Updated: Apr 24
The unconscious way we retaliate from subjugation can create very undesirable consequences. A way to identify and stop them
Several of my clients are not having sex with their spouses/partners. I have two that haven’t touched their wives in more than a decade, others that only have sex when drunk, while several “accept” having sex two or three times a year. The reason? Many sessions later, tears and doubts included, a number of them have discovered that the reason behind the lack of intimate connection is not lack of desire or libido, but the presence of resentment.
The word resentment became part of the English language adopted from French “ressentir” which came from the Latin “sentire,” “to feel.” In English, instead of having a general sense of “feeling again” as in French or Latin, the word has become synonymous with anger, spite, and holding a grudge. Since emotions, besides the primary ones, are not universal, for now, we can focus on what it means in the English language and understand it through its connection to anger.
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. 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.” That theory proposes that we contract muscles involved in facial expressions to show the world what we are feeling inside (J Res Pers. 2009).
I have noticed that resentment doesn’t show the same way in the face of those talking about their experience of it; resentment shows more in the way the “resented” looks at the other, more than a specific grin. It sometimes comes with a particularly intense stare, but maybe the stare is more performative than spontaneous as in “I’m not going to do what I really want to do to you” while thinking “for now.” More than showing what’s felt using a facial expression, it is shown as a disinvitation to get closer.
Do you know that in 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? We ask the person to relive their experiences and mentally go to the moment when the emotion became a problem.
The trauma paradigm and these types of somatic therapeutic interventions have allowed me to observe individuals manifesting their resentment while in session, and I have noticed 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 if we believe that our emotions won’t be well received. Sometimes we aren’t even consciously aware that we are doing it. The definition of “repress” is clear –to suppress (a thought, feeling, or desire) in oneself so that it becomes or remains unconscious.
When we hide something, we may succeed in making sure that others don’t know about it, but it also means that 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 horrible emotional state, and that she/he 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.
Resentment is a consequence of other emotions
Warren D. TenHouten’s 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. Secondary emotions are often caused by a belief behind experiencing certain emotions that could be perceived as negative if they’re acted out. Some people condemn themselves by experiencing certain emotions, and could have it as a goal not to ever undergo some of them; you may believe that being angry is inappropriate, dangerous, or that it could portray you as a bad and rude person. Those would be the reasons you repress emotions, and to resent, the consequence.
Everyone notices when someone is angry at them, but if that anger towards them is being repressed, many people may be generating 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 — probably unrecognized — while a set of thoughts and feelings (hidden behind a suppressed contemplation) would sound 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”
It has become clearer to me 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 person (TenHouten) that defined resentment as a tertiary emotion coming from anger and rage only, wrote more recently (2018) 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? As opposed to anger and rage, resentment is a passive phenomenon, at least until it becomes possible to act it 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 that 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 that 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 get accumulated 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 will 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 most traumatized people suffer from.
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
If there is a positive side of resentment, then there is a negative side too. Spoiler: it’s ugly.
Do you know that an autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body?
Similarly, resentment is one of those protections that “mistakenly” ends up attacking yourself. It’s not the only emotion that does that, but it is one of those that is quite damaging to others as well.
Resentment suppresses the production of oxytocin and increases the release of cortisol; Oxytocin, the “love hormone,” impacts “pro-social behaviors’’ and emotional responses that contribute to relaxation, trust, and psychological stability; High levels of cortisol become toxic for your system and will cause fatigue, irritability, headaches, anxiety or depression, weight gain, and yes, sexual problems like low libido, erectile dysfunction or problems with regular ovulation or menstrual periods.
Ironically, holding grudges will be a way to end up defeated — as in attacking yourself — like with an autoimmune disorder. Resentment will attack healthy “tissue” making you devalue your qualities and amplify your incapacities.
Resentment is a vicious circle
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 his/her 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 se x— 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 him/her in the mind of the “resentful,” and therefore, 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 on the partner when they find out they are resented. “Why didn’t you tell me?” is the common phrase that comes from the puzzled partner after the revelation. Resentment becomes a dreadful vicious circle that destroys relationships.
Resentment is “curable”
Sex is an act of surrender. What better way to hurt the one that hurt you than by not surrendering your body? But who gets more hurt?
If any of this sounds relatable to you, I have bad and good 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 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. Emotional defenses are primitive because mammals have to fight for their lives every day, and emotions let them know what to fear. We, a more advanced version of a mammal, count with the mental control and cognitive assessment designed to help us take less visceral decisions.
Instead of carrying a never-ending stance of a victim looking for the moment to victimize the “oppressor,” you could be generating a solution that gives you closure today. In the case of an abusive, or unfair, or controlling partner, you could put your foot down and talk about those things you find hurtful, unfair, lopsided, oppressive, and disempowering.
Negotiating and moving towards improving your dynamics, instead of being vindictive, will offer a better outcome.
Release that accumulated heavy load you have been carrying through:
Exercise and psychical movement that provides 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;
“Confession” as in saying sincerely how much hurt you have been carrying. 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 very efficacious hormone production to make you feel good and bond. It creates “light” between you and your partner and brings you closer.
Getting rid of resentment creates space for enjoyment.
Working on finding understanding and peace of mind can take you closer to a fulfilling romantic and sexual life that resentment could have been unassumingly depriving you of.