Ask Bear is an advice column written by S. Bear Bergman. Bear is a busybody know-it-all with many opinions who is only too happy for a sanctioned opportunity to tell you what he thinks you ought to be doing (as well as a writer, storyteller, publisher and activist who enjoys telling educational institutions, health care groups, and portions of government what he thinks they ought to be doing). To submit a question to Ask Bear, email email@example.com. Questions will remain 100 percent confidential, and may be edited for length.
I am being told I don’t understand anything about forgiveness. And maybe I don’t. My partner of five years has decided to leave me and he says I need to forgive and move on. I say that easy for him to say. He’s not the one who’s having his heart broken. He’s not the one who has discovered that the person he thought loved him was actually not very interested in being in the relationship. He’s not the one who is now stuck trying to figure out what the fuck to do now. He’s going to go bang someone else (everyone else!?) and I am going to have to figure out what to do now.
What do I do now? How do I forgive him for not loving me anymore? Or maybe for never having loved me? I go back and forth between thinking it would have been better if he left me FOR someone and feeling like that would rip my guts out, to think he just found someone he liked better. This awful and I hate everyone.
Dear Brave Correspondent,
Forgiveness? I mean, listen. It’s maybe a little early for forgiveness. Your ex-person may want you to work on your forgiveness because that makes it easier for him. While forgiveness is understandable and a perfectly reasonable future goal, I think there are a few steps before forgiveness that are going to be more useful to you, Brave Correspondent. Maybe also a few concepts to consider. So let’s address those first, perhaps. You’re not on his timeline anymore.
First thing is this: Being dumped sucks. Even being dumped by someone you had misgivings about or someone who treated you terribly sucks, and here is why: You didn’t choose it. It’s not volitional. As people, we all pretty much hate what feels beyond our control. When I was laid off from a job for the first time, I was anxious and panicky and miserable. Eventually someone said to me, “Dude. You are getting nine months to work on writing with basically no responsibilities and the government will pay you enough to scrape by on. Think of it as a fellowship!”
And it was true. If someone had arrived at my desk and said, “Bear Bergman, if you leave your job we will pay you 68% of your current salary to just write and work on activist projects for most of a year,” I would have said yes in a hot second. I would have been gone before my boss had a chance to scold me for using too many sticky notes again (unrelated advice: never work for a sole proprietor). I would have felt so lucky. I would have felt valuable as an artist, not shitty as an employee. I would have chosen it and not looked back.
But presented as a done deal, I spent the first two months feeling bad about myself. I agonized about another job. I worried about my last job. I beat myself up about everything, and I spent a lot of time explaining to myself and anyone who would listen why it was my workplace, and not me, who was at fault. But the fact of being laid off remained the same. I was trying to figure out what it meant about me.
Here’s a possibility I would like you to consider, Brave Correspondent: This breakup means nothing in particular about you. I mean, maybe you’re a terrible person with awful personal qualities, but probably not. Probably, this was not the right person for you, and you were not the right person for them. That feels absolutely awful to have announced to you, especially if you still thought of them as your person. But sometimes, in this least pleasant way, sometimes we find out that the person we thought was for us is actually not. And it’s wretched.
(Separate from this is an entire critique of the entire valorization of the “everybody couple up and live in pairs!” imperative. Which is actually only one of the ways it can go. Even if it’s a very common one, part of why it’s the most common is that it’s also the most well-rewarded in our culture—but that is perhaps another column.)
So what should you do instead of “working on your forgiveness”? Well, the first stop is typically wailing and gnashing of teeth, and I for one encourage you to do that. Call all your friends and tell them how awful you feel, and let them comfort you and buy you shots and tell you that they always thought you could have done better and now you shall. Try very hard to resist the urge to trash your ex, which feels great in the moment but is probably not the person you want to be and also robs you of the moral high ground. Be snippily, sniffily dismissive of him. Put him on an ice floe in the great sea of your expansive, living heart and push him out past the breakwater to freeze in the chill of your total disregard, if you want to.
Move out as soon as possible, or have him move out. Pack up and be separate; If this requires legal assistance then find some right away and let that person do their work on your behalf. I cannot stress enough how helpful this. Living with someone after they have dumped you is the actual worst and leaves you both frozen in a weird limbo from which no one can properly progress. Whatever it costs is almost certainly worth it.
After this, clear your backlog. All the things you wanted to have or do or eat or buy when you were together but that he disliked or disapproved or of whatever? Have them. He hated cruises? Get your girlfriends together and go. He thought cloth napkins were unsanitary? Make two dozen. He was terrible with money and spent every nickel? Open a savings account and watch it grow with satisfaction. He hated re-watching movies or philosophical conversations or Korean food or hiking or that bright blue toenail polish you love? Have them all, have it how you like it, and make no apologies for any of it.
Ignore all advice to start a self-improvement program. You’re perfectly marvelous as you are. If you have been actually been wanting to try aerial acrobatics or join a choir or learn Mandarin or something then do that, but do it to amuse your very own self. You don’t need to get a haircut or buy new clothes unless that seems fun. Have a great time.
Eventually, if you tend to yourself and your own interests thoroughly and well—and let other people tend you also, perhaps occasionally even in the naked way because why not—you’ll find that you think less and less about what’s-his-name. In time, and maybe less of it than you imagine, you won’t think of him at all except of something specific calls him to mind. At that stage, if you still feel like you have anything left connecting you to him then sure—think about forgiveness. Might you occasionally have a flash of wanting to scream at him or hold his belongings hostage or call his mother and tell her about his foot fetish? Sure. Is it worth the energy it takes to stay angry and keep lashing out at him? Probably not.
Because really, Brave Correspondent, this is about you. Use your energy to plant and till your own fields; don’t worry about his if you can possibly avoid it. Be steadfastly in your own corner, on your own side. Go ahead and let your life be all about you with all the boldness you possess and any you can borrow. If living boldly and authentically makes you very appealing to a certain kind of self-possessed person who enjoys humans in a bright and uncompromising hue, that’s fine. Maybe one of those people will please you. But first, Brave Correspondent, please your fine self. You’re worth it.
Love and courage,