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Bitter, not better Hanging on to past grievances can take toll on emotional health, relationships.

  • Chicago Tribune
  • Published Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 7:13 a.m.
  • Updated Thursday, March 21, 2013, at 7:13 a.m.

Tips from the other side

To avoid wallowing in bitterness, Jen Lancaster, author of “Bitter is the New Black,” offers this advice:

1. Pursue something productive. “If you’re creating something, you’re not going to have time to stew.”

2. Be among people, “even if you’re exuding bitterness. At some point you will rein it in just to be situationally appropriate.” But hold off on dating till your anger subsides.

3. Don’t talk about it on the first date. “But it is something you share, because they need to know what you’ll be like in a crisis.”

4. Don’t vent on the Internet: “The Internet is forever.” Instead …

5. Seek solace in friends. “And when your good friends get tired of it, it’s time to give it up.”

Not all bitterness is bad for you. Jen Lancaster’s fury over being fired in the 2001 dot-com bust led to a personal blog that launched her career as an author, starting with the acerbically humorous chronicle of her financial/identity crisis, “Bitter is the New Black” (NAL Trade, $15).

Lancaster, having emerged from the blackness, wouldn’t recommend bitterness for one’s love life, whether single or married.

Still, she understands why bitterness sets in among some of her friends in the Facebook age of dating and escaping without a spoken word.

“I just thank God my husband and I found each other before the advent of social media,” Lancaster said. “I can’t imagine dating someone and seeing what they’re doing on their Facebook page. And people breaking up with each other over texts now? We had to break up with each other face to face back then.”

Today, whether the bitterness stems from romantic indignities, professional disappointments or childhood scars, the sufferers often do not see themselves as bitter. Instead, they blindly sabotage each new relationship with their resentments. One partner constantly questions the other’s fidelity after an ex’s affair, feels threatened by the other’s career advancement or hears the other’s requests as mom’s nagging.

Los Angeles- and Taiwan-based matchmaker Hellen Chen applies a Japanese label to bitter people. It roughly translates to “defeated dog.”

“The dogs are the people who think they are right and don’t want to change; they basically are spoiled since they were a kid,” Chen said. “At Valentine’s Day, they are thinking, ‘Why didn’t you give me flowers, why didn’t you bring me out to the big meal? The one you take me to is so cheap.’ They don’t want to share, to give, but they want a lot from other people.”

Chen, who wrote the book “The Matchmaker of the Century” (Creative Creation), attributes bitterness to dating too many partners before marriage.

Psychiatrist R. Duncan Wallace, author of “The Book of Psychological Truths” (iUniverse.com, $24.95), says bitterness is a factor in about 50 percent of his client cases.

“I call it subterranean anger,” Wallace said. “It means someone is holding an expectation about how something or somebody should be or should have been.

“If someone betrays you in a relationship, a clear betrayal, yeah, you ought to be angry. But use that anger to push you forward, and say, ‘This is not the place for me to stay.’ ”

When people can’t overcome the pain, the anger may stem from wounds earlier in life, what Wallace calls “a truth undiscovered, or fought against, if known.”

If they dig deep, bitter people may realize they are carrying a disappointment from how their parents or other family members interacted with them or with each other. They have vowed at some level that it’s going to be different for them in adulthood, that they’ll have things their way.

“They start foisting these old childhood expectations on their partner,” he said.

Projecting

One psychological truth Wallace emphasizes is that our mind does everything for a purpose.

“So if someone is willing to (ask), ‘Why am I bitter? How is this trying to help me?’ they may realize, ‘I’m trying to call attention to the fact I was hurt, and maybe my partner will help me out,’” Wallace explains. “They’re trying to be rescued or protesting to the world, hoping someone will comfort them. But the only person who can do that is they themselves.”

Until they realize that, such people misconstrue motives and don’t wait to hear whether a partner’s hurtful actions were inadvertent. They project.

“A clue to bitterness is someone who becomes critical,” Wallace said. “Hold up the mirror and you may see the things that you’re bitter about are things you haven’t mastered in yourself, so you react when you see them on the outside. You attack, accuse, blame or complain.”

Reading a book or starting therapy can smooth the romantic road, Wallace said. Even when people haven’t resolved all of their bitter feelings, being open with a partner can work wonders.

“Let’s say someone gets a divorce,” Wallace said. “If they get serious with a new partner, they may want to say, ‘I wouldn’t want to lay these old feelings on you, but I might, and I’m sorry if I hit you with my old stuff. Anytime we start heading down that road, let’s sit down and talk about it.’ Of course, that’s the erudite person who will say that. A lot of times they’ll slam each other with it instead.”

Reckoning

Bitterness sometimes rears its head on a first date, but more typically, Wallace said, it surfaces later, after the honeymoon period of a relationship.

That’s a moment of reckoning for the bitter person’s partner, Chen said.

“Ask the person, ‘Do you see that part of yourself and do you want to change?’ If they do, maybe you continue. We go on a bike ride together, and we have fun, because you ride your bike and I ride mine. If you want me to always carry you while I’m riding, this relationship will not work out.”

Lancaster proposes a statute of limitations on breakup-related bitterness.

“It can’t last longer than the actual relationship,” she said. “I have one friend who got broken up with four years ago after six months, and she is still angry. We all talk about her behind her back.

“We’ll be going out to dinner and ask her, ‘Do you want to come out with us?’ She’ll say, ‘Sure, I’ll come out by myself because I don’t have anyone.’ OK, that was cute, but now it’s bumming us out. And no one wants to set you up, because we like our friends. Move on.”

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