The Resentment and Appreciation Exercise—an Oldie But Goodie [40]

In Love, Sex, and Relationships by Dr. Keith Witt

magnet_heart-150x150 Ken and Doris are an athletic, attractive couple in their fifties, coming into my office for their fifteenth session. In the eighth year of a tumultuous relationship, both are active in the Santa Barbara running/hiking/biking culture, very social, and committed to healing from a recent relationship catastrophe. They’ve had a lot of highs in their marriage, but this year delivered an all time low when Ken discovered Doris had cheated on him and lied about it for months. The subsequent tsunami drove them into treatment with me, and they’ve made wonderful progress. Both are smart, insight minded, and eager to grow, which makes them fun clients who are likely to make positive changes fast. Often, a relationship has turned a corner when a couple has two or three cooperative, fun sessions in a row. Issues and conflicts still arise, but the partners have that warm sense of improving as lovers and friends. The norm for more distressed couples in the first months of therapy is an occasional smooth—more loving—session, followed by a bitter, angry, or depressed session. This is Ken and Doris’ third straight smooth session. Doris comes in particularly happy because Ken trusts her more, and seems to finally believe she’s passionately resolved to never cheat again. I ask them, “You guys seem up today. What do you want to talk about? Ken smiles over at Doris, “We were just discussing that in the waiting room. Are there any exercises you could suggest? We’re going on a trip soon and it helps to have something to focus on.” Looking at them, I think to myself, “There’s a million exercises, but what would be best for you? What would help your love expand?” Since Ken and Doris struggle discussing gripes and disapprovals, I decide to teach them one of my old favorite couples’ chestnuts, the resentment/appreciation exercise. I chuckle remembering how I learned resentment/appreciations, and Doris catches it. “What so funny?” I turn to her, “I’m going to show you the resentment/appreciation exercise. I learned it when Becky and I did Sex Therapy training at the San Francisco Medical Center in 1976. The instructors were wonderful practitioner/teachers—Claudia Black and Lonnie Barbach were two of them. Those guys were at the cutting edge of couples’ work at the time and San Francisco seemed the epitome of sexual liberation and humanistic sophistication. The AIDS nightmare had yet to explode onto the scene, and all kinds of social/sexual liberation felt possible. The UC San Francisco Med center used to screen sex education porn in their cafeteria at lunch, and everywhere people seemed to be pushing limits.” I look out the window, remembering San Francisco in the seventies. “I have no idea how watching gay and straight combinations of explicit sex affected people’s dining experience, but it doesn’t appeal to me.” Ken and Doris laugh at this. “ Anyway, Claudia and the others discovered—and subsequent research confirmed—that couples who safely share minor resentments and everyday appreciations do much better, often improving their sex lives. They showed us this cool exercise that I’m going to teach you.” Doris’ gets enthused—it’s hard for her to hear resentments and she knows it. “Oh boy! This sounds like what we need.” I see Ken nodding also. Couples become more courageous and experimental when they feel securely connected. I take a deep breath. “Part of your problem is that neither of you much enjoys expressing resentments. It feels wrong to you. And so you became isolated rather than risk possible injury with irritations and complaints. Resentments expressed safely actually enhance love.” Both nod at this. In previous sessions we’ve explored in depth how keeping negative stories to themselves contributed to the affair. I go on, “First I’ll describe the exercise, and then you can do it:
  • Pick a time of day where you’re reasonably relaxed and not burned out. Ken, I think you should be the one to initiate—you know, say some version of, “Let’s do resentments and appreciations now.”
  • One of you starts by telling the other some minor resentments you felt during the last day or so. The more time specific and behavior specific the better, and you don’t elaborate. You just say something like; ‘It bugged me you were ten minutes late to dinner last night.’ Don’t go on about, ‘This is just like you. You’re always late,’ or over-apologize like, ‘I know you hate being late, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings and…’ Just express the resentment and move on to the next one.
  • The other person just listens and acknowledges, without explaining, defending, or saying ‘Sorry.’
  • After you’ve expressed one, two, three or whatever resentments, then express at least the same number of appreciations plus one. Same guidelines, time and behavior specific and don’t over-explain.
  • When you’re done, the other person says, ‘Thanks,’ and then they take their turn.
  • When you’re finished, you can’t talk about the resentments for at least four hours.
Ken looks puzzled, “Why can’t we discuss them? I thought we were trying to talk more.” I was expecting this question from Ken. He fears Doris’ ability to shut down and it’s scary to hear suggestions to not talk about things. I explain, “This is to provide structure so you can express and listen to difficult material—resentments—safely, and where you practice noticing and expressing appreciations—even tiny ones—regularly. You two can turn a tiny resentment into a big fight. You need to learn how to express and listen with acceptance that what each of you feels and believes are facts that first need to be brought into awareness and dialogue safely. Once you’ve expressed and been heard in a cooperative way, you can talk later if necessary—though you’ll find that resentments just need to be expressed and heard, often without much talk at all. This is mostly an exercise in expressing and hearing safely.” They both nod. I rub my hands together, “OK. Let’s start. Who wants to go first?” Doris says, “I will! Ken, I resent your ugly baggy brown pants.” Ken laughs, “Those are my work pants! What, I have to look good digging manure in the garden?” I interrupt, “See how hard it is to not defend? She resents your brown pants, Ken. They’re ugly to her. Accept it and move on.” He nods thoughtfully, a little surprised at how easily he fell into his habit of defense. I continue, “Any more resentments, Doris?” She takes a deep breath; it’s a relief for her to express anger without fear of argument. “Yeah. I resent you not kissing me goodbye this morning, and I resent you telling Johnny (their six-year-old grandson from Ken’s previous marriage) he ‘throws like a girl.’”  Ken and I both groan at this. We know that kind of sexist criticism is forbidden in their relationship (and in most relationships, thank God). I can feel the rhythm of the exercise shifting. It’s time to move on. “That’s three resentment, Doris. Now you need to say at least four appreciations.” She smiles. “That’s easy. I appreciate you kissing me hello when you came home last night. I love how you play ball with Johnny. You listened to me rant about my boss this morning and didn’t give advice, and you took out the trash cans without me having to remind you.” Ken nods in acceptance. I turn to him, “Your turn.” He takes a deep breath—resentments are hard for him. “It irritated me that you talked for a half hour on the phone last night to Jenny.” Doris scoffs, “It was not a half hour!” I interrupt (you have to interrupt all the time working with couples), “No debate or dialogue! Just listen!” She puts her hand over her mouth, “Oops! I’m sorry.” She’s so cute doing this that Ken and I both start grinning. “What? You guys are laughing at me!” I look at her, “No, it’s just you look cute saying that (Ken smiles agreement and Doris blushes). Go on, Ken.” Ken gets more serious, “That’s it. What I appreciate most is you coming to these sessions. I also like it you got my car detailed, and that you held my hand when we walked on the beach yesterday.” I ask them, “How do you feel after doing this?” Both look a little surprised. “Closer,” Doris says. “Yeah, warmer.” Ken responds. Time to wind it up. “OK. Ken, you initiate this every day, and we’ll see how it goes.” Ken protests, “Why do I have to initiate?” I feel a warm glow of affection as he asks this. I enjoy explaining masculine and feminine principles in naturally occurring moments of the session. “Because you’re the more masculine partner, and, in general, the feminine likes trustable masculine direction. You initiating the resentment/appreciation exercise at a time that works for both of you, in a way that feels caring and safe to Doris, enhances your erotic polarity.” Ken and Doris catch each other’s eyes, and I can tell they get it. As they leave my office later I remember a few of the countless times I’ve taught this to couples since 1976. Hundreds of marriages and people, all with unique (yet similar) stories and issues. Many are still together, some have broken up, but everybody who practiced resentment/appreciations benefited. Sometimes the old exercises are the best.