Hugo Schwyzer on love, hate, indifference, and forgiveness.
I was reminded of this story by an exchange with a friend today.
Dealing with the end of an intense romantic relationship is painful, regardless of the terms on which that relationship took place. Whether an unrequited obsession or a marriage, the adjustment to life without that one other person on whom you were so focused for so long is very difficult. And especially when we’ve had a hard time seeing a lover’s flaws, recovery may call for a period where we zero in on nothing but those shortcomings.
Many years ago, during one of my intermittent attempts to get sober, I went into analysis. Yeah, old school Freudian analysis, four days a week, for an hour at a time. My psychiatrist, who had gone through the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Institute, had me on the couch in his Pasadena office for nearly two years. My grandmother footed the bill. But when we made the family decision to put me through the famed Freudian process, it was my mother who told me about a dear friend of hers—another psychiatrist—whose own daughter had gone into analysis (with another doctor, of course, not her mother). My mother’s friend had told her daughter, “Boopsie, at some point during this process you will realize that you hate me. Don’t worry, the hate won’t last. But it’s a necessary stage in analysis.”
“Don’t be silly, Mom, the day could never come when I’d hate you!” Boopsie replied.
Six months later, the phone rang. When my mother’s friend answered, she heard her daughter’s voice: “Mom,” Boopsie said, “I just want you to know… it’s that day. I hate you.” Click.
Several weeks later, of course, the phone rang again. “Mom, I just want you to know, I don’t hate you anymore,” Boopsie announced with pride. Her mother laughed with her, and they cried together.
And yeah, I went through the same thing with my own mother.
But it’s not just Freudian analysis with its high price tag that produces this process of progressing from idealization to angry contempt and then on to loving acceptance. It’s also part of a good breakup, as I discovered not long after I began the analytic journey.
As I’ve often written, early on in my teaching career I went through a period where I dated and slept with many of my students. Though all these relationships were consensual, at least in the legal sense, they were also deeply unethical. And while some were one-night stands, some lasted on-and-off for months, and in a couple of cases, over a year. One of the latter relationships was with a young woman named Tanya, with whom I slept periodically from late 1996 to early 1998. I was a complete jerk to Tanya, not only because our relationship had started when I was her professor, but also because she was someone who wanted an exclusive romantic relationship with me, something I had neither the willingness nor the ability to give at that turbulent and self-absorbed point in my life. As far as I was concerned, Tanya and I were “friends with benefits.” And yet my conscience wasn’t so drugged and numbed that it didn’t know damn well I was taking advantage of her feelings for me.
Finally, in early 1998, Tanya told me that it was too painful to continue to sleep with me when I could give her nothing more than sex, affection, and conversation. If I couldn’t commit, she told me, she’d need to stop seeing me altogether. She also told me she was starting therapy and was excited about where that would take her. Since I was, at this point, on dear Dr. Levine’s couch Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons, I was all about therapy, and told Tanya I was excited for her.
I remembered my mother’s story, and shared it with Tanya. And at the end, I said, “You know, sometime soon you’re gonna wake up one day and realize you hate me. And because this isn’t a mother-child relationship, I’m not sure you’ll ever stop hating me.” (Yes, I was that narcissistic—until I got sober, so intensely focused on how I appeared in the minds and imaginations of others.) Tanya protested: “Hugo, I love you. I’m in love with you. I want to stop being in love with you because it hurts me. But I couldn’t ever hate you.”
I shook my head. “You will, you will. And you’ll have a right to.”
Six months or so later, I nearly died (and nearly killed others) as a result of my own drug and booze-induced stupidity. After getting out of the hospital, I got sober. I took a vow of celibacy, went to various Twelve Step meetings every night, and—briefly—took Dr. Levine to an astonishing five days a week. Only a few weeks clean, and still very fragile, I got a call from Tanya, whom I hadn’t heard from in months.
Her voice was cold, clipped, deathly calm. “I just wanted you to know you were right. I hate you now. I hate your fucking guts. You’re a selfish prick,and I don’t know what I ever saw in you. I’m over you, asshole.”
I took a deep breath and started to shake. I was so fearful of relapse. Now I was the one teary-eyed while Tanya was the one with icy clarity. I knew better than to try to explain myself. “Um, uh, thank you. Thank you for calling.” The last bit came out more like a question. Tanya finished the chat: “Don’t ever call me. I don’t want to hear from you or speak to you, ever.” She hung up. I hadn’t had the chance to tell her that everything was changing in my life, that I was getting clean and clear, that I was celibate. I hadn’t had the chance to say I was sorry. I just stood there in the kitchen of my little condo, staring at the phone, feeling the awful recognition of how much pain I’d caused someone else. And then I picked up the phone and called my sponsor.
About a year later, I saw Tanya on the street. I saw her first as we walked in opposite directions on Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena. I pretended to examine a store window, hoping she’d pass me by. No chance. Tanya recognized me at once. She came up to me, and I braced myself, but her words and tone were different. “Hey, Hugo,”she said. “How are you?” “Great”, I stammered. “You?” Tanya told me her life was terrific. She had a boyfriend, and was in her last semester at Cal State Los Angeles.
We made a little bit of small talk, and then she said: “Hugo, I’m sorry I was so harsh with you last summer. I never thought I could hate you, and then I did. And once I started hating you, I didn’t think I’d ever stop hating you. But then that stopped too. And now, it just is. I don’t hate you, I don’t really feel much of anything for you. I hope you’re OK, and I wish you well, and that’s all there is.”
I’d already started the amends process, slowly tracking down the various people whom I’d wronged in my years of drinking and using and acting out sexually. I’d held off on Tanya because she’d told me not to contact her. But now, with her standing in front of me, I figured this was my moment. But before I’d finished my first halting sentence, Tanya held up her hand. “No, no. I don’t need to hear it,” she said, shaking her head. “I had my part, you had yours. It’s over, it’s done.” She smiled and did the only reasonable thing she could do: she held out her hand. I shook it, we nodded, smiled, and each headed our separate ways. I haven’t seen her since.
Should Tanya have listened to my amends? It wasn’t her job to make it easy for me, as it wasn’t her job to tell me she didn’t hate me anymore. I didn’t get a chance to ask for forgiveness, nor did she indicate whether or not she forgave me. What she was clear on was that the love was gone and the hate as well, and she was at peace and wished me well. She’d finished her process, at least the part that involved me, and she’d needed to tell me that. I was glad she did.
Theologians and others often remark that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference. Hate and love are opposite sides of the same coin, twinned emotions. And when we’ve loved someone the way a small child loves a parent, or the way an obsessed lover loves someone who loves her (or him) less, our healing and growth often require we spend some time opening ourselves to hate. In the case of a parent and child, the end result is, one hopes, an eventual strengthening of the bond on a whole new level. With an ex-lover, it’s different. Abusive love or unrequited love can be so painful that it leaves a great wound. The wound bleeds and bleeds until the love stops, and until the gash is cauterized by hate. Hate, like obsession, burns too hot to be healthy for long. But jeepers, sometimes we really need that burn. I’ve needed it in short bursts in my own life, as Tanya did in hers.
So yeah, I’m just repeating what someone famous for wisdom said some 2500 years ago. But old truisms sometimes benefit from modern illustrations.
Originally posted on hugoschwyzer.net.
—Photo faith goble/Flickr