Q: I’m in an openly communicative, mutually loving relationship. But I’m still haunted by anger about abuse I tolerated in my previous relationship. Rationally, I recognize self-esteem, codependency, and dual disorders issues (I’m in therapies and AA, clean and sober for years!)–but emotionally my resentments are consuming me! Advice?
A: I wonder what you mean about your resentments “consuming” you. And for the purposes of this response I’m going to be assuming that you mean that you are angry much of the time and that you find yourself sometimes taking your anger out on others unfairly (when maybe they’ve done something small to irritate you but you respond with more anger than seems reasonable to you and them).
First of all, being angry about abuse is a good thing, not a bad thing. But if the anger is still with you years later, then anger isn’t your problem. Some other feeling that you don’t want to admit you are feeling is the problem.
This other feeling could be one or more of these: You could be:
1) Afraid and not wanting to admit it to yourself. (Since we feel weak when we are afraid, and we’d rather feel strong at such times, we sometimes tell ourselves we feel ‘strong and angry’ instead.)
2) Sad and not wanting to admit it to yourself. (Same logic. We feel weak when we are sad. But in this case the tenancy to cover the sadness with anger is probably a pattern that existed prior to this abuse. And of course many people end up in abusive relationships because they’ve been ‘trained’ in previous relationships – particularly in childhood – to expect abuse. If you are covering sadness with anger you might be having trouble admitting to yourself that you’ve been sad since the much earlier abuse.)
3) Happy but not wanting to admit it to yourself. You could be feeling a lot of joy in your current relationship but you are just afraid enough (because of the past relationship) that you don’t want to trust the ‘wonderfully weak’ and somewhat ‘defenseless’ feeling of joy.
You could also be using your anger to cover excitement, shame, guilt or any other feeling.
What to do:
1) Admit that you wouldn’t still be SO angry about the abusive relationship if you didn’t keep reminding yourself of it.
2) Notice the actual moments when you catch yourself remembering the abuse, and ask yourself which of the other feelings you are afraid to acknowledge when you remind yourself of the abuse.
3) If you have trouble admitting to the other feelings, that’s what you’d be wise to talk with your therapist about.
Of course there is always a lot of anger that comes along with giving up an addiction. If you still have really strong urges to drink or use, you might find that this is the culprit. If so, know that it’s good to face that you are angry about giving up the addiction, and notice that as soon as you face that you are angry about it the urge to drink will be a lot less strong. (You might also notice sadness about the loss of the alcohol, fear of facing life’s issues without it, or the joy of having it under better control – each of which would make you acknowledge that you reel weak sometimes.)
Remember that we become addicted to something because we want to avoid our feelings. And whenever we have any feeling that “consumes” us, we should know it’s just another sign that there’s some other feeling going on that we’d rather not face.
Hope this is helpful. It’s kind of complicated, so please read it slowly ‘with your heart.’ It might be wise to show this letter to your therapist too, for discussion.
And even if you don’t know which other failing you are avoiding, you can get comforted by your loving partner, your friends, and your therapist as long as you realize that you are just afraid to notice that you feel weak sometimes – like we all do.