How to discharge anger at an ex two years after the breakup?
September 17, 2012 3:19 PM   Subscribe

When everything on the surface seems healed and healthy after a breakup, how do you quash obsessive thoughts and anger about an abusive ex- two years on?

Two years ago I went through a doozy of a breakup.

The guy was verbally abusive, an alcoholic, and yeah, I had been supporting him financially during the last year of a six year relationship, after he was laid off from his job. At the same time, my career (in the same industry) was taking off. It was a bad recipe for his self-esteem, which plummeted. Everything got much worse — his drinking, his depression, his yelling and belittling. But I was in the throes of codependency and kept pushing to make things work (therapy, al-anon, helping him with his career). Throughout all of this, I was asking about the things I wanted: a future, commitment, children. After six years, I thought I'd earned that conversation. But he frequently told me, "if you aren't happy with the way things are you can just leave."

So, I left. I packed up for a week away and told him, if you can't make any commitment to me and working on our issues, I need to pursue other things in my life and will need to end the relationship. But I left the door open to talking. We had days of long, teary talks, at the end of which he promised me a lifetime commitment. Kids, too. I came home cautious but optimistic. We had a few wonderful weeks.

And then, he spent the next month getting a job, finding a new girlfriend, and dumped me one night after dinner. It was a 20 minute conversation. He walked out the next morning and took up immediately with her. I haven't spoken to him or really seen him since.

Since then, I did everything by the book. No Contact immediately. Kept going to therapy. I changed my routines. I worked out. Focused on myself. Made new friendships. Got a huge promotion in my career. Dated casually. Then, after about a year and three months passed decided to date seriously.

I looked for guys who were stable, kind and generous — the opposite of everything my horrible ex was. And I found a gem: a wonderful, sweet, strong, stable, caring man who is the very definition of emotional health, who loves me very much, works hard at our relationship, and talks readily about a loving future together.

Things were going pretty well but then this week I learned my ex- lost another job and is moving away from the city where we live, with his tail between his legs, seemingly dependent on yet another girlfriend to pay the bills.

All our friends say that I have "won," etc., but honestly I still feel like I lost.

I am still filled with rage and hatred about what happened and despite writing dozens of angry letters I haven't sent, therapy, working out, and now time — almost two years — the wound is still as raw and piercing as it was a week after he walked out. What's worse is that I was using some of that rage and anger as motivating feelings to do better at work, in my personal life. Now that he's moving away, I am losing some of that competitive motivation and feeling rudderless. I am not even sure I want to be in the same industry anymore.

I feel successful, but lost. I want to clear out all these bad feelings so I can develop deeper ties to my new boyfriend and figure out what my goals are now that my ex is really, truly out of my life. But I am just stuck on this wave of rage.

Help, mefites! How do I get rid of the rage and obsessive thinking about the ex? Looking for things to try besides therapy and angry-letter-writing. How do I get back in touch with what I want out of life, when I've accomplished everything I focused on post-breakup already? Is it worth it to actually send the ex a scathing, final communication? I believe he thinks he didn't do very much wrong vis-a-vis our relationship, and that grinds at my heart.


- After a terrible breakup I did all the "right" things to move on — got therapy, worked out, focused on myself, made new friends, got a promotion. I am happy!
- I learned from my bad relationship to find a wonderful new man who is everything I could want, and loves me deeply.
- I am content in the rest of my life, but still can't discharge my rage at the abusive ex.
- Now that my ex is moving away, I have lost some competitive motivation to do well at work, and personally. I don't feel like I know what my values are anymore.
- How do I lose the anger and find my new values/purpose?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
1) You can't necessarily control what you think or the intrusive thoughts you have about your ex, but you can change how you deal with them. Try actively thinking about how unwelcome they are when they happen. At en extreme, snap a rubber wristband when you think of them and you may dissociate them.

2) The anger you feel about your ex an the way you've used it to fuel your own energy obviously seems a little unhealthy, and in a way reminds me of the third stage of grief, and the way you've sort of represented this relationship as a continuing part of you seem weird. Maybe have a ceremony where you ritually destroy the relationship and allow yourself to move on?

I'm not sure if this is helpful at all or if these are things that your therapist have already suggested. If they are, sorry for parroting more therapy-speak on you.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 3:55 PM on September 17, 2012

Well, you definitely need to reframe. To me, it basically reads as though you have spent the two years post-breakup still defining yourself according to your ex and that relationship. That's actually not moving on. Personally, I didn't gain anything from therapy, but I think that changing that way of framing/thinking is what good therapy is supposed to do.

I will say that I am pretty much never in favor of "scathing, final communication" as I think they give the ex too much power and may re-open wounds that may have at least partially healed, and every time I have sent any sort of kind of "final sign-off" emails I've come to regret it... but I've read here that others find them to be a helpful part of the process.
posted by sm1tten at 3:55 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Give it a little more time. Hearing about him opened up the wound again.

I had a lot of anger at my ex and thought a good way to get it out would be to shovel snow. Angrily.

This worked out great until the shovel bounced off some hard stuff and I ended up punching myself in the face with the backlash.

Only allow yourself so much time to obsess. Yes, it really sucks and no there is no way you will ever get vindicated. He has a negative pattern and continues it with other people. Yep, you wasted good years of your life on someone who betrayed you. It sucks.

Also what kind of therapy? What about CBT?

I've been out for years and maybe a month ago, a friend told me she'd seen my ex in a bar with some woman. I was like, "huh." Nothing. A few years ago that probably would have thrown me into a loop again, even though I'm with a nice man now.

Your brain and body don't know it's the present when you start obsessing. They act like you were back there with him, experiencing all those emotions. That stuff does get imprinted. Think of some other ritual than the letter writing, because that stuff actually reinforces the thoughts (especially if you keep doing it, it's supposed to be a closure sort of a thing, not a self-flagellation kind of thing). Draw a picture of him and burn it. Volunteer at a shelter, or run a half marathon for charity.

Forgive yourself for being human when some news of your ex triggered new emotions. But no, don't send him a real letter. Allow the wound to close and move on, because eventually it will heal again.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:59 PM on September 17, 2012 [6 favorites]

You can write any final sign-off you want, just don't send it. There is lots of catharsis in getting it out of you; there is none in actually sending it.

You can't not have these feelings if they are coming. Acknowledge them and then let them go. It's normal to have them resurface occasionally, it's part of your healing process.

Try to devote an equal amount of time, though, to the serious back-patting you deserve for taking charge of your life and boundaries and pursuing the things that are important to you. Those things are so much more important than some asshole.
posted by Lyn Never at 4:01 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, I have been there before. Honestly, the anger and hurt feelings can take so much longer to subside than you may think is reasonable, especially when you were together for so many years. The most annoying part is that it's so easy for that slowly-healing wound to just get ripped open again, especially if you are regularly catching wind of his life.

I'm still working through my own anger, even though it's been many years and I have since remarried to a loving, awesome guy. Working through this anger and moving on in your life are not mutually exclusive. As many MeFites have taught me, one of the best things you can do for yourself to get over this pain is to acknowledge its existence as part of the healing process and then get on with your day. Unfortunately, the more you dwell over how much it sucks that you're still hurt, broken and angry, the more hurt, broken and angry you're going to be.
posted by joan_holloway at 4:15 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

The hole in your life caused by the loss of a 6-year relationship is a bigger one than you can fill in just a couple of years. Fill it in with positive achievements and personal growth. A few years is a realistic time-period, if you're constructive about it.

First rule for people in a hole: stop digging. Don't plan contact or even keep contact information. No numbers, e-mail addresses, or anything to facilitate communication. Maintaining communication, even just to fight more, is still maintaining an unhealthy relationship, except now it's you with the unhealthy behavior. Encourage your mutual friends not to bring up the ex or volunteer information. Ruthlessly purge your photo collection, etc. to eliminate the reminders. Replace them with new, good, memories.

Now fill the hole in. You're in a positive relationship that you evidently don't consider a mere rebound. Take some time to re-orient your career around other milestones that don't involve the ex or his somehow having theoretical knowledge of your achievement. Now is also the time to embark on some self-improvement tweaks and gain new experiences. For me, it was making a serious effort to learn how to cook and getting more serious about photography.

The last part of this is simply a function of time. There will still be days where you think about this person, but the gaps between them will grow considerably, especially once you've given yourself better things to do with your time.
posted by Hylas at 4:27 PM on September 17, 2012

I think that if you view his behavior toward you as being separate from you, it might help it feel less personal. He didn't treat you badly because of the way you or anything you did--that is just a straw man-- but rather he is defective in interpersonal relationships. Nothing more, no reason to elucidate, he's just defective. I know so many smart, beautiful people who have had horrendous partners; I'm glad to hear that you succeeded in breaking away from him.
posted by waving at 5:09 PM on September 17, 2012 [5 favorites]

Let me preface what I am about to say by saying how he acted in your relationship was abominable, you did not deserve at all to be treated that way, and that you are well rid of him.

Okay, now, here it is....have you forgiven him?

Forgiveness is kinda more for the forgiver than the forgivee. It in no way means that the other person's transgressions are lessened in ANY way. But it does enable YOU to untie that knot and get him and his sins against you out of your head and out of your life.

At least, give it a think.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:10 PM on September 17, 2012 [2 favorites]

I firmly believe that anger is an emotion that springs from something else. That's not to say that you have no reason to be angry about how this man treated you. He sounds awful.

But when I'm really angry and I take the time to examine why, I usually find something else underneath it. Maybe I'm afraid or hurt or feeling vulnerable or disappointed, or someone has said something that I'm deeply afraid is true, and feeling angry is easier than feeling any or all of the above.

I had a similar ex who didn't think he did anything wrong vis-a-vis our relationship and I was angry for a long time. But after a while I realized that I felt angry in large part because I was disappointed with myself for wasting two years of my life letting someone treat me that way, and also because part of me believed that I deserved the treatment. It also took time, but recognizing that a lot of the anger was really about me rather than him helped things along.

Are there maybe similar underlying feelings that are causing you to hold on to this anger? St. Alia is right about forgiveness, but maybe there are some things you should forgive yourself for too?

[P.S. I've heard that it takes half the time you spent in a relationship to get over it when it ends. This is obviously a very broad rule, but it's something that I've taken comfort in when I'm beating myself up about not being over something in the timeline that I want to be/believe that I should be.]
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 8:18 PM on September 17, 2012 [3 favorites]

Two years out from my breakup with an abusive ex, I was still pretty angry. I still felt betrayed, belittled, and (especially) angry at myself for letting it happen/not putting a stop to it sooner.

I'm now 3.5 years out, and things no longer seem that way. I'm not sure what exactly changed, I wish I could provide more thoughts in that regard, but it is better. Time alone might still do you some good.
posted by zug at 8:18 PM on September 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think it might be more fruitful for you to forgive yourself than to forgive him. One of the reasons I hold on to anger with others is because I am so angry with myself for having been tricked or taken advantage of.

In other words, what Colonel_Chappy said. My last ex is someone toward whom I felt lots of anger and resentment for years, long after I had met my husband and started our happy marriage. In recent years, as I've done some in-depth work on my own self-esteem stuff, I've felt so much less anger and resentment about that relationship, because I've forgiven myself. I still think he acted like a shit, though, but I stopped being angry about it once I forgave myself---as I think of it now, it feels like there was a toxic clash between the ways he and I dealt with our confidence and self-esteem issues, and his lashing out makes sense with what he shared about his childhood and adolescence.

Still don't forgive him, though, except in some very broad mystical sense. I wish him well, but I also wish him well away from me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:23 PM on September 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

Honestly, I was still screwed up for more than two years after a similar situation. And even now, six years out, every now and then I get a passing bout of "WTF," though now more at myself for being so stupid. The difference is that now, it's kind of like I'm on the outside, watching a movie of myself, with a bemused, mildly angry "WTF," at a character that has lived through something terrible.

It really just takes more time. Those feelings will get milder and you will hopefully feel more detached from them.

You really did win. I promise. I won.
posted by Pax at 6:37 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Is there any way you can further remove this person? Can you tell your friends you don't care to know about where he's going/what he's doing/what girlfriend he's using?

For me, the no contact thing was not nearly enough. After several months of grieving, I instituted a no brain space policy. I didn't journal about him, talk to my friends about him, talk to a therapist about the relationship, nothing. I acknowledged my feelings as they came along, but I didn't really give them space outside of my head. I realized that I was using the experience as an external anchor where I defined myself by that relationship, and so I started focusing on defining myself based on my own values/experiences instead.

Can you take the rudderlessness you are feeling and turn that back into the self driving angst, minus the connection to this thing from your past?

For what it is worth, my anger/hurt feelings have very much dissipated and continue to do so.
posted by skrozidile at 7:10 AM on September 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

You mention that the anger has been really helpful to you, and you're starting to feel rudderless. I'm going to propose that maybe you're afraid to let go of the anger, because you don't know what will replace it or how you'll self-motivate without it. It's ok to still be angry, it was a bad relationship and deserved better, and even though you have it now, it hurts to think you suffered through it. But it sounds like the anger is pretty intrusive. Maybe discuss with your therapist what might take the place of the anger, and how you'll continue to be awesome without it?
posted by ldthomps at 8:52 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

2 strategies that have worked for me for removing rage:

1. reframe the anger to pity: I feel sorry for him that he doesn't know how to be in a good relationship. How to appreciate what he has. That he's too incompetent to keep a job etc.

2. Make an association plan for what you intend to think about instead as soon as anything reminds you of him. Read any good novels lately? Re-imagine parts of the novel in your mind. Like cooking/food? Imagine (down to texture and smell and everything) what you'll make for dinner tonight. The important thing is to make any thoughts of him a cue to think of that other thing. Eventually you won't bother to think of him anymore. And earlier on, if you catch it in time, you hopefully won't dwell long enough to get to rage.

It was much harder for me to deploy these tactics to people / circumstances that were still a big part of my life and that I was interacting with. So I definitely wouldn't try to write him letters or talk to him at all. He's irrelevant now, and you don't have to deal with him or think of him.
posted by uncreative at 9:11 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, I've been there. Very similar, dated someone in a situation like that in 2004. It's now about 7 years after our breakup, and the feelings of rage are gone. BUT the way things ended with that dude continues to affect me in relationships. I recently broke up with someone and was very adamant about us having enough time and opportunity to talk things out peacefully at the end, and to get to some kind of good terms that honored our time together and kept the lines of communications open in case I had any questions or stuff to hash out in the future, or just wanted a coffee. That's so insanely important to me now, because I know what it feels like when things end horrifically. I still panic occasionally and have strong emotions because of the horrors of what I went through in 2004.

I think that one of the factors here might be (like for me) the way your relationship ended. It's like when an arm is cut off and you end up with "phantom limb pain." Your brain can't reintegrate the new reality with a sudden complicated loss. At least, it takes a long time for your brain to reintegrate. Similarly, there is evidence that when people end drug addictions cold turkey, they end up with much longer term "Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome" than when they taper the quitting through decreased doses. You had a bad and relatively sudden emotional ending, during which you felt powerless, which happens with abuse. I can imagine that it was incredibly hard to take when the guy got a new job and girlfriend, and you went No Contact from the situation. After 6 years with someone, that has to got to be not unlike a death, but one that you can't fully grieve because he was a douchebag. You can look up "Complicated Grief" to learn more about this.

Someone above wrote that "you won," and as a person who has experienced similar, I don't think you won and that statement doesn't sit well with me. I think you lost, and I lost too. Nobody should have to experience something traumatizing. It really sucks. It sucks that it can continue to affect you for so long, with no apparent effects for the perpetrator. It is like many kinds of trauma.

One consolation, as others have written, is that it does fade, and that you having to get back into the healing process two years out is normal. It takes longer than that, but "it takes longer than that" doesn't mean your life sucks continuously for decades. It means that every now and then you have to deal with stuff being stirred up from what happened to you in the past, and those occasions become less frequent and less intense. People all over the planet who experience traumas, losses, blah have a similar schedule.

So you should probably set aside some time to process it and reevaluate your life a bit, maybe some more therapy, etc. In answer to your last couple of questions -- take some time to think things over for a few weeks or a month, maybe do some journaling and therapy. You will probably find that some of your values/purpose/etc and motivation come out through that time.
posted by kellybird at 10:14 AM on September 18, 2012 [6 favorites]

YMMV but I found it very helpful to burn the letters I wrote him. Burn everything, destroy everything; physically remove him and all artifacts of him from my life. Only then was I truly able to acknowledge that it had happened, it was over, and I was moving on.
posted by buteo at 10:36 AM on September 18, 2012

The detail that you had been using your anger as a kind of fuel really jumped out at me, because whenever someone asks a question like this, my first response is usually to consider whether the negative feeling is serving some hidden purpose. But it's not hidden in your case! You're pretty upfront about the important role that it was playing in your life. My suggestion is to find something else to put in the place of that anger. Something that will serve the same purpose. Try to think of some positive motivational factors, and then lean on those. You'll have to keep trying this - whenever you find yourself wondering why you're working, literally remind yourself why. With some time, you may be able to re-wire your brain so that it's not using the anger any more, and you may find that the anger atrophies at that point.
posted by Ragged Richard at 10:54 AM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my experience, transforming my life made all the difference. Maybe you *don't* want to be in the industry you're in. Is your new relationship exciting as well as emotionally healthy? Maybe you have gotten over this and now you're ready to do something new.

Also:This rage is coming from somewhere, and if you "don't know where", it's probably something you don't want to see. Do you feel guilty that this happened? Feel angry that you had to do all the "right things" and he gets to just glom onto some other girl and get her to take care of him?

I dunno. There's something dark and nasty down in there with all the anger. Try to think about what it might be trying to tell you, either alone or in therapy.
posted by 3491again at 3:18 PM on September 18, 2012

As Colonel_Chappy mentioned, there's a popular belief that it can take around half the length of time you were the relationship to fully process and move on from it. I've seen that prove itself in a number of situations, so I think there's something in it.

However, I wanted to approach this from a slightly different angle. You mention doing all sorts of admirable work on yourself in order to move on... but not whether you have had the opportunity to properly grieve the death of the relationship. I figure that's probably what the therapy you mention was all about, but that's not a given.

Anyway, if some of those feelings had to be put aside while you called on strength to put your life back together, then it's possible they're still waiting to be worked through?

I've found that in some instances - particularly ones where people turned out to be capable of abuse and awfulness - I've needed time not only to grieve the end the relationship and the future that I envisaged, but to mourn for the people I thought they were. That has turned out on more than one occasion to be the thing that was holding me back - in essence, I needed to lay to rest the image I held of the person as one who wouldn't hurt me. It's had the additional benefit of ending (or at least reducing) those niggling little thoughts that say maybe it was all just a horrible misunderstanding, and if I can just make them understand, then there might be room to salvage a friendship, or undo all that pain...

I'm entirely in favor of writing out what you need to, but I'm adding my voice to the chorus saying don't send it. Chances are you won't receive the response you need to heal, and there's a fair probability that it'll end up just making things more frustrating for you, keeping the wound open that much longer. Burning those letters can be cathartic, though - I hear flushing the ashes and imagining those sentiments being purged with fire and water can, too!

I have also found mindfulness practices useful in dealing with crashing waves of feeling, too. I'm not cut out to be a Buddhist, so I don't touch the spiritual aspects. However, being able to have a quiet part of my mind just quietly observe the emotion ("Ah. I am suddenly overwhelmed with white-hot rage. I can acknowledge that. Do I know why? No? Oh, well...") can help to place me on the metaphorical dunes where I can let the wave pass, rather than getting swept up and carried away by it.

(For me, mind you, that can often lead to my getting distracted by wondering about the difference between white-hot and red-hot anger, or some other tangent. But at least that still gets me out of the emotional current!)

I hope you can find the healing and peace you need.
posted by Someone Else's Story at 12:03 AM on September 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

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