The other day, I was interviewed by a reporter who asked me what I think the biggest challenge to sex in a long-term relationship is. I suspect that she was expecting me to say something like keeping the passion alive, or finding new things to try, or even that old standby, communication. But I think that there’s one that is rarely talked about, even though pretty much everyone experiences it : resentment.
In my experience, both as a sex educator and in my personal life, resentment is one of the most common and difficult strains on a relationship, especially a sexual relationship. It’s pretty difficult (if not actually impossible) to treat someone well when you feel resentment, even if it’s not directed at them. Resentment makes it hard to ask for what you want, to hear what your partner requests, to give them what they desire, to be kind to them, and to create a sexual relationship that touches your hearts as well as your sex organs. When we try to hide our resentments from our partners, we often close off our true feelings and create a mask, which is not the sort of thing that fosters passion, romance, or sexual satisfaction. And while that mask may look like it’s helping, the resentment underneath is probably getting bigger.
In his book Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch discusses the ways in which codependency and enmeshment hinder sexual passion. Since sexual connection has a way of creating closeness and connection, we often resist it when we’re already feeling smothered. After all, if we feel suffocated, why would we want to do something that would bring us into even closer contact? Similarly, when we’re hiding (or trying to hide) resentments from our partners, how can we open up our hearts to them? A friend of mine once said that you can’t relax during a massage if you’re holding in a fart. I think that something similar could be said of resentment. It’s hard to open up and be honest when you’re hiding something that you’re feeling.
There’s a balance to find between sharing how we feel about our partners and going to far. In Demystifying Love, Stephen Levine writes:
Many of the positive and, particularly, the negative mental processes involved in loving another person must remain private from the partner. Under ordinary circumstances, we wisely do not share too much of our anger and disappointment about our partner. We intuitively realize that our partner needs the illusion that we do not struggle to love them. It is ironic that both partners tend to believe that it is not a struggle to love them even though each is quite aware how often he or she struggles to love the partner.
I think that the trick in is figuring out how to share our frustrations and annoyances with care, respect, and love. Unspoken resentments can turn us into walking balls of anger, sarcasm, or passive aggression, all of which create distance. But venting anger or pretending that we never feel frustration won’t work, either. We need to be able to share our anger while holding onto love. I find that there are some different pieces that need to come together to make it work.
One of the most important starting places is being able to recognize that you’re not getting what you want. Brushing your wants and needs aside with “it’s ok” or “I don’t really need it” is a way of making ourselves smaller than we are. Of course, many people have plenty of training and practice at telling themselves (or being told) that they don’t deserve to have their desires fulfilled, or that they don’t even deserve to have desires. But that doesn’t change the fact that there’s usually a part of ourselves that knows otherwise. That’s the part that feels the resentment and it’s important to listen to it. As Marianne Williamson put it, “[y]our playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”
It’s also crucial that you find ways to share how you feel with your partner without (and this is the tricky part) dumping your anger all over them. Blaming and shaming them because you feel resentment is not likely to help them be able to hear what you have to say. Learning how to communicate well can be tricky, but there are plenty of great resources for it. I’m a fan of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication, and some friends and colleagues also speak highly of Nonviolent Communication, Landmark, the Human Awareness Institute, and other models. The goal is to find ways to be able to share your feelings without pushing your partner away, while also being able to hear your partner’s feelings without feeling pushed away. Each person and each relationship will face different challenges around this, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
What works for me is saying something like “I’m feeling resentment because…” or “This thing happened and now I’m feeling some resentment.” Naming the emotion without venting it takes a lot of practice. It also takes practice to be able to hear it without taking it personally. Sometimes, resentments need some sort of action or change to resolve. Other times, they just need to be heard. But if you can share them without reinforcing a cycle of anger-trigger-freaking out, you can walk the line between building up resentment and making it seem like your partner is a pain in the ass.
If you resist reading a book or taking a workshop on communication, my best advice for you is get over it. Nobody is born knowing how to communicate and very few of us learn how to do it well when we’re growing up. You’re not responsible for not having been taught how to communicate about your feelings. However, once you know that you need to do something and that there are resources and people who can help you, you are responsible for making it happen. Do yourself a favor and find the support you need. Read a book, take a workshop, or work with a therapist. The payoff is worth it.
Once you’ve got the ball rolling, there are two steps that I think can help. First, try to avoid letting things become resentments. When you feel anger towards your partner, let them know. Look for ways that you can collaboratively find solutions or, at the very least, things that can help you cope. Even if there isn’t a way to change the situation, such as when your partner’s job keeps them super busy, letting them know how it affects you can still help you both feel better. If you discover that a resentment has formed, talk about it. It doesn’t matter if the seed for it happened yesterday, last week, or ten years ago. Let them know. Your feelings don’t care how long ago something happened, so don’t let them fester.
Second, if you feel disconnected from your partner, take a moment to check in with yourself to see if you’re holding any resentments because you might not realize it until it has already formed. One of the most common experiences that therapists report is that individuals and couples come to them saying that they’re having sexual difficulties, and when they start digging, it turns out that the real issue is that they’re in disagreement over money, or the kids, or their jobs. Once the conflicts and resentments are sorted out, the sex often returns. So when you find yourself withdrawing from your partner or avoiding sex, take it as an opportunity to see if that’s what’s going on for you.
While I’m hardly suggesting that resentment is the only reason people have sexual challenges, I do think that it’s one of the least commonly recognized ones. It’s easy to see how being tired from taking care of the kids or being stressed out about work can create sexual tensions (and not the good kind). But resentment often gets left out of the picture and that can make it harder to deal with it. So whenever I get asked what I think the biggest relationship killer is, I make sure to include it on the list. If you want to open up your heart to your partner(s), if you want to be connected as your authentic self, don’t allow resentment to get in the way. It’s only when we can put it on the table that we can deal with it and create the sex lives that we want.