Dealing with Anger after the Family Fails
By Michelle Moon
Whenever a family disintegrates, there’s going to be anger. Perhaps anger at the ex for not being what you needed, anger at yourself for failing to make the ex happy, anger at the universe for heaping too much on you. Anger can linger and grow, seeming to take on a life of its own—anger that your ex found love again, that she seems to be fine, that he’s living an easier life than you. Adding the stress of parenting through a major life change to an already tumultuous emotional state can be overwhelming. Perpetuating the anger through bitterness, pettiness, “getting back at” him/her, etc., damages your kids. How? They’re living with your anger. Whether you’re taking it out on them (directly or indirectly), holding the anger in or even only angry when dealing with the ex, your kids feel it. Your body language changes, your face gets rigid, your responses more terse… the air around you is poisoned with your anger. You have to address it… for them, if you can’t find it in yourself to do it for you.
So what do you do? The key to dealing with anger is to heal, which requires analysis, acceptance, forgiveness, and prevention.
What went wrong? She cheated on you and that’s not your fault. He hit you and that’s definitely not your fault. He/she drank too much, called you names, belittled you in public, or was crazy jealous, and none of those are your fault; they were your ex’s choices… But what was your fault? It takes two to keep a relationship together; were you perfect? No, of course you weren’t. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t be angry, so suck it up—YOU’RE FLAWED.
The first place to start is with the idea. What did you think your relationship was going to be like? Was it going to be a romance for the ages until the day you died? Was it going to be a peaceful coexistence? A partnership of equals taking on the world? A lifelong rerun of Leave It to Beaver? Knowing what you thought or wanted it to be is an important facet to understanding what went wrong. When we have an idea of what we want, we set up expectations based on that idea, not just of our partners. Sometimes others can live up to or exceed our expectations, sometimes we drown the people we love in them. Sometimes we disappoint or horrify ourselves with our inability to live up to our own expectations. I never thought I had extremely high expectations, but I’ve learned over the years that I absolutely do. I’m a Type A; I plan and organize and always have a plan B ready to go. I’m not riding the fantastic waves of romantic idealism and expecting Prince Charming to ride in and make it all better—no, what I expect has turned out to be far more difficult to fulfill. I expect a partner to have the same core principles and priorities as me; to be responsible and independent; accept me in all my glory, faults, and independence; and to be aware of his own nature, mentality, and quirks. “Handle your own stuff!” could’ve been my dating mantra for years. All but one so far has failed in this quest, haha. Regardless, knowing what you thought, wanted, and expected is important to figuring out what actually happened. Were your expectations too high for a mere mortal to meet? Did you set expectations and then bend over backwards trying to help your partner meet them, only to feel used and over-extended afterwards? Did you not express your expectations and then get angry when they didn’t get met? Did you set a goal and unwittingly trip him up to sabotage your chance at happiness? You’d be surprised how many people simply don’t know how to be happy. Without something to fight about or be angry over or to feel hurt by, anxiety creeps in while they’re waiting for the pattern with which they’re familiar and prevents the happiness they wish for. If this is you, all I can say is, honey, get out of your own way!
Regardless, how did your ex fail to meet your expectations? How did you contribute to that failure? Example: in one failed relationship, I had a group of friends that my ex thought were snobs. He felt judged by them and didn’t want to hang out with them. I saw this as an example of his insecurity and refused to be caged by his fears. I would hang out with these friends (who were not snobs, btw) and leave him feeling rejected by me because I was choosing people who didn’t think highly of him instead of choosing him. I saw it as not letting him pick my friends for me, as part of my independence and a refusal to let him isolate me. I’m not saying that I should’ve let my friendships go to appease him, but my dismissal of his feelings on the matter was cruel and definitely my fault. It was not the caring response of a loving partner. When you can analyze your failed relationship honestly, accepting your own failures rather than just blaming your ex for your unhappiness, and actually look at why and how your ex failed you, you’re on your way to mitigating anger. For some, this process may be sped through counseling. Some of us bury ourselves so deeply from our own eyes that it takes a stranger to hack down the vegetation to see the ground beneath. If you’re convinced that you were perfect, seek counseling, because you’re flat-out wrong.
Acceptance can be such a difficult aspect of healing. Once you’ve analyzed your failures, the failures of your ex, and everything that hit the fan as a result, you’re on your way to healing. You screwed up. Your ex screwed up. It all got screwed up! Eliminate “should’ve,” “could’ve,” and “would’ve” from your vocabulary—it doesn’t do any good to wish backwards. This happened and no amount of beating yourself up—or beating your ex up—is going to change it. Accept it. Wake up in an empty bed and stop wishing he/she was there. Stop pining for him/her. Stop wallowing in guilt because your kids don’t have their parents together anymore. Stop carrying your own blame for feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of single parenting, stop blaming your ex for where you find yourself now, stop wishing it was different—you’re wasting time and precious energy. Where you used to automatically set a plate for the ex at dinner, you have to train yourself not to set the plate rather than setting it, looking down at it, and feeling that pang of loss, the irritation that you did it again, the disappointment that he/she won’t be there for dinner, removal of the plate with a sigh… You have to stop focusing on the loss, and instead focus on the practical, everyday banalities. Focus on what needs to be done in front of you—the kids need dinner, the laundry needs to be washed, the bills need to be paid, and you’ll be better at ALL OF THESE if you’re present in the moment. Get through today, plan how you’ll get through tomorrow, keep your focus on normalizing the kids’ lives—they need you. When the analysis is done and you’re in a routine of “normal” life (whatever normal means to you), you can start to accept what happened. You have to realize you’ve suffered a death in your family—think about it: it’s the death of a dream, of a plan, of a life you thought you were going to live. But, worse than a death, you’re haunted by the ghosts of that life. Your kids are still there, your ex is still a part of the picture, perhaps you ended up with the pet that you and your ex picked out and raised together. Getting over death is much easier when the ghost of the lost life is quietly resting on the other side. All the more reason it’s so important to release yourself, and thus your children, from the anger associated with that death. Maybe not all at once; maybe it’s piece by piece, day by day, but moving on without him/her to a sense of normal is essential to acceptance.
This is the hard one. If you’re angry because he wasn’t involved enough with the kids when you were together, it’s easy to keep that flame of anger alive by letting every further soccer game or birthday party he fails to attend add fuel. If you’re angry because she was a sloppy housekeeper and you see a disgusting mess when you pick up your kids, the anger will grow if you don’t forgive her for what she didn’t clean in the past. Do you know anyone who is happy and angry? No. Forgiveness is definitely the hardest part… But the weightlessness of it, the ability to feel the warmth of the sun and the fresh air in your lungs and see the glory of the world around you again… it’s all so worth it.
But HOW? How does one forgive? Some people say the best revenge is to live a happy life, and I say that’s bullshit. If you’re still focused on revenge, you’ve not forgiven and are thus are still carrying the weight of the anger. So, some practical steps:
Realize that being angry at your ex doesn’t hurt your ex. It hurts you, your children and people who love you, but it doesn’t affect someone who’s not there. Look around you—who isthere? Your children, your parents, siblings, friends. Do you want to hurt them? Because they love you, by hurting yourself with anger, you are hurting them. Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.
Stop talking about it. Stop thinking about it. Stop posting whiney, vague negativities on Facebook. When you focus on what happened in the past, you are less able to move forward to the future. Did you know that the Aramaic (yes, what they spoke in the time of Jesus) word for “forgive” has a literal translation of “untie”? Untie that rope and stop dragging your ex into every experience you have.
Get some perspective. You’re furious that she cheated on you; how could she betray you like that? How could he leave you to take care of these kids by yourself? Well, consider this: Was your family chopped to bits by machete-wielding fanatics? No? Then your experience is not nearly as bad as millions of people in Africa over the last 50 years. Go find a charity to work with—it’s very difficult to not feel like a pouting child in the face of someone who literally fled for his/her life. I personally work with a group that takes in victims of human trafficking and refugees from war-torn countries. Nothing I’ve experienced holds a candle to the tragedies of these lives, and being with these people allows me to set down my cares and see how little they really are in the large scheme of things. Not to mention the sheer joy that overflows my own soul when I’ve had a hand in something that helps them in some way—joy is the single-most effective salve for an open wound. Letting these wounds heal is absolutely necessary for forgiving the ex.
Choose happiness. You were unhappy in the past; you can’t change that. You absolutely have a choice about your future. Every day when you open your eyes, you have to make the choice to be happy. When you’re stuck in traffic, you can focus on the fact that your progress is stunted by others, or you can sing one of your favorite songs while you wait. It’s your choice how you spend that time. Oh, is it really that simple, you ask? Yes, it is. Have you ever been around an optimist? A glass breaks, and rather than indulging in the regret and loss of the glass, he/she cleans it up and perhaps remembers the quirky, funny story of how the glass was obtained in the first place, smiling and shaking his/her head. It is simply a focus on the positives. An example: a friend from long ago used to say “oh, fudgesicle” every time things were not going her way. One day I asked her why she didn’t just say the f-word itself? I was quite surprised that she wasn’t using it as a way to not cuss; her grandfather always gave her fudgesicles in the summer, and sitting with him in the shade eating fudgesicles were some of her favorite memories from childhood. She was bringing a very positive memory to the forefront in the face of something negative as a way to mitigate her own reaction to something she deemed not worth getting upset about. Where I thought she was a little too PG for my taste, it turns out she was kinda brilliant. Am I implying that you’ll never be sad again if you just decide it? Of course not; sadness is part of life and you have to allow yourself to feel it… But we can reduce the amount of time we spend in negative emotions just by making the decision to see the upsides of life.
Retrain your brain. This is difficult, but possible. When you feel a pang of anger because your ex is late, wish him/her well rather than cursing him/her. When you’re angry because the ex doesn’t do enough of [insert expectation here], repeat to yourself “I wish you life, love, and happiness.” Haven’t you ever heard that whatever you send out comes back three-fold? Wishing life, love, and happiness sounds like a pretty good idea in that context, no?
Once you’ve accepted the breakdown of your family unit, forgiving yourself and forgiving your ex allows you to set the anger aside and move forward to the possibilities of happiness. Forgiveness does not mean that you want him/her back, it simply means cessation of resentment, of anger, of that sense of betrayal. It means you can move on. And you have to.
Ok, so you’ve analyzed the breakdown, accepted your failures and your ex’s, forgiven you both, woo-hoo! Good for you! Soo… What’s next? Well… if you haven’t learned enough about you from your experiences, you’ll do it all again. Why? Because it’s what you know. Example: You became that pillar of strength for a girl who needed support because it made you feel important, like a hero, and then hated her for her inability to stand on her own. What kind of girl attracts you now? Do you still want to be a hero? You may say no, that you want an equal, but you have to look at the imbalance of power you created in the past. You had it, she didn’t. And you liked it that way because it meant you didn’t have to trust her, you weren’t vulnerable. Unless you look at yourself honestly, you will be the hero for someone new. This kind of harsh reality analysis applies to each type of person, relationship and breakup. Yours may be unique to you or it may just be that freakin’ typical. Either way, you can’t prevent a recurrence if you don’t change the aspects of you that landed you there in the first place. Changing ourselves is always difficult, but is it worth it? You tell me. Are you happy? Do you want to be?