When an acquaintance remarked that I sounded "bitter" speaking about my divorce—five years after my marriage had ended—I was taken aback. I didn’t realize I was giving off so much negativity. I was embarrassed, and a little bit appalled. Regardless of my post-divorce circumstances, I didn’t want to be perceived as rancorous or resentful.
Unfortunately, sometimes what follows a high-conflict divorce is a high-conflict aftermath. In other words, even if you're officially single again, you continue to face ongoing legal, financial, custodial, and of course emotional issues in the execution and enforcement of your agreements.
You feel as if you're going to live the rest of your life under a dark cloud.
Still, bitterness is an especially toxic emotion. I didn't want to sound bitter. I didn't want to be bitter. I wanted to rid myself of the negative energy that must have been seeping out in my words. So I took the remark that caught me by surprise as a warning light. I needed to examine my attitude, my language, and my behavior—and do what I could to correct my course.
Just how do you move beyond bitterness after a bad divorce?
I think it's helpful to remember that bitterness comes from the pain that is often extreme and sustained. The Free Dictionary defines bitterness as "severe grief, anguish, or disappointment… marked by resentment or cynicism." Unlike other types of emotional suffering, it also implies a sense of unfairness and powerlessness. Rightly or wrongly, you feel that you've been on the receiving end of disproportionate or unjust actions over which you had little or no say.
For some of us, isn't this exactly what happens in divorce? If you're a spouse who was betrayed or a parent who believes he or she was mistreated by the family court, isn't bitterness—anguish, resentment, a feeling of powerlessness—a logical outcome?
I'm sure you will recognize these two stereotypes that epitomize the label of "bitter ex"...
- The first is the woman who puts her husband through school, helps with his career, raises the kids, and then finds herself 25 years later being traded in for a younger model. Who can blame her for anger and bewilderment as she faces starting over after 50 with few prospects—or so she believes—for a career of her own or a new partner?
- The second is the man who is a responsible and loving father but finds himself blindsided when his wife wants out, and their custody arrangement leaves him little ability to see his children. If his ex-moves on, moves away, and he struggles to stay in his kids' lives, who can blame him for feeling disgruntled, not to mention heartbroken?
Listen, grief is a natural part of divorce for those of us who wish our marriages hadn't fizzled or exploded. However, where grief leaves off and bitterness sets in is a matter of allowing resentment to persist, to fester, to color your worldview, and to spill over into other areas of life. Not only does it sour the experience of the person who feels it, but it's disagreeable to those around us—children, friends, co-workers, new partners.
Divorce and co-parenting can present legitimate reasons for anguish and resentment. But how long do you live in anger and pain? How do you consciously begin to manage these destructive emotions—and not the other way around?
Here are six ways to move beyond bitterness after divorce that have been helpful to me:
Spend time with people who love and support you.
Make sure these are honest people who will acknowledge your reality, acknowledge that you're dealing with difficult circumstances, but not let you get away with wallowing.
Look to the past to learn lessons, but don't dwell there.
Instead, take time to grieve, consider your own role in past problems, make note of what you need to change about yourself, and just start. In so doing, you'll be surprised how much easier it is to look forward.
Create something new and positive for yourself and, if applicable, for your children.
Take up painting, writing, running, cooking. Use new activities for pure enjoyment, to meet new people, to see yourself in a new light, and to build new traditions and memories.
Take a temperature reading periodically of how far you've come, emotionally and otherwise.
If you aren't where you want to be yet, focus on the steps you've put in place to head in the right direction. (Remember: Change takes time and isn't linear; likewise, for grieving and healing.)
Celebrate your wins!
This is about taking control where you can, acknowledging what you feel good about, and giving yourself credit. You finally got out there and started dating again? Great! Are you finding innovative ways to make your "single" budget work? Pat yourself on the back!
Remind yourself that bitterness will twist your perception and damage relationships that have nothing to do with your past, your ex, your lawyer, or the friends of your future. If you're still raising your kids, remember—they're watching. (Don’t we all want to be a model of growth, strength, adaptability, and reason?)