Often when I see troubled relationships, there really is no one true source of the problem. In other words, there isn't one central issue that is undermining the relationship, but rather years and years of multiple troubles piled one on top of another. Trying to get at the root of the issue becomes almost untenable as mistrust, poor communication, and most importantly resentment cloud the picture and interfere with peeling away all those years of negative layers. Above and beyond all else, many couples' most dire root problem is the resentment that they have built up for each other. This resentment prevents proper communication, undermines trust, prevents clarity and creates an environment of rage and despair. Whenever I hear that a couple is on-again/off-again, or has a "love/hate" relationship or "love each other, but can't live together" or any other ridiculous cliche that is being bandied about, I can already state with a high degree of certitude that resentment is eating away at the relationship.
But where does this resentment come from? How is it created? And what can be done about it?
Resentment forms when one or both parties feel that their needs or expectations are not being met. For example, if one partner feels that they are always doing what the other person wants to do, then they will start to feel resentful if this issue is not addressed. Likewise, lack of sex, lack of intimacy, lack of sharing, and lack of understanding, perceived or real are all reasons for the formation of resentment.
There are two key reasons resentment forms in a relationship. The first is that needs or expectations are not being met and the second is because a pattern of said behaviors occur repeatedly over time. In other words, true resentment can only form if the above feeling of unmet needs is a constant pattern that is never addressed. The never addressed aspect could refer to the fact that the other partner doesn't see it as a problem, doesn't care to change, or makes an effort to change, only to revert back to old habits.
So what happens is a cycle where one or both partners start to feel like their needs are not being met, (i.e. unappreciated, misunderstood, unloved, etc). They try to communicate this to their partner either through positive or negative direct communication (i.e. shouting, blaming, etc) or indirectly through passive aggressive behavior (lying, promising to do something but purposefully "forgetting", etc). This in turn leads to the other partner either ignoring or avoiding the issue or building up resentment of their own and lashing back if approached in one of the negative manners listed above. This in turn leads to acting out on the part of the first person, and so on and so forth. In this way, nothing is ever solved, and since the root problem becomes completely obscure due to all of the negative communication surrounding it, it goes months or even years without being resolved, with all the while resentment growing and solidifying, making matters worse. Once couples finally realize that they have a problem that requires intervention such as therapy, the root cause of all the chaos is completely hidden from view and all that is apparent is the seething resentment that has grown into a monster, eating away at and destroying the relationship.
Resentment is like lava boiling underneath the surface. All could be well on the surface for a while, until something comes to jab at a sore spot and suddenly the lava comes spewing forth. That is why couples that have so much built-up resentment are so capable of seeming so loving and happy one day and then bitterly hating each other the next. No amount of happy vacations or sunny days in the park can dissolve that lava. Getting back to a truly happy state for the couple becomes a very complicated, almost impossible task since it involves peeling back layers of resentment that formed over years and years without creating new layers.
Obviously this is something that won't happen overnight and requires a great deal of delicate care, discipline and vigilance. Most importantly, it requires deep, sincere dedication from both partners. Unfortunately, due to the amount of pain and hard work required to get over the resentment, many couples may not make it.
What's the solution? Don't let your relationship fill up with resentment in the first place. Seems easier said than done, but here's a few tips to avoid this miserable fate:
1. Don't let anger stew. If your partner did something to upset you, communicate it to them immediately in a positive, constructive manner.
2. Practice your listening skills. Listening is the most important aspect of good communication. Learn to "hear between the lines" and get at what your partner is really trying to tell you.
3. Monitor the health of your relationship regularly. Take time to go on regular dates and take numerous small trips rather than one big vacation a year, for example. Do things just for yourselves at least once weekly and take the time to be alone together without any distractions. This is where real communication takes place.
4. If you are starting to feel like things are starting to get out of control, nip it in the bud immediately. A problem is far easier to fix at the beginning rather than once it has progressed. If you feel that your communication is starting to break down, don't be shy to schedule an appointment with a couples or marriage counselor asap. You'll be happy you did it sooner rather than later.