The Toxicity of Holding On to Anger

Dena Landon

By Dena Landon | Nov 28th, 2017

Last Monday I went to court. An Art Deco building in downtown St Paul, my heels clicked on polished floors, and I stared at my reflection in the brass details on the elevator doors. A solid wood door swung open into an empty courtroom and I followed my lawyer through. It wasn’t like what I’ve seen on television – the judge had us sit at a large conference table in the courtroom’s center, facing each other. I’d done nothing wrong, committed no crime. This was not a place I ever expected to be. But, across from me, sat my ex-husband.

A few months ago I found out that I was going to lose my job. It quickly became apparent that the city I lived in at the time didn’t have a lot of demand for my skill set. While I practice a type of accounting I don’t have a CPA or an accounting degree and I started to collect rejections. So I looked elsewhere and landed a great job. In Massachusetts. And now my ex-husband and I are fighting a nasty custody battle.

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It’s hard to describe the emotions I felt watching him walk into the courtroom, his hand trailing along the back of the benches in order to keep his balance. He’s bought a new suit, I found myself observing, with the ex-wife’s intimate knowledge of his former closet. He met my eyes when he sat down and all I felt was – sad. Sad that we’d ended up here. Sad that he was fighting me when all the factors involved and logic indicate that our son should be with me.

My ex travels a lot for work, with plans that have already changed twice since I moved. He has to work late hours and has no local family to help out. He has multiple sclerosis and his physical condition makes it difficult for him to watch an active six-year-old, particularly since he won’t make any accommodations for it. The list goes on and on.

But my ex isn’t sad. He’s angry. Three years after I left him.

The anger boils up when I have my nightly FaceTime calls with my son. “That’s enough, Dena,” he’ll bite my head off, nasty and cold, if C asks about when he’s coming to Massachusetts. Never mind that I was discussing an upcoming vacation. “If you bring it up again, I’m hanging up.”

When my son let slip that his daddy was moving I texted and asked for his new address. “Talk to my lawyer,” he texted back. “M, that’s ridiculous and a waste of money,” I responded. “I’m done discussing this with you,” and he stopped texting after that.

Maybe on the surface, those words aren’t rude. Making me pay to obtain simple information that a reasonable adult would provide without any issue is part of his longstanding pattern of financial abuse. But unless you knew the tone of his voice the words aren’t necessarily bad. After six years in a marriage that became increasingly dominated by verbal abuse, I know the tone.

holding on to anger

It’s refusing to let me step inside his house when it’s five degrees out with a -15 windchill and I’m there to pick up our kid. Even though, in the early days of our divorce when I thought we could still be cordial I invited him over to come watch videos with us. It’s low-voiced demands that I discuss money with him at drop-off for our son’s first day of kindergarten. Or trying to pick a fight, behaving in such a way that our son, clutching my hand as we walked inside the restaurant where we’d met up, commented, “Mommy, Daddy’s really rude.”

My ex’s anger still burns as strongly as it did the day I left him. The day he went off at me that no one would ever love me again, that I was horrible in bed, too damaged for love, that I’d been an awful wife… the list goes on and on. There have been no signs that he’s dealt with our relationship’s end and moved on, even though he has a new girlfriend. No attempts to get along for our son’s sake. And it’s eating him up inside.

By holding onto that anger, you’re giving them the power to continue to hurt you.

Obviously it’s my opinion, but he looks haggard and gaunt. His health isn’t improving. Bitterness has twisted a once-handsome face into an ugly mask.

I’ve struggled with anger, of course. Anger at how he treated me, anger that he’s continuing to hurt our son with his selfishness, anger that he’s wasted so much money that could have gone to our son’s future. But I’ve dealt with it. Therapy. Meditation. Yoga. Sometimes screaming in the car, letting it all out until I’m limp with relief. The primary emotions I feel now are sorrow and frustration. Sorrow as I see the man he’s become and frustration that, just like during our marriage, I can’t break through the wall of anger he’s erected around himself and talk to him like a reasonable adult.

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Forgiveness is a choice, and it’s not an easy one. There are a lot of reasons that other person may deserve to have your anger directed at them. But, by holding onto that anger, you’re giving them the power to continue to hurt you. The power to bring out your worst, whether it’s a snide comment or a screaming argument.

They still have a hold on you if you are still angry with them.

I’m not saying to deny your emotions, or pretend to not feel anger. When he lied about me in court, yup, I got angry. In and of itself anger can be a valid reaction to a situation or another person’s actions. But it’s not meant to stay with you. It may be a station you pass through on your journey out of divorce but it’s not the destination. And wouldn’t you rather arrive at happiness and peace hauling less baggage behind you?

Dena Landon

Dena Landon

Dena Landon's bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Salon and more. The proud mom of a boy, she specializes in parenting and divorce.


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