How can it be that for the majority of people, there was more trust, caring, and self-disclosure in their relationship after two months of dating than after twenty years of marriage? There should be a deeper level of love, intimacy, and emotional connection after twenty years; at least that’s what logic would dictate.
I have been a successful marriage counselor for over thirty years. Unlike most therapists who focus on helping couples to improve their communication skills or simply help them resolve the latent issues that have brought them to therapy, I take a dramatically different approach to couples counseling.
What I have found is this: If a couple has an issue, (i.e. money, parenting, chores, etc.) and they have the ability to discuss their problems, tolerate the discomfort of an argument, and ultimately stay in the “boxing ring” long enough, they tend to resolve their differences. It is like the issue goes away. These couples are the ones who are able to say “you’re here, I am here, let’s compromise or negotiate a win-win. However, if the couple can’t do this, if they can’t resolve their differences, if the emotions become too uncomfortable or the argument gets “de-railed “ then the issue never gets resolved.
What kind of things derail an argument?
It is different for each couple. The five most common behaviors are probably; yelling, name calling, interrupting, bringing up issues from the past and getting defensive (meaning “well you do this”). If the issue does not get resolved and they walk away, these issues remain as an open wound. And if they don’t resolve the problem, what happens to it? The couple figuratively opens up the basement door and kicks it down in the basement. It is now down in the basement with years of other unresolved issues. These issues over time build up and get all funky and smelly. That smell is resentment.
High levels of resentment start a chain reaction within a relationship
As levels of resentment grow, the level of intimacy, or the ability of an individual to open up and reveal what is going on in their inner world decreases. As the resentment starts to build up in a relationship, the couple starts to gradually grow more and more alienated from each other. When this happens, the laughing, joking, teasing, talking and sex starts to dry up. These are often the very things which made the couple feel in love in the first place. At this juncture in a relationship, most individuals start to focus on the things in their lives that do give them satisfaction and do make them feel successful, (i.e. focusing on the children, one’s career, shopping or other hobbies). They start to grow apart from each other emotionally rather than grow closer. What many couples report to me is that their relationships have become stagnant, as if they are roommates instead of lovers. The couple loses hope that they have what it takes to find marital happiness. When couples feel alienated emotionally, they are vulnerable to seduction. Since there is little physical intimacy in the relationship, this is the point where many of my clients end up having either an emotional or sexual affair. Though you can be seduced by other things including careers, porn, alcohol or shopping.
This growing resentment not only causes a change in how each of the individuals treat each other, it also has an impact on how connected they feel to one another. As this resentment grows, its nature becomes what I term a Resentment Dynamic.
A resentment dynamic is a downward spiral in a couple’s level of satisfaction, happiness, and connection. In a typical relationship there are things I will do for you when we are connected emotionally that I will not do for you when we are emotionally disconnected (honey, here is your coffee). There are also ways that I talk to you when we are getting along that I do not use when we are disconnected. In a resentment dynamic, these behaviors on our part lead to feelings of resentment and small changes in the way that we feel about our mates. These in turn lead to changes in the way we think about them, and ultimately to small changes in the way that we treat them around the house. These changes in the way we treat them affect the way that they perceive us, and they in turn treat us differently. The reality is that there are things we will do for our mates when we are getting along that we will not do for them when we feel alienated. This spiral continues until small changes have altered the true nature of the relationship, creating a shadow of a once vibrant, loving relationship.
Rather than focus on improving communication skills or helping a couple resolve a specific problem, the first thing that I do is concentrate on helping couples to understand the resentment that each feels and what behaviors generated these feelings to begin with. The way that I determine the degree of resentment and what our partner does that generates that resentment is to have them complete the Dorman Resentment Rating Scale.
The Dorman Resentment Rating Scale
5 = Extreme resentment, almost constant anger or frustration
4 = Resentful thoughts on almost a daily basis
3 = Moderate resentment
2 = Occasional frustration or resentment
1 = Minimal resentment
0 = No resentment
1. Working too many hours, too much focus on work related issues (even when at home).
2. Too much focus on friends.
3. Not enough physical intimacy.
4. Too much focus on sports or hobbies such as______________.
5. Too much focus on the children.
6. Not enough attention.
7. Treated in a disrespectful manner.
8. Pressure to perform sexually.
9. Always angry, anger management issues.
10. Money management problems, spending money “we don’t have.”
11. Parenting problems, disagreement over parenting styles.
12. Lack of intimacy (i.e., no interest in talking, “I don’t feel emotionally connected to you.”).
113. Addiction to gambling, pornography, eating, or ___________.
114. Lack of trust, lying.
15. Infidelity or affair.
16. Making decisions unilaterally / Not making decisions as a couple.
17. Inability to resolve differences, lack of conflict resolution skills.
18. Unfair distribution of chores or work around the house.
19. “I feel betrayed because when we got married, I thought it was going to be different.”
20. Manipulative or controlling (i.e. things have to be, “their way.”)
21. ‘Bitching’, nagging, restating things several times.
22. Game playing.
23. Never says what they really want (“I have to guess what you really want or what’s bugging
24. Too passive (“I have to make all the decisions”) or too assertive (“they always have to wear the
I do have a total at the end of the column, but it is for comparison reasons only. This means that if taken several weeks apart, there is often a decrease in the amount of resentment that a person has. The truth, however, is that even one issue that generates a “5” might be enough to cause emotional disconnection. Many of my couples like my Resentment Rating Scale because it gives focus to the problem. I typically go back and forth between the husband and wife talking about the “4’s and 5’s” that have been identified.
So, take the test. If you find that you have a few two’s and an occasional three, that would probably be considered normal. However, if you find yourself with a number of fours or fives on your Resentment Rating Scale that may indicate a more significant problem and you may need to contact a therapist and address the problem before it grows into a more substantial problem.