“You have thrown it all away,
Stand back, watch it burn –
Just watch it all burn.”
(“First Burn” – Lin Manuel Miranda)
Close to a decade ago, two people I trusted hurt me very badly. The finer points of the story are unimportant; the Spark Notes version is that my partner and metamour (who was, I thought, a dear friend) deliberately lied to me and deliberately betrayed my trust in a deep and profound way that had lasting implications for my life.
First I was sad. Then I felt stupid, because how could I have let them take me in like that? Then I got angry. And then… well, then I kinda stayed angry. I raged to my other partner and my friends, and I was still angry. Then I yelled on the internet and I was still angry. I burned everything he gave me that I could put a match to, and I was still fucking angry.
Occasionally I still see them; once a year or so when I go to an event that I love and refuse to be pushed out of just because they’re going to be there. And every time I’ve seen them for so many years, I get this visceral sense of fuck you both.
Honestly, it felt kind of powerful for a while. Because if I was angry, if I was actively hating them, then I couldn’t feel like an idiot. I couldn’t question whether it was my fault – whether by letting my partner sleep with someone else (to whatever extent the notion of “allowing” another adult to do something is meaningful) I had tempted fate that eventually he’d like her more. Whether I’d trusted too easily and so allowed this to go on right under my nose, suspecting nothing. Or whether I’d just not been giving enough, pretty enough, sexy enough to keep him interested in me. Being angry gave me the illusion of having the upper hand. Of “you two might have ripped the rug of my life out from under me, but at least I still have the moral high ground.”
Sometimes I barely think about them for weeks or months. And then something will spark it all over again – a dream, a post on social media that has somehow bypassed my “block them and their partners on absolutely everything” measures, something I see on TV that reminds me of the situation – and there’s that flash of white-hot anger, powerful as ever.
But my therapist recently helped me to realise that being angry really isn’t serving me any more – and probably hasn’t been for a long time. At this point, all it serves to do is to take up space in my brain that those two really haven’t been entitled to for a very long time. All it does is cause me to mistrust everyone who gets close to me – to start from a point of assuming betrayal and harm is inevitable and making them work their way up from there, rather than the fairer position of starting from a place of neutral trust equity.
“I need to let it go, don’t I?” I said, close to the end of one session.
In that way characteristic of good therapists, she answered my plea that she tell me what to do with another question. “What have you got to gain if you do?”
I thought about it. “Space in my head, mainly,” was my answer. There were other things, too, of course. Things which would improve my relationships with others, my relationship with myself, and my ability to trust other people again.
“I can’t forgive them, though,” I told my therapist. “I draw the line there.”
“No-one is asking you to forgive them.”
That’s when I realised that it might be possible to let go of something in a way that doesn’t imply forgiveness. In a way that doesn’t, directly or indirectly, tell the person who hurt you that what they did was okay or doesn’t matter any more. Because it does fucking matter!
Forgiveness, despite what well-meaning people often tell me, is fundamentally about the person who did the hurting in my opinion. Forgiveness, in the context of an ongoing and loving relationship where someone has fucked up (even very badly) is a great virtue and can be what enables the relationship to continue. However, I believe that in order to be meaningful, the person who is being forgiven has to understand what they did wrong and take steps to never do it again. I don’t have that. They still don’t think I did anything wrong – I was just an obstacle they had to clear to get
Letting go, though? That’s for me. That’s all mine. My therapist taught me that letting something go is a gift to myself, not to them. It doesn’t involve them at all! Letting go says that they don’t deserve the space in my head it takes to think about them any more. Space which could be better used for writing, learning, making my current relationships awesome, or honestly even just watching hours of back-to-back cat videos on the internet.
Letting go says “your loss, I’m gonna go live my life now.”
I’m taking a deep breath, and I’m letting all this long-held anger go.
This post was written as part of Smutathon 2019. We’re writing intensively for 12 hours to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds. Please sponsor us if you can – we’d like to raise $5,000 to help ensure access to safe, legal abortion is available for anyone who needs it.