DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #76: The Woman Hanging on the End of the Line

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Dear Sugar,

I need your help with forgiveness. I am carrying a fierce anger in my body every day, and I can’t seem to find my way out of it.

Last year, I discovered that a young woman my husband and I hired was having a relationship with my husband. This woman who I’d invited into my life, who I’d helped with her career, who I’d invited into my family, responded by meeting secretly with my husband and writing him histrionic love letters pressuring him to leave me.

It’s as though my whole view of the world has gone dim. People are capable of the most astonishing and selfish acts. I used to focus on pursuing real joy and delight in my life, and sharing that joy, too. But now it feels like that light has gone out forever. This woman has caused damage in my family that I never imagined possible. I know it harms me to say so, but I really, really hate her.

Recently I discovered that she is STILL writing him letters, some six months after my husband broke it off. I have a white ball of rage about it, a monster in my chest. I imagine terrible fates befalling her, and that consumes me every day. How do I find my way back to compassion and the joyful life I once had? Can I find even a little shred of peace?

Signed,
Mourning and Raging

Dear Mourning and Raging,

How painful. I’m sorry this happened to you, sweet pea. There are few things more devastating than a betrayal such as the sort you describe. It’s no wonder you have a mega-hot white monster ball raging inside of you. It’s a reasonable response to a hurtful situation. And yet, as you know, you’ll only destroy yourself if you continue to allow your rage to consume you. So let’s talk about how you might find some peace.

Your letter implies that you and your husband have stayed together through this turmoil. You didn’t ask for marital advice, so I’ll refrain from giving it, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I think a huge chunk of your other-woman fury will be diffused once you and your husband heal the harm his affair has caused. What strikes me most about your letter is how little you say about him. Your rage appears to be directed solely toward the woman with whom he had an affair. You write that she has “caused damage in my family that I never imagined possible,” but of course she couldn’t have caused damage if your husband hadn’t let her. They both violated your trust, but your husband committed the graver offense. He took a vow. She only took a job.

I don’t point this out in order to dismiss her transgression, but rather to call your attention to a dynamic that’s worth examining. To have a covert love affair with one member of the couple who employs you is bad form indeed, but why is your rage focused on her rather than him? Is it possible that you’ve subconsciously redirected your anger to the safer party, since hating her doesn’t require you to dismantle your life, as hating him would? How did you express your anger towards your husband when you learned of the affair? How did you forgive him? Did your rage toward the other woman increase or decrease after you forgave your husband? Why? What does forgiveness in this context mean to you?

I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on these questions. Answering them may restore at least some sense of balance regarding your rage and it will also require you to contemplate core issues that must be resolved before you’ll be able to find “the joyful life” again. When bad things happen often the only way back to wholeness is to take it all apart. You have the strength to do that, no matter how marriage-mucking and soul-shaking that will be. A terrible thing happened to you, honey bun, but you mustn’t let it define your life. Couples survive all kinds of shit, including shit like this. And individuals survive too, even when their marriages don’t. There is a way forward.

You asked for help with forgiveness, but I don’t think that’s what you need to reach for just yet. You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase one day at a time? They say that because to say I will never drink again is just too fucking much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail. This is how forgiveness feels for you at this moment, no doubt. It’s the reason you can’t do it. I suggest you forget about forgiveness for now and strive for acceptance instead.

Accept that the man you love was unfaithful to you. Accept that a woman you once held in regard treated you with disrespect. Accept that their actions hurt you deeply. Accept that this experience taught you something you didn’t want to know. Accept that sorrow and strife are part of even a joyful life. Accept that it’s going to take a long time for you to get that monster out of your chest. Accept that someday what pains you now will surely pain you less.

Just writing that to you makes me feel better, Mourning and Raging. Do you feel the shift? In a previous column I wrote: acceptance is a small, quiet room and what I meant by that has everything to do with simplicity, with sitting in the ordinary place, with bearing witness to the plain facts of our life, with not just starting at the essential, but ending up there. Your life has been profoundly shaken by these recent revelations. It’s not your task to immediately forgive those who shook you. Your spoken desire to forgive the woman who betrayed you is in opposition to what you feel. Forgiveness forces an impossible internal face off between you and a woman you hate.

Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true.

Strange as it sounds, I don’t think you’ve done that yet. I can hear it in the pitch of your letter. You’re so outraged and surprised that this shitty thing happened to you that there’s a piece of you that isn’t yet convinced it did. You’re looking for the explanation, the loop hole, the bright twist in the dark tale that reverses its course. Any one would be. It’s the reason I’ve had to narrate my own stories of injustice about seven thousand times, as if by raging about it once more the story will change and by the end of it I won’t still be the woman hanging on the end of the line.

But it won’t change, for me or for you or for anyone who has ever been wronged, which is everyone. We are all at some point—and usually at many points over the course of a life—the woman hanging on the end of the line. Allow your acceptance of that to be a transformative experience. You do that by simply looking it square in the face and then moving on. You don’t have to move fast or far. You can go just an inch. You can mark your progress breath by breath.

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Literally. And it’s there that I recommend you begin. Every time you think: I hate that fucking bitch I want you to neutralize that thought with a breath. Calm your mind. Breathe in deeply with intention, then breathe out. Do not think I hate that fucking bitch while you do it. Give yourself that. Blow that bitch right out of your chest. Then move on to something else.

I don’t meditate, though I admire a lot of people who do. I don’t do yoga regularly, though it’s on my list of things I aspire to. I’ve never worshiped a guru, though I’ve had sexual fantasies about doing so. I’m not versed in healing or spiritual practices of any sort, though in this column I half pretend that I am. I’m just telling you exactly what I do when I feel the kind of rage you describe and it has worked for me better than anything over and over again.

I have breathed my way through my father, through my grandfather, through my stepfather, and through the woman my stepfather married after my mother died. I have breathed my way through one friend and another friend; through people I’ve fucked and through people who fucked people who were supposed to be fucking only me.

Sometimes while doing this I have breathed in acceptance and breathed out love. Sometimes I’ve breathed in gratitude and out forgiveness. Sometimes I haven’t been able to muster anything beyond the breath itself, my mind forced blank with nothing but the will to be free of sorrow and rage.

It works. And the reason it works is the salve is being applied directly to the wound. It’s not a coincidence that you describe your pain as being lodged in your chest. When you breathe with calm intention you’re zapping the white rage monster precisely where it lives. You’re cutting off its feeding tube and forcing a new thought into your head—one that nurtures rather than tortures you. It’s essentially mental self-discipline, much like the approaches I’ve written about in different contexts in my columns about how to deal with professional jealousy or how to live with our deepest sorrows. In all cases, I’m not suggesting one deny negative emotions, but rather to accept them and move through them by embracing the power we have to keep from wallowing in emotions that don’t serve us well.

It’s hard work. It’s important work. I believe something like forgiveness is on the other side. You will get there, dear woman. Just try.

Yours,

Sugar

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