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What would Shirley Jackson do? (Image: Archi Banal)
What would Shirley Jackson do? (Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyNovember 2, 2023

Help Me Hera: Do I confront my shitty ex?

What would Shirley Jackson do? (Image: Archi Banal)
What would Shirley Jackson do? (Image: Archi Banal)

I haven’t spoken to him in years and I’ve moved on, but I want to tell him all the ways he hurt me. 

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Dear Hera,

The notion of closure has been thrashed out in popular culture and media, and according to one TikTok therapist I follow, it’s a flawed concept. But it’s something I can’t stop thinking about. 

In my early 20s, I was in a relationship for years that was simply awful. My friends hated him, my family silently hated him. I was so devoted though (or I had no self esteem.) He cheated on me, emotionally abused me, gaslit me, isolated me from my friends, tried to torpedo my career. Anyway, I got out thanks to a very good and supportive friend who stuck by me. 

I haven’t spoken to him properly since we broke up. I feel like a totally different person now, eight years on. And emotionally, I have definitely moved on: I’m in a healthy and happy marriage with a wonderful man who treats me really well, and I’ve had a lot of therapy. 

I really want to confront this ex and tell him all the ways he hurt me. This is something I think about a lot. He has tried to contact me over the years on social media, but I haven’t replied. I have this fantasy that I meet him, tell him off in a really confident and eloquent way, and he feels awful forever, and I feel good that he feels awful. 

Is that an unrealistic fantasy? Is the best revenge a life well lived, or is it possible that airing our grievances can help someone move on? 


Chasing Closure

A line of dark blue card suit symbols – hearts, clubs, diamonds and spades

Dear CC,

Absolutely not, never, and under no circumstances!!! 

First of all, congratulations on extracting yourself from such a miserable situation. I agree this guy deserves a hearty dunking in the village pond, or an Aperol spritz to the face, preferably while you’re wearing a stunning backless dress. Unfortunately this isn’t Golden Age Hollywood, and the devastating, scripted revenge monologues we construct in the shower never quite live up to our fantasies. 

I think you already know the answer to your question. But you’re itching to confront him anyway! Enough time has passed that you finally have the language for what happened to you and are able to feel retrospectively angry. You want to tell him all the ways he hurt you, and make that pain his burden and his responsibility. I would also love that for you. I just don’t think it’s going to happen. 

Chances are, even if you deliver an emotionally-devastating monologue, it’s unlikely he’s going to reel in horror and confusion, suddenly overcome with remorse. It’s much more likely he’ll come out with something even more infuriating, like “actually you were gaslighting me, by not letting me sleep with that chick from the promotional hot-sauce booth” or “well you never supported my dreams of investing in cryptocurrency,” guaranteeing you another decade of impotent rage. 

In order for your confrontation to have any effect on him, he’d have to be the kind of person who was capable of deep introspection and remorse, which A) seems unlikely, based on his past behaviour and B) would take all the fun out of your imaginary scolding. 

You’ll notice what I’m not saying is “take the high road” or “forgive and forget” or any other fridge magnet platitude. Sometimes we can’t shake our anger off, no matter how much we want to. What I am saying is any attempt to express this anger towards him is unlikely to bring you peace. I think any further confrontation with this guy is only going to risk dragging you back into the orbit of his horrible personality, which you worked so hard to escape from. I’m not saying people can’t change. But part of what allowed you to change was your wise and timely decision to exile him from your life. 

I do think, in some circumstances, a sincere and genuine apology can be healing for both apologiser and apologisee. But he isn’t a drunk and remorseful teenager who caused a devastating traffic accident. This guy has a history of manipulative and abusive behaviour towards you, which means he’s automatically a bad candidate for truth and reconciliation. 

I worry that any contact will serve as a kind of vindication for him. When he was being manipulative and emotionally abusive, it didn’t matter to him that you were unhappy. It mattered that he was important. That he had the upper hand. He was perfectly content to make you miserable, as long as he was the centre of your universe. There are some people who only understand the currency of attention. I worry that if you get back in contact, even to tell him off, instead of feeling remorseful like a normal person, he’ll be flattered. Flattered that, after all these years, he has the power to make you angry; to get under your skin. 

The good news is, the most hurtful thing you can do is what you’re already doing, which is ignoring him forever. The fact that he’s tried to contact you over the years, and you haven’t replied, is actually a much colder and more brutal form of revenge. I bet he hates it. 

I don’t want to pretend I’m so enlightened I would never hold a grudge. After all, writers are in the professional grievance-airing business. Lousie Gluck didn’t write her best work by plastering a smile on her face, and looking on the bright side. Neither did Shirley Jackson or Sylvia Plath. But they all found creative ways to transform their rage. 

Far be it from me to tell every poor soul who writes into this advice column to write a novel. But I can tell you’re a good writer from your letter. Why not transcribe the devastating speech you’d love to deliver, and never send it. Sometimes just being able to articulate something and put it in a locked drawer can offer catharsis. Or you could take the Agatha Christie or Patricia Highsmith route, and turn him into a horrible character in a novel, and then murder him. 

If you don’t have aspirations towards winning the Booker, you could do something else, like fundraising for a woman’s shelter, or trying to help someone in a similar situation. Perform some small, mundane ritual, like my friend’s evil grandmother who writes the names of her enemies on bits of paper, and then freezes them in cubes of ice.

I’m not saying any of these things will make you feel better. But literally any of these activities are preferable to getting back in touch with him. 

I don’t know whether closure is real, or achievable. But I think if it does exist, it comes slowly, from within ourselves and the people who love us. Either that, or writing spiteful books in which we push our enemies down long flights of stairs. 

Maybe it feels like he’s getting off unpunished. But you were able to get free of him and build a rich and happy life. Your reward is never having to spend another second in his company. Whereas he can never leave himself behind. He has to lug the weight of his own miserable heart around forever. 

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