12. Rock of Resentment - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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12. Rock of Resentment

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Roles Rigidity Repair in Relationships

Roles, Rigidity, Repair, and Renovation in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

Carina and Kim shared most values, especially a shared concern for the well-being of one another.  In fact, Kim was arguably over-sensitive and over vigilant that Carina would not do well because of potential inadequate rewards in the relationship.  Sensitivity and vigilance over one partner's well-being can be both beneficial as it was for Kim with Carina, or it can be harmful.  If unaware of one's partner's experience of the relationship and relative power, status, contributions, and benefits, the couple becomes vulnerable to accrued unidentified and unarticulated resentment.  The therapist may hear common phrases that may be indicative of hidden resentments.  These include:

I let it go.

You have to pick your battles.

We got pass that.

I did not want to make a big deal out of it.

It's not worth the trouble.

I don't like to fight.

These statements are often in the context of therapy discussions about disagreements, complaints and grievances, and disappointments and upsets over major to minor issues.  The small conflicts may be over where to eat dinner, which television show to watch, whether to go to this event or another, and other otherwise incidental daily decisions in the relationship.  Sometimes neither partner nor any family member is particularly heavily invested in one outcome or another.  Or, decisions that go against one are counter-balanced at other times by decisions in ones favor.  A sense of equity is maintained and it really is not a big deal.  However, some otherwise small matters may have significant symbolic value unbeknownst consciously to all individuals.  Having things go against ones desire then can become much more sensational if not also dismissive, upsetting, or hurtful.  Sometimes, one situation or another turns out negatively for an individual but does not seem particularly significant as far as the other partner or other family members can see.  However, if the individual experiences the disappointment as part of a long pattern of personal negations, then the symbolism of not being important or discounted… again can be devastating.

Dan also known as "Dan the Man" to his husband Larry was a big personality packed in a slight frame.  His voice was loud and his energy intense.  He never had opinions… he always had the truth and was quite adamant to let everyone know.  Dan came from a family of verbally assertive if not aggressive individuals.  If one had an opinion- that is held the truth… then one had to say it loudly and repeatedly or risk being drowned out by others.  Dan had learned to be loud and persistent in order to be heard in his family and his style continued into his adulthood.  Larry came from a somewhat similar but also different family.  His parents and some of his siblings were verbally loud and aggressive too, but also tended to verbally annihilate anyone who dared to disagree.  Squashing the idiot spouting of inferior minds was mandatory.  Larry told the therapist that as a result, he found it easier to be quiet and let his parents and siblings keep the verbal mountaintop.  Avoiding or acquiescing to conflict became his way of dealing with conflict.  As a result, he said he usually tried to pick his battles with Dan.  It was hard work to get through Dan's intensive "conversational" style, so many times Larry said he would "Let it go."

An individual can claim a kind of pseudo-intellectual and quasi-moral self-justification in not making a big deal out of something, and letting it go.  Giving in or giving up- that is allowing oneself to be dominated or silenced is justified within him or herself as a judicious choice.  If a partner does this in the face of couple's conflict, he or she may be replicating a pattern of acquiescence not chosen but mandatory for psychic and physical survival in childhood.  As the pattern becomes embedded for the individual, it manifests in new circumstances of intimate conflict with his or her partner.  The therapist can identify this process and style as well as their family-of-origin roots.  "So, you "let it go?"  "You pick your battles?  And, get pass it, huh?  Sounds more like you take 'it'… whatever contention, issue, or grievance where you don't get your way, your fair share, your respect, or are otherwise diminished by your partner…  You take it and you crush it (the therapist can model crushing something in his or her hands) into a small rock of resentment.  And then you 'let it go' (the therapist pantomimes releasing the rock from his or her hand and watching it drop to the floor)… 'thunk.'  And there it lies… a smothering little rock of resentment.  Next time, something happens and you don't want to make a big deal out of it… even though it is a big deal to you… you don't want to make trouble, and you crush your disappointment, hurt, and anger into another little rock of resentment and… 'thunk' let it go to drop onto the floor.  'Thunk, thunk, thunk' one rock of resentment after another.  Eventually, it's a great pile of resentments… a mountain… a volcanic mountain ready to erupt.  How long has your mountain of resentment been growing?  Is it dormant or ready to explode?"

When an individual suffers a relentlessly inequitable situation or relationship in a couple, a family, a workplace, or a society, he or she may either fully submit or somehow resist.  Resistance may be overt and aggressive, but it may also be classically passive-aggressive.  The internal process of accruing grievances and calculating self-righteous resentment debt is passive-aggressive.  The therapist should help the individual or couple bring both the sense of inequity and the secret frustration and damage into conscious discussion.  An individual, couple, or family often has, does, and can continue to operate with fundamental inequity, but not without individual and relationship costs.  Lingering and accrued resentment inevitably corrodes the individual self-esteem and relation integrity.  Therapy can help weigh the benefits and costs and the hidden consequences in the short-term and long-term for the individual, couple, or family.  Once fully examined, it is then up to the individual, partners or parents and the relationship, couple, or family to find the relative balance or imbalance qualitatively worthwhile to continue, to renegotiate, or to be intolerable.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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