Bitterness: Love's Poison

How bitterness can defeat love.

Posted Sep 27, 2011

Of all the barriers that discourage committing to a new lover, the wall of bitterness is the most deadly. There is no greater warning sign to a potential relationship than cynicism about the past. Those black clouds signal the presence of a failure-demon, who lies in wait for the first time you do not meet his or her expectations.

Bitter, cynical, pessimistic people often attract "cheerleaders" who are determined to bring light into their darkness. These ever-hopeful "happiness makers" are somehow confident that they will be ones who can make the difference. If only they hang in there and keep those positive behaviors coming, maybe their partners can find true love in the ruins of their multiple failures.

If you have tried to love bitter people, you are well acquainted with their legitimate reasons for their ongoing suffering. Your chronically unhappy lovers may have become attached to the cynical character they have become. If so, you may have been daunted, trying desperately in vain to save them from themselves.

More than likely, the harder you tried to love them, the more strongly they held on to their unhappiness. You may have been determined to love them, but eventually got tired of carrying those cheerleading pom-poms. Sadly, when you finally did give up, your cynical partners have added one more reason to their expectations of relationship failures.

To recognize a resolutely bitter person early on, listen for statements like these:

"I don't really expect much out of relationships anymore. They seem to start out okay, but eventually something always happens to trip them up. Haven't you found the same disappointments?"

"Let's face it, when the hot sex quiets down, your partner is bound to be unhappy with you. They always start out supportive, but eventually find fault when you don't live up to all their expectations."

"I don't think people are really meant to be together for a long time. The bad stuff adds up, and the good stuff can't compete. I don't know one great relationship that makes it through the rapids. Mine certainly haven't, and I don't expect them to anymore."

If you are attracted to these tragically sorrowful people and are just naturally compassionate, you may be tempted to try to help them, especially if they have other attractive qualities. Be especially careful if that person tells you that you're different from all their past lovers, even possibly the one person who could understand them. If you believe that story, know that it will be a zero tolerance test. Your partner has been disappointed many times in the past, and is hoping against hope that your love will overcome their fears. If you question their repeatedly returning to their cynical viewpoint, they may accuse you of no longer caring, just like everyone before you.

How is Bitterness Created?

No one is born bitter. It is a learned attitude, most often from pessimistic, cynical, or hopeless caregivers. Sadly, small children are the most effected by consistent negative messages like these:

"Don't count on anything and you won't be disappointed."

"No one deserves anything good. Maybe you'll be lucky and maybe you won't."

"No one is really happy. Don't even think about it."

"Happiness doesn't last. There is always going to be something bad in your life."

"Life is hard. That's the way it's supposed to be. Why should you be any luckier?"

"Why do you think you deserve love? It's not automatic, you know, and more likely to go away than stick around."

Hope is a natural way to envision a future that is better than the present. Despair diminishes hope, and instead sees a life of continued suffering. Every person needs to know that they have some control over that process. The absence of possibility can cause despondency, defeat, and hopelessness. If children are instead given messages that hope is always possible, they can reach beyond disappointments and seek fulfillment even when their lives are hard.

Some people are more internally resilient than others. Despite having more heartaches than most, they can still maintain hope. But most are not so fortunate. The continuous crushing of dreams, or a lifetime of repeated failures, can push anyone down.

When people experience loss after loss, they may unconsciously create behavior patterns that sabotage new options. The natural result of too many broken dreams or unfulfilled expectations is a lessened willingness to try again. They now see successful love relationships as an impossible realization.

Different Kinds of Bitterness

Bitterness can be expressed in many ways, but the following five are the most common. Unfortunately, they are not mutually exclusive.

Ø  Bitterness handed down trans-generationally

Ø  Bitterness from depression or other organic causes

Ø  Bitterness from broken promises and lost dreams

Ø  Bitterness that results from unrealistic expectations

Ø  Bitterness from trauma, neglect, or abuse

Trans-generational Bitterness

Pessimistic attitudes can be passed down through generations, even when the original reasons for cynicism no longer exist. Unfair discrimination, blocked access to new ways of life, or attachment to restrictive traditions, can keep families from believing that change is a viable option. They feel that keeping their children hardened to vulnerability and low in expectations will protect them from unpredictable pain. They toughen their family members early, never allowing them to hope or dream beyond what is readily available. If any of their children aspire beyond those limitations, or attach themselves to optimistic outsiders, those children may be threatened with punishment or exile.

Some cultures treasure their cynicism as part of their lore. They feel that passion and loss are one, and that despondency is part of life. You will find bitterness and cynicism hard to release if it has always been a part of your culture. That will be especially true if you have chosen a partner who does not have the same background.

Depression or other Organic Causes

A genetic predisposition to depression can make the most hopeful of situations appear bleak and untrustworthy. Unlike grief, which has a specific loss to endure and permits hope, clinical depression feels more like an open-ended prison sentence without chance of parole. Sleep eludes, appetite wobbles, self-esteem is non-existent, and energy for life wanes. Those suffering from depression may have difficulties managing sleep and appetite, have no energy for life, and feel inadequate and undeserving. For them, life becomes a continuous ground hog day of limited and unsatisfying experiences.

They can feel hopeful at the beginning of a relationship because new experiences create brain chemicals that offset depression for a while. With positive qualities to offer, they can attract rescuers who can temporarily undo their negative attitude. Eventually the depression will re-emerge, making them likely to defeat their partner and end up alone again. Cynicism that results from innate depression can be treated. Once the depression abates, they must then challenge the habits they believed were intractable.

Genetic abnormalities that lower serotonin and dopamine levels are sometimes the basis for depression. Chronic illness also can cheat people of life's beauty. It may destroy hope, and cause heartbreaking results, such as lost relationships, financial ruin, or physical incapacities. Some people find ways to rise above these unwanted trials, and still create new options for whatever is still possible. Others find solace in their legitimate reasons for hopelessness, and cannot change their expectations.

Depressed people can always be helped by a loving and concerned support network but, unless they are willing to receive that assistance, even well-intended friends and lovers will eventually give up.

Broken Promises and Lost Dreams

In every stage of life, many people weave their experiences into their dream of an ideal romantic relationship. Children absorb from their parents and other adults. Young people join social networks, text continuously, watch TV, attend movies and concerts, and create the person they feel they might be able to love forever. Throughout all of their lives, people seek to find that perfect person, that ever-lasting love.

Whether from unrealistic expectations, bad luck, or choosing the wrong people, all relationship seekers come up against unanticipated barriers. With each new disappointment, they can either store up anger, hurt, and disillusionment, or they can learn from their mistakes and try again. Over time, repeatedly choosing the negative option can result in cynicism. Cynical people often end up pushing away the very people they want to be loved by. With those repeated failures, they may start to believe that they will never have a long-term, loving relationship. If they can understand that their cynicism is learned, they can faith that they can learn a new way.

Past Failures from Unrealistic Expectations

Most people do everything they can to make their relationships work, but can't seem to find the right person, do the right thing, or avoid unforeseeable problems. They may not be aware that they are repeating sabotaging patterns, or choosing partners similar to those who have hurt them.

As children, they may have been taught unrealistic expectations and to overlook good potential partners. As adults, they may not have accurately assessed their social marketability. Alternatively, they may have unconscious barriers to learning successful relationship behaviors. If they continue to have these unrealistic expectations, they may repeatedly fall in love with people who are disinterested and will not reciprocate their desires.

Whatever the reasons, their mounting losses begin to discourage and disillusion them. Their expectation of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and they begin each new relationship with a pre-defeated attitude, creating the same patterns that didn't work before.

Most partners try to lead with their best selves and then slowly reveal the parts of them that may not be as desirable. Counting on what they have created, they hope that the relationship will survive. Long-term relationships require new skills and cannot continue if they are not mastered. If people continue to repeat old patterns that have not worked in the past, they will be continually disappointed.

Trauma and Abuse

This is the hardest of all categories because trauma victims have much reason to be bitter, often long before they begin to search for an adult relationship. They may have suffered at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them, and then found themselves in adult relationships with no choice but to endure unfair and punitive pain. By the time they understand that they deserve better treatment, they are hyper-sensitive to the slightest indications that abuse may occur again.

Early trauma can teach a child that relationships are supposed to include abuse or neglect. Their adult attitudes of pessimism, discouragement, disillusionment, and disbelief are protective barriers to keep pain away. Unfortunately, when they connect with a new abuser, those early memories can feel familiar. Abuse victims may find themselves unconsciously pulled towards what they know, even if it hurts them. Once in damaging relationships, they may not even recognize the abuse or neglect, tolerating more than they should.

Or, on the contrary, they may see abuse or neglect even where it is not occurring, or at a much higher level of intensity than some others would feel. Their anticipation of being hurt can emerge as a low frustration tolerance, and they may overreact with hostility, sarcasm, and distancing of their own, driving love away before it stands a chance.  

Is it Possible to Leave Bitterness Behind?

Bitterness hurts, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People appear to hold on to it to protect themselves from more pain. It does shield them from more hurt, but also from love as well. Cynical relationship seekers, bitter from the heartbreaks of the past, may not allow for a new and dangerous future. That engulfing sorrow holds open a painful wound of disappointed memories, even when the lovers who caused them are long gone.

Yes, people can leave bitterness behind. To do so, these wounded people must process the causes of their despair, hopelessness, cynicism, and pessimism. Here is what they need to do to regain hope for a better outcome in the future:

  1. Prepare a thorough and realistic assessment of what they have endured.
  2. Be willing to face how past partners have hurt them and where they, themselves, may have contributed to holding on to their bitterness.
  3. Examine the lessons learned, vow not to repeat them, and formulate how to act differently in the future.
  4. Know what they are able to change, and where they will need allies in their healing to accept their broken places.
  5. Using all of the above, re-program their emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual selves to be able to face the future with renewed confidence.

Here is an example:

Clarissa's Story

Clarissa grew up in a broken home. Her parents, both drug addicts, were rarely home. She was a Cinderella child, made to do most of the household maintenance, and given no encouragement to develop her talents or to encourage her dreams. She was expected to take care of her two younger brothers in her parent's absence, often without adequate food or clothing available. Her only option was to beg the neighbors to share some of their groceries. She missed school on a regular basis because there was no one to take care of the boys and there were no other possible arrangements.

Her grandparents told her she shouldn't expect more because her parents were "doing the best they could." When she asked for help, they shrugged and said they didn't have any money. She would have to make things happen for herself, just as they had to.

Her father and mother kept telling her that someday she could have all the things she wanted, but those promises were never kept as the money for them went to drugs and unpaid obligations. Her teachers encouraged her to keep trying because she was "so gifted," though they had little extra time or supplies to give. They reassured her that there would be people someday to help her, but those hopes never came true. She started working as early as she could lie about her age, and dreamed alone about the Prince Charming who would for certain come when it was finally her time.

At seventeen, she met Todd. He saw the beauty in her spirit and wanted to save her from her pain and suffering. They married in two months. Her parents seemed glad that she would no longer be their burden. The younger boys were taking care of themselves, and it was one less mouth to feed.

She believed that Todd truly loved her and that her prayers were answered. They were soul mates and destined to be together forever. She was filled with a hope she had only been able to fantasize before. Eighteen months after they were married, he left for Iraq. She never saw him again.

Broken and frightened, she used Todd's military death benefits to go to school. Used to heavy demands, she was able to work nights and go to school during the day. She missed Todd desperately, and was willing to accept anyone who would offer her solace. Within a year, she fell in love with a married professor who assured her that he had separated permanently from his wife, and would be with her in only a few months.  

When she became pregnant, he handed her an envelope filled with money and told her to take care of it. He was not present at the abortion, and afterward announced that he and his wife had reconciled. He ended the relationship and told her to contact him again.

Living alone, Clarissa finished her undergraduate and graduate studies before her twenty-ninth birthday. Her mother and father had both died, and her brothers had disappeared from her life. She had few friends, and no time to find more. Her well-paying job gave her a financially secure life, but she felt deeply that love was something she would never know again. Her only relationships were the people she saw in church each week, and she carefully avoided deepening any of those connections.

At thirty, she was informed that her youngest brother had been killed in the war. In a grief that she could no longer suppress, Clarissa could no longer hold back her grief for the multitudes of losses she had endured. She fell into a deep depression and felt that her life no longer had purpose or reason. Her childhood fears had become a lifetime reality and she could not see her way out of the darkness.

When she did not come to church, her pastor was worried. He came to her home and found her alone in the dark, sobbing uncontrollably. Clarissa could not keep up her façade anymore and poured her heart out to him. They spoke late into the night. He reminded her of how she had sustained hope as a child with no support, and that she could call upon that strength again. He suggested she get some help. I had the privilege of being the person she came to see.

This was how Clarissa re-created herself:

Accurately assessing what she had endured:

Clarissa did a thorough evaluation of where her broken dreams began and how she held on to those negative beliefs as her disappointments mounted. She saw how her both grandparents and parents had given up their own dreams, escaped into limited lives, and had no resources to either help her or them. She also realized that she had not allowed herself to grieve Todd's death because it was unbearable. Unable to see herself realistically any more, she consistently minimized her accomplishments and focused on her sadness.

Be willing to face how others had hurt her, and where she may have contributed:

Clarissa had taken responsibility for all of the failures in her life, whether they were her fault or someone else's. She had continuously tried to make excuses when others couldn't be there for her, and had never realized that the people she chose after Todd's death were as unreliable and irresponsible and those she had grown up with. Her belief that she must always be strong had attracted men who felt entitled to be catered to, but had no need to reciprocate.

What She Learned:

Clarissa had to realize that she must no longer only accommodate the expectations of others. She had never known that she could write her own rules for happiness, and that anyone who loved her would want to know what they were. She began assessing her strengths, what she had to offer, and the kind of man who would deserve her gifts.

The Personal Changes She Needed to Make:

Clarissa began to look at her bitterness as a natural response to her many losses, but not a response she had to maintain. Speaking from her heart and her new confidence, she presented herself as someone who had a right to the love she sought. She also saw that the few intimate relationships she'd had since Todd's death had been with men who had exploited her, leaving her more cynical. She was now learning how to recognize the traits she was looking for, and to discern when they were not there. She had to master a whole new set of expectations of herself and others.

Knowing what was possible for her:

Clarissa looked deeply at what she really wanted and what she had to offer in return. She wrote a sincere and authentic profile for She now knew what to ask for, and that she could not expect a new relationship to heal or justify her past. The heartaches she had legitimately endured no longer could predict her future.

Though she never had children, Clarissa did find a deep and meaningful relationship with a man who had also suffered multiple losses. He too had struggled with limited options based upon his lack of awareness. They dedicated their lives to helping disadvantaged children to avoid the multiple disappointments that bitterness thrives upon.

Instead of "If there has been only sorrow, there will only be more sorrow," Clarissa wrote her new expectations of her future:

"Bitterness's ally is continuing disappointment. I now know that disappointments come from improbable expectations. I cannot avoid them all, but I'm so much more aware of how to predict them now. I'm pretty good at understand what is possible and what is not. I may be sad that I can't always have what I want, but I don't expect what I can't have, and I love what I can make happen now. I didn't know that there was so much more I could do to make my dreams come true, or how I would have to see the world differently. I can feel truly sad for the person in me who suffered so much, but she has an advocate now. That person is me."

Not all people have the heart, commitment, discipline, and spirit, to turn their lives around as Clarissa did. But everyone can change what they have believed as their only truth into something they have not yet experienced. If they learn the tools to honestly self-evaluate, face their own accountability, learn from past mistakes, and change the way they search for and enter new relationships, their options to end their bitterness will increase. There is an antidote for the bitterness that poisons love. It is the recommitment to believing that understanding and the determination to change can triumph over loss.