Blame, revenge and forgiveness

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When we’ve been betrayed, we often want blame and revenge. If we are really lucky, we may eventually get to forgiveness. Consider this letter as a springboard into the topic:

Dear Michael:

I feel like such an idiot. I allowed myself to fall in love with this guy who really wasn’t that interested in me. I thought he was, at the beginning, but he gradually stopped texting me and wanting to get together. I let myself fall for him, a lot harder than I realized. I probably shouldn’t have slept with him either, because now I really miss that too. I want revenge on him – like sleeping with his best friend (I could probably have him too!) What should I do?

Broken Hearted Boy in North Park

Dear BHB:

You met someone, opened your heart, loved him and he left (or faded out). It’s painful and we’ve all been there. For many of my clients, the initial reaction to a broken heart is to do one (or both) of the following: 1. Blame yourself. 2. Blame him.

Neither one of these does much good, nor will they help you feel better in the long run. Let’s look at each: Blaming yourself: what did you do wrong? Were there signs that you ignored? Did you have blinders on or did you go into this aware of the pros and cons of loving this man? If the former, then think of it as a chance to learn something so you don’t repeat your gaffe. If the latter, then perhaps there’s nothing else you could have done, and nothing to blame yourself for. You can’t predict the future: it’s always a risk to love someone. But, isn’t it usually worth it?

If, on the other hand, this is a pattern of yours, then perhaps you keep picking unavailable or unsuitable men to love. This is good stuff for psychotherapy: you can ferret out the subconscious stuff that keeps pushing you to give your number to one Mr. Wrong after another. Blaming him: Okay, I admit it. In the short run, this can be fun, and your friends are likely to encourage it. So if you must, indulge in this for a while: two weeks’ max. Then, baby, you got to move on. If he lied to you, cheated on you or treated you poorly, then tell yourself the truth about it and give yourself permission to feel your anger towards him. I also recommend that you write about it. Write a no-holds-barred "evil" letter to him – don’t hold anything back – and do NOT send it. You can also hit the bed or sofa with a tennis racket or scream in your car what an asshole he was.

The point of all this stuff is so you don’t stay stuck in blame or revenge. You could be furious for months while he’s off having a good time. Letting go of your anger isn’t for him, it’s for your benefit – so you can move on with your life. As for your broken heart, no one can tell you exactly when you’ll be "over" this. And maybe that’s a good thing. Is it so wrong to grieve the loss of your lover? Remember both the good and bad times you had as well as his good and bad qualities. Don’t idealize or demonize him. He probably did the best he could. For all you know, he’s with his therapist right now talking about how stupid he was to let you get away! Healing a broken heart is a gradual process. Expect good days and bad days, days when you cry a lot about "the man who got away" and days when you barely think of him. This is part of the natural process of healing, it comes in stops and starts, ups and downs.

While initially you may want to "stay busy" and avoid feeling your feelings, eventually, you need to feel them. Numbing yourself with drugs, alcohol, shopping, workaholism or revenge sex with his friend (tempting, I admit) are only temporary diversions, and are likely to leave you feeling worse than before. And don’t pretend that everything’s "great" or that you’re ready to forgive him when you’re not. Putting on a fake smile and pretending you’re "over it" will make you feel even worse. Simply tell people the truth, e.g., "I’m hanging in even though it hurts like hell". Don’t force forgiveness. Let yourself feel and express all your negative emotions, for a while anyway (like two weeks’ max). You might even allow yourself some revenge fantasies…but don’t try and make them come true. Eventually, the pain of being dumped or rejected recedes and you’ll return to yourself again, hopefully wiser and stronger as well as grateful for the love you gave and received.

Michael Kimmel is a psychotherapist in San Diego, Calif. His website Life Beyond Therapy assists individuals and couples in their continued growth and development.