For instance, Paula tells Jon that she’s upset and hurt by something he said—the way he responded to her opinion on a family matter. She asks if, in the future, he could speak with more kindness and not be so critical simply because his opinion differs.
Jon reacts to Paula’s request by aggressively inquiring why he should offer her kindness when just last month she shut down his experience over a different family matter and treated him unkindly.
Paula then attacks back, explaining why she deserved to behave the way she did last month, and why it was a reaction to what he did two months ago, which she believes was unkind and aggressive. Jon then barks that he was entitled to his behavior because of the unkind thing she did three months ago. And back and forth it goes, reaching back to a seemingly un-findable time before the hurting began.
Couples do this all the time. They fight over who’s deserving of empathy, whose experience should get to matter, whose hurt should be taken care of, and whose experience should be validated.
Often partners refuse to offer each other empathy because they feel that it would mean admitting that they are to blame, and are thus giving up the chance to receive empathy and validation themselves. In essence, “empathy for you cancels out empathy for me.”
As hurt and resentment accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to empathize with your partner’s experience, because you have so much unheard pain of your own. When too much unattended pain is allowed to cement between two people, it can be nearly impossible to listen to, much less care, about the other’s experience.
Over time, unhealed wounds create a relationship with no space left to be heard, and this chokes off kindness and support—the essential components of intimacy. For this reason and many others, resentment is the most toxic of all emotions in an intimate relationship.
So, what can be done if you’re in a relationship where hurt has built up into resentment, unresolved anger, and pain? Is there hope for empathy to regain a foothold so that true intimacy can flourish once again? If the past is a minefield, can the present become peaceful ground?
If you asked me if it’s possible, my answer would be, “Probably.” But if you asked me whether there are ways to rebuild the empathic bond in a relationship, I would answer with a resounding “yes.”
The only way you can know what’s possible is to first name the problem and give it your best effort. If you don’t try to address the resentment, it certainly won’t go away by itself. Resentment is a cancer that metastasizes and eventually makes it impossible for a healthy relationship to survive.
So, what to do?
Step 1: Set an intention.
First, I suggest couples set an intention together, to recreate empathy in the relationship. It helps to start with a conscious decision that’s named. Perhaps both of you want to deepen the intimacy or trust, or just ease the resentment. The intention can be different for each of you, but what’s important is that there’s an agreed upon desire and willingness to bring attention to this issue in the relationship.
Sometimes one partner is not willing to set such an intention, often precisely because of the resentment that’s being addressed. If that’s the case, you can still set an intention on your own; while it’s not ideal, it can nonetheless bring positive results.
Step 2: Push the reset button.
Once an intention has been named, I recommend making a deal to officially press the reset button on your relationship. You can celebrate this relationship restart date as perhaps a new anniversary, the day you committed to begin again without the poisons of the past. It’s important that you mark this restart date in some tangible way that makes it real and sacred.
A restart date means exactly that—you are beginning again. So now when you express your feelings to your partner, those feelings matter simply because they exist and cannot be invalidated by past events. Pressing the restart button means you get a clean slate in which you are both innocent and entitled to kindness and support. This step can open up a brand new space in which to meet and take care of each other again.
Step 3: Try taking turns.
Along with the reset, I recommend trying a new way of communicating that I call “taking turns.” Taking turns means when one partner brings upset feelings to the other, he is heard and understood fully, without rebuttal. The experience of the other partner, what we might say caused her to behave in the way she did (that created the upset), is then held for the next day.
The next day, if she desires, she expresses her experience of what her partner presented, or something else entirely. And once again, she presents her experience without receiving a rebuttal on his part.
While I am suggesting an imposed way of communicating around difficult issues (which can feel cumbersome), this process can encourage nondefensive listening and even empathy. It is designed to address resentments in a safe way, as soon as they arise, to prevent them from crystallizing.
Since you know that your time to tell “your side of the story” is not coming until tomorrow, you are more able to listen to, truly hear, and be present for your partner’s experience. In a strange way, you can relax, because you don’t need to try to win the argument. You can also try repeating back to your partner what you are hearing them say and feel, and doing this mirroring until they feel you have correctly “gotten” their experience.
Being able to hear your partner without defending yourself can lessen the chances that the exchange will end up feeding new resentments. Taking turns and knowing that there will be a guaranteed safe place for your experience to be heard will ease your anxiety, anger, desperation, and despair. It will also vastly improve the possibility of building a newly empathic bond.
By communicating one at a time (with a break for reflection in between), you are creating a garden for kindness, curiosity, and support—the defining aspects of intimacy—to have a chance to take root and hopefully grow.
Resentment is poisonous to a relationship. It kills off the best part of intimacy, namely, empathy. The most satisfying part of a partnership, as I have witnessed, is the opportunity to give and receive empathy, to really feel its exchange. So, if your relationship is suffering from resentment, you might try these suggestions. It certainly can’t hurt, and might truly help. Even the process of trying will contain its own riches.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, author, public speaker, and workshop leader. A regular blogger for Psychology Today and The Huffington Post, she has also authored several books on mindfulness and personal growth. Colier is available for individual psychotherapy, mindfulness training, spiritual counseling, public speaking, and workshops, and also works with clients via Skype around the world. For more information, visit NancyColier.com