Lying, Confession, Forgiveness, and Hope

Destructive Hope

by Kenneth L. Stewart, Ph.D.  

I'm in the profession of hope. Each hour I spend with

a client is like an "archeology of hope," if you will,

uncovering evidence that things will get better for

them: that depression will fade, that fighting will

be give way to respect, that anxiety will be

transformed into tranquility. But there's another

kind of hope that leads more to terror than tranquility,

that inflicts pain instead of easing it.

This is what I call "destructive hope."

I've seen destructive hope destroying the lives of battered women when they keep hoping for changes that never show up in their abusive partners. He promises over and over to change his abusive practices of pushing, hitting, slapping, or verbally demeaning her. He promises to stop getting two inches from her face and screaming at her. He promises not to break any more dishes. He promises to be a good father. He may even get out the Bible and quote scripture to her. And within a couple of days or a couple of weeks he comes back again to intimidate, terrorize and abuse her. Yet she clings to the relationship in the destructive hope that somewhere inside his tyrannical impulses good will win out over evil. She clings to visions of a perfect little house with a picket fence, kids playing in the yard while a loving mother and father benignly oversee this domestic bliss, this safe haven. "He's a good man inside of all that anger," she tells herself. "He's going through a rough time," she reminds herself. And, these observations may carry some truth in them. But her tendency to carry all the emotional responsibility for the relationship needs a rest. Until he assumes full responsibility for his abusive practices, for his will to overpower her, for his sense of destructive entitlement, the relationship will continue in its dizzying cycle of abuse.

I've also seen destructive hope control gentle, non-abusing men who have fervently invested themselves in their relationship with a woman who is "the girl of my dreams." They believe this to be the perfect match, far better than any woman they have known. They date for a while, a few months, maybe even longer. But at some point she decides she no longer wants to continue the relationship. It's not for her, it doesn't seem like a good fit, she's not ready for commitment, any number of personally felt reasons. She'll say things like, "Let's take a break;" or "I don't think this is working out," or "I need some time." It's at this point that he starts to fall apart. The story he tells himself is often one of rejection and humiliation ­ that he must be this despicable character for her to do this. Or he may tell himself a story that features him as the good guy she is foolishly forsaking in her desire to distance herself from the relationship's intensity. He ends up obsessing about her day and night. He just isn't willing to let go. Instead, he clings desperately to images of connubial bliss from earlier times in the relationship. Ignoring her wishes and his helplessness, he obsesses about approaching her with compelling words and clever strategies to win her back. When these don't work he retreats, feeling shattered and abandon.

Healing hope, on the other hand, is the kind of hope that assists healing in sick medical patients and pulls them through life-threatening crises. It's the kind of hope that keeps prisoners of war surviving in cages for years on end. Healing hope makes an otherwise miserable life tolerable and can pull people through months of agonizing suffering. Without the power of healing hope, bodies more quickly give out and spirits wither. This kind of hope, combined with faith and love, provide the foundation of Judeo-Christian beliefs.

While healing hope is desirable and ultimately redeeming, destructive hope eventually wreaks havoc on body and soul. Bodies are battered and bruised, souls are wounded and shrunk. There is no redemption in destructive hope. It doesn't connect us to love or nature or spiritual dimensions. Instead, it disconnects us from positive feelings about ourselves and our self-worth. It disconnects us from friends who may try in vain to warn us, to steer us away from what we refuse to acknowledge. It disconnects us from the significance of recent memories by creating a tunnel vision that keeps us fixated on the beauty or charm on the surface (his good looks and charm; her beauty and warmth), while minimizing or ignoring the dangers that lie underneath or out of sight (his addiction to power and abuse; her mixed messages and emotional distance). By minimizing emotionally or physically abusive behavior, destructive hope keeps us from paying attention to the signs that suggest this destructive behavior is part of a continuing pattern. Destructive hope persists because it disguises itself as healing hope. It allows us to maintain our innocence, to cling to the delusion that things will work out, that the other will change, that the context will change. Destructive hope pulls us into a chaotic future, promising us a heaven and dumping us in hell.

The inevitabilities of living in an imperfect and mortal world mean that sooner or later each of us must each face necessary losses. Life is full of loss: from the loss of the wonderfully fused relationship we had with our primary caregivers as infants, to the eventual loss of our aging parents we have as adults. Losses do more to mark our passages through life than anything else. They are necessary losses we must face in order to move on, in order to grow and flourish on our own. Life is an endless series of endings and beginnings. These rhythms of birth, life, death, and rejuvenation are deeply ingrained in the genes of our bodies and in the bowels of the earth. Every ending is a beginning of something else: a different time, a different place, a different state of mind. We suffer when we cling to endings that we cannot face, that we seek to preserve in time. The world revolves and moves on while we remain stuck in the amber of memory. Only by taking the leap of faith that we will survive, that we may even thrive, will we find the courage to let go and begin a new life.


Instead of asking yourself, "Why don't I ever learn?" ­ ask instead, "What keeps me from learning destructive hope's harsh lessons? The following ideas may help you escape from destructive hope's powerful grasp:

  • You may be afraid of loneliness. In order to feel good and positive about yourself you may have convinced yourself that you need this person's attention in order to feel worthy, to feel lovable. Without it, you may feel incomplete. What do you think you might be avoiding in yourself by

  • You may be confusing healing hope with destructive hope. "Hope is hope," you may say to yourself; "hope is a good thing." Not always. Species survive because they learn how to make distinctions between what is harmful and what is beneficial. Destructive hope seduces us into minimizing or glossing over things that we should making finer distinctions of. Learning to distinguish between healing hope and destructive hope may be necessary for your emotional or even physical survival.

  • Images of relational bliss ­ the good times ­ may be blown up to such a size that they block out the darker side of the relationship. You may be keeping your vision narrow and your memories selective in order to maintain your illusions of good times ­ like wearing emotional blinders. If you widened your vision, what would you see?

  • Your ability to be persistent may be doing you in. Persistence may be useful to sustain the aches and pains of an athlete getting in shape or for sustaining endurance when you want to give up, but sometimes persistence can work against you. Sometimes the better part of wisdom isn't in stubborn persistence, but in knowing when to let go, knowing when to quit. Athletes have rest days, students have to take breaks from studying, and people need to take breaks from each other when the intensity becomes too much.

  • You may be refusing to mourn. Losses can be painful and hard to face, even the loss of a relationship that has been bitterly disappointing or abusive. And grieving just hurts. But the hurt can be endured. After all, it's only pain. The longer you avoid the temporary pain of mourning, the longer you will feel miserable. When you allow yourself to feel this pain, it eventually lessens and finally transforms itself into wisdom. No pain, no mourning, no wisdom.

  • You may believe that you will lose your identity if you lose the relationship. So you hang on in order to preserve a fundamental sense you have of who you are. You may have to come to define yourself in terms of your connection to the other person. "Who am I," you may wonder, "without him / her?" Good question. What important things about yourself have you missed because you have made the other person so much of your identity ? Which of your qualities or strengths or interests have you neglected because of your intense focus on the other?

  • Endings and beginnings are part of life. We have to face our endings in order to have new beginnings. This natural cycle gets interrupted and we become stuck when we refuse to face the endings in our life. We stay stuck in the past, as if we are stuck in a time warp, unable to enjoy the present or plan for the future. We can take courage from the natural and necessary rhythms of endings and beginnings. What would it take for you to let go and get into the flow?