Couple therapist reveals: How bitterness arises – and how you can deal with it
Bitterness is always a red flag. Bitterness means we’ve withdrawn completely. We get stuck at a point in the relationship where we can’t stay.
In short, bitterness tells us that we have to give something up.
Our ideas do not always correspond to reality
“The map is not the landscape,” the language philosopher Alfred Korzybski once wrote. It is immediately obvious that the ideas we have about anything do not correspond to the reality in which we move. We can understand. But when it affects us personally, we often don’t want to admit it. Love relationships are a good example of this. We have completely unrealistic ideas and conceptions about this.
Of course, word has long got around that the romantic harmony of the soul of the first infatuation will soon give way to crisp arguments. That the great promise of constant wish fulfillment has to give way to the sad realization that a relationship is anything but a wish concert. But with that, we only know that our map is flawed—not yet what the terrain really looks like. We have to experience that.
In the process, our idealized ideas of the other not only disintegrate, as feared. Our idea of ourselves as a great partner is also crumbling. And we painfully experience that not even our approximate map corresponds to that of our partner, because he or she may have completely different ideas about our relationship than we do. So as a couple we find ourselves in the role of a sculptor duo. We both hammer the relationship marble piece by piece until – if we’re lucky – the huge block that promised so great things has turned into a rather small sculpture that we can agree on.
We will be disappointed. And we have to accept these disappointments. We had wishful thinking that didn’t come true. Welcome to reality!
Bitterness comes when we don’t let ourselves be disappointed
But: Our fantasies keep their meaning. Because we can always imagine more closeness, security, harmony and love than what we experience, we always strive for it. We build closeness and we work on the relationship. Bitterness comes when we literally don’t let ourselves be disappointed. If we cling to the idea of not getting what is due to us. When we impotently insist that the unjust world punishes us with a terrible partner who does not fulfill our wishes.
But we may actually be living in a relationship that doesn’t deserve the name. In which even justified hopes are not fulfilled. In which we starve mentally for lack of closeness and connection. A relationship that is not good for us. In which we don’t create a sculpture, but stand in a field of ruins made up of shattered needs.
Bitterness is always a red flag. Bitterness means we’ve withdrawn completely. We get stuck at a point in the relationship where we can’t stay. We have to move again. Either we learn to mourn our inflated beliefs and appreciate the good that connects us. Or we realize that we cannot find what we need to love and live in this relationship. And then we have to go.