Men and women are different in how they process and store emotions. There are always exceptions to this rule, but I’m about to describe how the majority of men and women deal with hurt and resentment. Both genders feel hurt and resentment, and both can certainly hold on to resentment a long time. But men have a slight tendency to throw off resentment and hurt on their own --women tend to need someone to talk to throw off the hurt and resentment. The best person for them to talk to is the person that caused the hurt and resentment. And not any conversation will do…only the right kind of conversation will help.
This is of those situations where you see the man going off to his “cave”. In his cave, his hormones will just wash the upset out of his mind. It may take up to a few days, but he will tend to recover on his own. The common story couples tell in my therapy office, is that the woman is chasing after him, intent on talking about her upset and preferably about her hurt and resentment. Men don’t need to talk about their hurt and resentment as much as women do. Here’s why – men’s hurt and resentment dissipates and disappears over time. Obviously, this doesn’t always happen. If you are a man reading this, you know you hold on to resentment too, for years possibly. But, it doesn’t appear to stack up about your partner, the way it will for most women.
For women, hurt and resentment pile up in their minds: I call it "the stack”. In the stack are the hurts and resentments of the entire relationship. Depending on how long the couple has been together, it could be 10 years, 20 years, 30 years or more of piled up hurt and resentment. This is why women will surprise men so often with bringing up past hurts and emotional injuries. Again, once in a while men and women have the reverse roles, where men bring up past hurts and resentments, but in my office, it is usually the women who build up “the stack”.
So for women to bring up ancient hurts and resentments is normal. It is a sign, however, that a reparative conversation – some discussion that repairs the damage – didn’t happen. Luckily, it’s almost never too late to have the reparative conversation. The key is to know what kind of conversation repairs.
Another curious thing about “the stack” is that when something hurtful happens between you and your spouse, every similar hurt and resentment on the stack also resonates with the new upset. This is why suddenly past hurts and resentments are brought up, even from 20 years ago or more. To the man, this usually seems weird. But from the point of view of “the stack”, this is normal and to be expected. The memories of similar hurts will be triggered. This is not necessarily a problem, it is, in fact very helpful. It let’s you know what never got talked and healed -- which situation never had the correct kind of conversation. It let’s both of you know what conversation is needed to heal the emotional wounds and repair the relationship.
The reason I say it’s “almost” never too late to have that reparative conversation is that sometimes it may be too late. There is a threshold height to that stack of hurts and resentments. When it gets too high, something changes in the women. She’s had too much – she’s overloaded with hurt and resentment – and will start to fall out of love with her partner. The threshold level when that happens is different for every woman. So, it is best to start having the kind of conversations that repair the damage sooner, rather than waiting till it’s too late. Now with some women, the stack will slowly build over the years, but the threshold may never be reached and the relationship endures, although not as happily as it could be.
Men don’t seem to need this kind of conversation so much, but for women it’s required. If a man wants to keep his woman happy, he will need to have this kind of conversation. The conversation is different each time, but it has common themes. It involves listening to feelings without arguing, justifying or getting defensive. There is always listening and understanding her feelings, even if you don’t agree with her opinion. Sometimes it is important to apologize for saying something hurtful. If you get stuck on how to have the right conversation that repairs emotional wounds, a couples therapist can be very helpful at teaching a couple how to create these kind of conversations.
By Donald Wallach Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
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