When we’re first betrayed by someone we relied on to love and protect us, we may be frightened by our own rage. Years or even decades later, we may be frightened of letting go of that anger. We may resist moving forward because we are not yet ready to detach from our suffering.
It’s not that we take some twisted masochistic pleasure in feeling like the “done-in” partner, though we may come to wrap pain and suffering around ourselves like an old, familiar blanket. More important, staying angry and “done in” can be our way of taking revenge—of showing the other person how deeply they have harmed us through their outrageous behavior. To move forward in our lives may feel akin to forgiving the transgressor, to saying: “Well, I’m doing well now, so I guess your behavior didn’t hurt me that much.”
Then there’s the fantasy that if we hang onto our justified rage and suffering long enough, the other person will finally see the light, realize how much they have harmed us, and feel as bad—perhaps even worse!—than they have made us feel. It is a powerful and comforting fantasy. But it is just that—a fantasy. If that person who harmed you hasn’t “gotten it” yet, they never will.
Some of us may be afraid to let go of our anger because, in a strange way, it keeps us connected to the person who has hurt us. Anger is a form of intense (albeit negative) attachment, just like love. Both forms of emotional intensity keep us close to the other person, which is why so many couples are legally divorced, but not emotionally divorced. If you can’t talk on the phone or be in the same room with your ex-spouse without feeling your stomach clutch, then you’re still attached.
Detaching can provoke great anxiety—and require enormous courage.
When we let go of our anger and suffering (which does not necessarily include forgiveness) and begin to allow joy into our life, an odd thing may happen: We may temporarily experience anxiety and a sense of “homesickness” with every move forward, because with each step taken on our own behalf, we are taking emotional leave from a relationship that was officially terminated long ago.
When we leave anger behind, we give up the dream that the person who harmed us will ever feel remorse, see things the way we do, or come back to us on their knees, pleading for another chance.
I don’t mean to imply that we hold onto our anger because we consciously want to show the other person how totally they’ve screwed up our lives. Nor are these feelings completely in our control. We don't just decide one day, “Gee, I think this would be a good time to let go of my anger and suffering."
As I say in The Dance of Anger, we rely on this emotion to preserve the very dignity and integrity of the self. Anger is not a “bad” or "negative" emotion. It can take great courage to acknowledge and express anger. But it requires just as much courage to free oneself from the corrosive effects of living too long with anger and bitterness—a challenge that may include forgiveness but does not require it.
What’s clear is that nothing is served by ruminating about the terrible things your ex did to you, and making yourself miserable in the process, while the person who has harmed you may be having a fabulous day at the beach.
Harriet Lerner's book, The Dance of Anger, has been reissued by William Morrow.