Not all bitterness is bad for you. Jen Lancaster's fury over being fired in the 2001 dot-com bust led to a personal blog that launched her career as an author, starting with the acerbically humorous chronicle of her financial/identity crisis, "Bitter is the New Black" (NAL Trade, $15).
Lancaster, having emerged from the blackness, wouldn't recommend bitterness for one's love life, whether single or married.
Still, she understands why bitterness sets in among some of her friends in the Facebook age of dating and escaping without a spoken word.
"I just thank God my husband and I found each other before the advent of social media," Lancaster said. "I can't imagine dating someone and seeing what they're doing on their Facebook page. And people breaking up with each other over texts now? We had to break up with each other face to face back then."
Today, whether the bitterness stems from romantic indignities, professional disappointments or childhood scars, the sufferers often do not see themselves as bitter. Instead, they blindly sabotage each new relationship with their resentments. One partner constantly questions the other's fidelity after an ex's affair, feels threatened by the other's career advancement or hears the other's requests as mom's nagging.
Los Angeles- and Taiwan-based matchmaker Hellen Chen applies a Japanese label to bitter people. It roughly translates to "defeated dog."
"The dogs are the people who think they are right and don't want to change; they basically are spoiled since they were a kid," Chen said. "At Valentine's Day, they are thinking, 'Why didn't you give me flowers, why didn't you bring me out to the big meal? The one you take me to is so cheap.' They don't want to share, to give, but they want a lot from other people."
Baggage of breakups
Chen, who wrote the book "The Matchmaker of the Century" (Creative Creation), attributes bitterness to dating too many partners before marriage.
"Each relationship, they have an experience of falling in love, but then they separate," Chen said. "People date three people (long term), that's already too much. To break a heart three times, for a woman, is very painful. For men, they are dating like 10 women, and then they become (apathetic): 'I don't know, I'll try the next one.'"
Serial monogamy without marriage also raises the likelihood of hurting another person via an indiscretion or a breakup that can leave the perpetrator feeling guilty and defensive about the same thing happening to him, Chen believes: "Only the criminal is thinking the other person is criminal."
Psychiatrist R. Duncan Wallace, author of "The Book of Psychological Truths" (iUniverse.com, $24.95), says bitterness is a factor in about 50 percent of his client cases.
"I call it subterranean anger," Wallace said. "It means someone is holding an expectation about how something or somebody should be or should have been.
"If someone betrays you in a relationship, a clear betrayal, yeah, you ought to be angry. But use that anger to push you forward, and say, 'This is not the place for me to stay.'"
When people can't overcome the pain, the anger may stem from wounds earlier in life, what Wallace calls "a truth undiscovered, or fought against, if known."
If they dig deep, bitter people may realize they are carrying a disappointment from how their parents or other family members interacted with them or with each other. They have vowed at some level that it's going to be different for them in adulthood, that they'll have things their way.
"They start foisting these old childhood expectations on their partner," he said.
One psychological truth Wallace emphasizes is that our mind does everything for a purpose.
"So if someone is willing to (ask), 'Why am I bitter? How is this trying to help me?' they may realize, 'I'm trying to call attention to the fact I was hurt, and maybe my partner will help me out,'" Wallace explains. "They're trying to be rescued or protesting to the world, hoping someone will comfort them. But the only person who can do that is they themselves."