Anger and I have never been friends. I was raised in a household where the only anger tolerated was my mother’s. Every one else had to be “nice.” As a result, I grew up not really knowing how to constructively deal with my anger, so most of the time, I swallowed it. And it became an ulcer on my soul called depression. It wasn’t until, as an adult, I had a therapist explain a theory about depression that centered on the idea that depression is anger turned inward. In other words, it’s anger with no place to go… for one reason or another, the anger you feel cannot be expressed, so you bury it and grow increasingly depressed. This is a clinical depression, not a sadness or a grief, but a low-energy hopelessness about your situation that usually feels completely out of proportion to the actual facts of your situation.
Once I understood the concept, I had one of those beautiful “aha!” moments when something in your life just clicks into place in a way that completely alters your worldview. This theory, I realized, explained so much of my life and the intermittent depression I’d struggled with privately. I wasn’t sad, really, I was just very, very, very pissed off, but too “nice” to do anything appropriate with that anger.
Anger is still something with which I’m learning to get comfortable, and it’s not easy for me. Of all the emotions, anger seems to me to be like that loud, bawdy, vulgar aunt who drinks too much at Christmas, burps loudly, and laughs at her own jokes. There is no softness to anger, it is angular and sharp and hard. It is unforgiving and unyielding, and it frightens me how it can be blinding in its extremes. I realize that it is a vital emotion, and one that can be cathartic and cleansing when managed properly, but when I’m angry, I mostly feel like a newbie driver behind the wheel of a semi-truck — ill-prepared and dangerous, ready to roll over an innocent bystander at any minute. So, I guess you could say I’m working on it.
When my parents divorced, my mother was outraged. I am not exaggerating; there is seriously no other word for her feelings toward my dad. His primary sin was that he didn’t love her anymore, and for this she was completely and utterly furious with him. Now, my mom comes from a long line of Eastern European hotheads, and she did her ancestors proud. She stayed furious at my father for 13 years after their divorce. Yes, that’s right: THIRTEEN YEARS. For 13 years, she seethed. If his name was mentioned, her face and demeanor perceptibly changed. Those who had anything nice to say about him were banished, and he became this horrible villain in her life story. Fortunately for her (and all of us, really), an enormous falling out with me followed by some intensive therapy helped her let go of most of her anger. Thank goodness.
Since my separation, I have dated plenty of guys who were divorced, and, not surprisingly, anger has been a frequent theme. As expected, some of these men reported ex-wives who were a combination of Medusa and the Wicked Witch of the West, but I became adept at being an active listener and discerning what was real and what was pure emotion. I learned to avoid the men who had a lot of unresolved anger; my experience with my mom had taught me that anger of that nature is ultimately visited on everyone around the injured person, and that’s a kind of baggage I decided to avoid.
That’s not to say that I don’t get pissed off at my ex or that I wouldn’t be in a relationship with a guy who didn’t have a fairytale happy relationship with his ex. I’m not talking about the guy who still gets annoyed at his ex or thinks she’s a crazy bitch. I’m talking about the guy who is seething. The guy who has so much anger in his heart toward his ex that there probably isn’t room in there for anyone new. That guy is, for all real intents and purposes, still in a relationship with his ex, as much as if he were still sleeping in her bed. He is engaged with her, consumed by her, negatively infatuated by her. And for any woman who is good enough to try to love him, he is a dead end.
The most obvious example of this kind of man was one of my first match.com dates. We’ll call him Chris. Chris and I met for coffee one morning and talked for over an hour. He was handsome and interesting and seemed to smile easily. But as the minutes ticked by, I perceived that, despite his relaxed Colorado demeanor, inside he was clenched tight as a fist. I asked about his ex-wife, and, at first, he claimed no hard feelings and enumerated some of her wonderful qualities. I sat back and listened and, as often was the case, he kept talking. And I saw that his smile, while easily worn, had a tightness about the edges, a sharpness to it that belied his inner anger. He pulled at the napkin in front of him with a kind of controlled fury that I noted with apprehension. He talked of her egregious behavior and how she had failed to honor her commitment to a life together until death did they part. I finally interrupted him and asked how long they had been divorced.
They had been divorced nine years and Chris was still raging over her and the fact that she had left him. Wow. Needless to say, I got the hell out of there as fast as I could.
Of course divorce makes people angry. It might even make them rageful. A lot crappy things are done and said when a marriage is dying and a divorce is being born. But what the two people do with those feelings and how much control they surrender to them and how long they hold onto them are all very telling. Does their anger color their world view? Are they aware of their anger or do they deny it? Do they ever consciously let go of that anger in order to make a new life? Or do they allow the anger to consume them, so that they are living a life in the shadow of a relationship long over?
Last week, my ex-husband disappointed me. In a big, big way. And I was shocked at how quickly my anger and resentment toward him boiled up again. I spent a few days telling all my friends (not our friends, but my friends) what an asshole he was. I had bad dreams and journaled furiously about how perfectly this latest offense encapsulated my reasons for divorcing him. I avoided this blog, lest it become a repository for my negativity. And then, after a couple of days, I was spent. So, I turned away from him and my feelings about him and back to the life I’m creating for myself. And in the last few days I’ve hardly thought of him at all.
I’m sure there isn’t only one right way to deal with the anger of divorce, but I know that this is the way that I’m dealing with it. I’m trying to allow my anger to speak when appropriate, but to do so constructively and without malice. As with any new skill, I’ve had mixed results. But so far, I’m just glad it hasn’t become the centerpiece of my life. Because anger held too tightly for too long creates a barren and harsh landscape, inhospitable to compassion and love and empathy and intimacy. I learned this early and I learned it well. Thank goodness.