Purging the pain

After a nasty breakup, how do you go past bitterness to indifference?

Published April 28, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My query might be more abstract than those you usually address, but if you could treat it in the same empathetically personal fashion that you do other matters, I'm sure your readers would find it vitally relevant.

How does one practically set about extinguishing bitterness?

My own impetus for asking comes from (surprise) a nasty breakup. I won't go into the details here, because doing so would purport, in essence, to build some sort of "plaintiff's case" on my own behalf, which necessarily assumes that matters of the heart can be analyzed and judged on intellectual grounds -- and in the end they just can't. Suffice it to say that the fact is -- inasmuch as personal emotional experience can be called "fact" -- I've been savagely heartbroken and lasting bitterness at the perp has set in. The lingering kind: the kind that gnashes on your ankle like a rusty bear trap, chaining you down in one place and giving you a nasty infection to boot. It's been almost eight months since the trap sprung, and I'm still tugging my leg in vain.

My head and my heart have always had an estranged relationship and it's no different now. Intellectually, I honestly don't want to hate E, or dwell on our bad times together, or even think about her much at all anymore -- it's pathetic, and it only taints the natural passion I can bring to other lovers and my life in general. But my heart is obsessed with its wounds and doesn't much care for the voice of reason upstairs. I can't will my bitterness away any more than I can debate a toothache. So what the hell do I do?

I've tried distracting myself (a botched rebound fling, manic devotion to work, exercise); I've tried "being with" the bitterness (reading, journaling, misogynistic bull sessions with the guys) in hopes of letting it blow itself out. I've tried making olive-branch attempts at some sort of amicable acquaintanceship; I've tried across-the-board communication embargoes. I boxed up all our mementos and had a friend bury them in an unknown location somewhere in L.A., because although I couldn't bring myself to destroy them, I couldn't stand the stench of so many dead things lying around; but I also kept one photo I took of her that I'm particularly proud of, because I do cherish many, many moments we shared and I don't want to deny their beauty or their existence. But really, none of this has worked, because here I am writing about it -- and meanwhile, every night, a small hot knot inside me burns with the hope that wherever she is, she's in pain.

I can't love her anymore, and I don't -- but I can't hate her either. It's killing me slowly. If the opposite of love is not hate but indifference, then that is what I desperately need. Time is not healing wounds here and I feel like I need to be active about cleansing this poison from my heart. But I'm out of ideas, and I'm tired. I know there's no "cure-all" or "12-step program" that dissolves anyone's bitterness, but there have to be some generalities that you can pinpoint. Or, at the very least, tell me what you've done in this situation.

Heart Needs Molting

Dear Heart Needs Molting,

There's the short answer and the long answer. The short answer is that it just takes time. That means more than eight months. Try two years.

The long answer is that while on the one hand you assert that matters of the heart cannot be analyzed and judged on intellectual grounds, on the other hand you've done exactly that by asserting categorically that you've been savagely heartbroken. You mention a "perp." So while on the one hand appearing to shy away from courtroom methods, on the other you've pronounced a guilty party and we're on to the sentencing phase; in fact, we're on to the awarding of special damages.

So hold on a minute. I think the bitterness must have something to do with your belief that a crime has been committed. But perhaps you are holding on to this notion rather tightly for a reason: You don't want to allow for the possibility that maybe no crime was committed, that maybe it was just one of those things. I can't tell for sure because you skipped over that part. Besides, it's irrelevant; even if she had acted deliberately to hurt you, if you want the bitterness to end, you've got to let go of the blame.

Anyway, you're not going to just get rid of the bitterness the way you get rid of a toxin. It doesn't work that way. But there are things you can do while you're healing to make your life and the lives of those around you a little more humane. Try to have some compassion for the person your bitterness is aimed at. Stop wishing her to suffer. Instead, wish everything wonderful for her. Just do it. Open your heart and wish for her all the things she has ever wanted, in abundance. If you can't do that, you're probably still angry at her, and you're still blaming her, and you still want her punished, and that's the source of your bitterness. So say this out loud: I wish for her all the best. I wish for her happiness and a new car. I wish for her a great new boyfriend even if he happens to be my best friend.

Another way to live through the bitterness is to genuinely feel sorry for yourself for one whole week. You're probably not allowed to feel sorry for yourself at all, so this will be a breaking of laws. Be lawless; feel sorry for yourself; let yourself feel hurt. Then tell yourself, you poor thing that's terrible what happened to you, but it's OK, you'll feel better.

It's good news that you're tired. Maybe you have nearly exhausted yourself in fruitless efforts to fix this, to manage it, to wrestle it to the ground and make it stop.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read Friday's column.

By Cary Tennis

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