This weekend I went to an outdoor concert with my friend Annie and ran into many other acquaintances. Toward the end of the evening, I was engaged in a very entertaining conversation with my friend Antony when Annie’s ex-boyfriend, Ned, took a seat on my other side and commanded my attention. I whispered an explanation to Antony, who smiled knowingly and sat back to watch. Then I turned my full attention to Ned.
Ned proceeded to explain to me how his life has completely come undone since his 4-month relationship with Annie ended two months ago. He is distraught and angry and frustrated, and doesn’t understand how someone can go from “that kind of relationship” to “just flirting and dating with other people like it never even happened.” He implied that Annie is fickle and heartless and cold and insensitive, and he seemed fully prepared for me, Annie’s best friend, to agree with him.
What I wanted to say was this: “Dude, it was a FOUR MONTH RELATIONSHIP! And you’ve been broken up for TWO MONTHS! Get over it already! Salvage whatever shred of dignity and self-respect you have and quit dumping on everyone who knows Annie, in a desperate attempt to find one of us who agrees with you! (As best as I can tell, I was at the bottom of his list, as he seems to have worked his way through all their other mutual acquaintances…) No “I love you”s were ever exchanged or promises made or implied. She had only been separated for four months when you started dating her and you KNEW that! She was honest with you and treated you well and ended it when she realized that it had run its course for her. There was no deception or deceit in her actions. As dating goes, it was a pretty clean and respectful relationship. And it ended. And then you stalked her for a month and she kept respectfully answering your emails, your calls, and giving you time when she ran into you to try and help you process through all your feelings. But it wasn’t enough. You seem to think you are entitled to her love — that she somehow owes it to you to be with you. Here’s a newsflash: she doesn’t. She owes you only the respect and courtesy to be honest and kind and sincere, which she was. So put on your big boy pants and GET OVER IT ALREADY!
But, because I am a basically nice person and have enormous compassion for people in pain, I didn’t say that to him. Instead I gently pointed out that it had not been the same relationship for her as it was for him; I suggested that perhaps they were experiencing parallel relationships. I reminded him that he’d been separated for over year, but she for only a few months. I explained that it was normal for her to begin dating again; their relationship ended for her when it ended. She is ready to move on, even if he is not. That might not feel good to him, but it is her reality. I pointed out that he’d known she was going to be at this concert, with these friends, and yet he’d still chosen to come and place himself in this situation.
He nodded politely, tried to argue a few points here and there, and basically let me know that I simply didn’t understand. And then he finally left.
The next day, he resumed his angry emails to Annie. So now I really wish I’d actually said what I’d wanted to. And the next time I see him, I will.
My therapist likes to talk about how people get stuck in their emotions, churning around in their feelings, revisiting the same hurts and aches over and over, like someone touching a bruise they know will hurt, but can’t resist doing it. Sometimes this takes the form of prolonged grief over the death of a loved one; in other cases, it’s about getting caught in the painful details of a relationship that has ended. In some cases, people who feel wronged in a relationship churn in a stew of anger and resentment and pain. They devote considerable time and energy to focusing on how they were wronged or misunderstood. They see themselves purely as a victim and the other person as a one-dimensional villain who abused them. They get stuck, and Ned is stuck, for sure.
When I first heard of this concept of being “stuck,” it set off multiple light bulbs in my psyche. I have spent the better part of my life with a mother who is stuck, just as Ned is, in her resentment that my dad had stopped loving her and left. Her anger seethes just below the surface and has tainted multiple relationships over the years, both romantic and familial, so I have seen the damage it has done.
The thing about this kind of anger that most confounds me is the inherent sense of entitlement that these people have to the other person’s love. My mother has, on multiple occasions, said “How dare he stop loving me!” and Ned came awfully close to the same sentiment the other night. Really? I mean, seriously folks, are we really entitled to someone’s love? Do we have a right to demand that they stay in a relationship with us? I fully understand that, in my mom’s case, a marriage vow as made and broken, and I can appreciate that agony of loving someone who no longer loves you. It is a grief that knows no bounds.
Love is not something to be controlled. It is no more possible to continuing loving someone for whom you no longer feel that emotion, than it is stop loving someone for whom you do. We don’t get to turn it off, but we don’t get to turn it on, either. And — as I’ve asked my mother every single time she’s expressed her rage to me — do you really want to be with someone who no longer wants you? Do you want them to pretend? Try to convince themselves?
Or do you want to finally get past the pain and create something real with someone else?
Holding anger and resentment is like a cancer — it eats away at your very soul. Its poison takes the best of you and mutates it into a bitterness and nastiness and self-absorption that drives away the good in your life. And, perhaps most importantly, you bear the worst of it. The true target of your rage is, most likely, relatively unaffected by your seething emotions. You might wish and hope that someday they will “realize the errors of their ways” but, in my experience, that rarely happens. Most people who leave a relationship make the right choice for themselves, and that can be the most maddening thing of all to those left behind. Indeed, it is the other person’s ability to “move on” and past whatever you shared that is making you so angry and crazy. So, they proceed to a new life of promise with others, while you stew in your self-pity, clutching your feelings of victimization and railing at the world for not damning that person to hell along with you. It’s a lonely and hollow place to be; anger is not a warm companion. And yet there you sit. So, how’s that workin’ for ya?
I don’t mean to be insensitive or cold. Honestly. I have visited the depths of despair myself and have had my moments of anger during which I have lashed out and displayed a less-than-lovely side of myself. But living with my mom’s anger taught me the importance of truly letting go and moving on. It showed me that anger and resentment — whether justified or not — is simply not worth it. Period.
I don’t believe that people can control their feelings, and I try to honor those feelings. But what we do with them — how we allow them to affect our actions, how much power we give them over our thoughts, how much we allow them to dominate our internal conversations — those things we, as adults, can control. Ned might want to spend half an hour unloading his burden and anger onto Annie’s best friend, but he doesn’t have to. And he might want to keep sending her nasty emails, but he doesn’t have to. And he might want to spend every waking moment fixating on all the ways that she “wronged” him, but he doesn’t have to.
At some point, we all have to make the choice to put on our big kid pants and move on.
Because it is a choice.
I’m not saying it’s easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. Yes, getting past anger and resentment requires some really heavy lifting. You have to apply yourself to it, make it your goal, decide that you are not going to let it control your life. Sometimes it requires therapy or major lifestyle changes or even geographical or professional moves. Remaining in the resentment stew is definitely easier. But the path of least resistance is rarely the best choice in this life.
I hope, for Ned’s sake, that he is able to move on in short order. He is apparently back in therapy, which I hope will help him process through his feelings. I hope that the anger he feels (which I believe goes back further, to his marriage) has not already become a familiar companion to him to which he will cling for the remainder of his life. I do not wish him ill, but I do wish he’d leave my friend alone.
Time to find the big boy pants, Ned. And pronto.