflict with the one involved
  • Ruminate obsessively and not be able to stop thinking about the incident or interaction
  • Talk badly about the person behind their back
  • Refuse to admit they’re upset or talk about the situation at all
  • Pull away emotionally and physically from the person they feel resentment toward

Feelings that contribute to or may indicate resentment include: 

  • Sadness
  • Disappointment
  • Frustration
  • Hostility, hard feelings and anger
  • Bitterness
  • Fear
  • Blame or self-blame
  • Feeling guilty, less-than, not enough
  • Regret
  • Injustice or imbalance in the relationship

Are There Any Benefits of Resentment?

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the person who feels resentful has some advantages. Here are some not-so-obvious ways it might actually feel better to harbor feelings of resentment than address them.

Resentment can help you:

  • Protect yourself, feel safe from vulnerability and being hurt again
  • Promote your own feelings of self-worth
  • Develop a sense of control and power
  • Avoid addressing deeper issues in yourself, the other person or the relationship
  • Avoid difficult communication and conflict
  • Avoid responsibility and next steps

Despite the above, it's important to remember that continuing to harbor resentment can ultimately harm your relationships if not addressed through healthy communication. It's not a productive way to handle conflict and move forward within a relationship.

Why Is Resentment Toxic in a Relationship?

If you hold grudges or stew about something, a high level of anger can take a toll on your mental health. Without effective communication or problem solving with the other person, you can get stuck in feelings of ill-will.

Persistent resentment in a relationship will naturally create a wedge between you and the other person. If you try to discuss the matter and your partner stonewalls, you might close up all over again. That can lead to feelings of isolation, withdrawal, and disconnection. It might even spell the end of the relationship completely.

Without the opportunity to open up to someone like a friend or family member, or reach out to a trusted psychologist about your feelings, the situation will likely worsen. You’ll then have no way to vent, to gain an opportunity for perspective or to heal.

Strategies to Help You Manage Resentment

Finding ways to manage resentment can help you overcome these non-productive feelings. To ultimately resolve these negative feelings, you need to take the first step and admit that there’s a problem. Once you admit it, here are ways to handle resentment by changing your mindset, perception and emotional response:

  • Develop self-compassion. Being resentful as a coping mechanism may have worked in the short-term, but be kind to yourself. You are a human who made mistakes.
  • View the situation with empathy. When you take the viewpoint of the other person and see the situation from their perspective, you might have a different take on what happened.
  • Be grateful. Gratitude actually makes you happier! If you're envious because your work colleague won a special award, keep in mind that—according to one scientific study—benign, motivating and positive envy will appear in those who cultivate gratitude rather than the malicious, slandering type of envy.
  • Forgive yourself and others. Although it might be hard to let go of resentment, making peace with what happened increases your sense of well-being as well as your sense of purpose in life.
  • Reflect and identify the source of the resentment. If it is something that you can address through clear and courageous communication, practice doing so by communicating needs, boundaries, and requests. If the resentment is stemming from a situation that is out of your control, acknowledge the feelings arising from that such as grief or rage and then practice acceptance and focusing on what you can control once the feelings have been processed.

If you’re still angry, look into anger management therapy. There are multiple approaches to dealing with your anger. These approaches can help you reduce anger-inducing situations, improve your self-control, and teach you how to cope in a healthier way.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the go-to treatment for anger management. As anger is such a debilitating psychological problem, researchers reviewed existing meta-analyses about the psychosocial interventions for anger. In this study, CBT treatment was the most popular intervention due to its effectiveness and the fact it worked in non-clinical and psychiatric populations.

You can overcome resentment and repair frayed relationships. If you’re still struggling, seek couples counseling or relationship counseling. Nowadays, you can opt for traditional in-person therapy or choose to work with one of the many practitioners offering online therapy.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Xiang Y, Chao X, Ye Y. Effect of Gratitude on Benign and Malicious Envy: The Mediating Role of Social SupportFront Psychiatry. 2018;9:139. Published 2018 May 7. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00139

  3. Lee AH, DiGiuseppe R. Anger and aggression treatments: a review of meta-analyses. Curr Opin Psychol. 2018;19:65-74. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.04.004

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.