Gina Frangello: 10 dingen die ik heb geleerd over liefde door scheidingdecember 17, 2019
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Guest writer: Gina Frangello
Source: Gina Frangello
Just as sometimes recovering addicts make the best addiction counselors, so perhaps someone who blew her marriage up and then became embroiled in a mutually contentious divorce may have something to offer those who seek to avoid similar mistakes. My divorce was precipitated by years of volatile fighting, emotional withdrawing and growing apart, but was ultimately pushed over the edge by an affair I held as a toxic secret for three years. I learned the hard way some of the terrible pitfalls that a couple dissolving their marriage should avoid.
Now, four and a half years later and also on the other side of breast cancer, the death of both of my parents, a hip replacement after two and a half years of chronic osteoarthritis pain, and a whole bunch of therapy, I see things through a dramatically different lens than I did during both my affair and divorce, and have myriad things I wish I had done differently.
The following guidelines are for divorcing couples, and are not about how to save your marriage (a list that would certainly include “do not cheat on your spouse” as item No. 2, right under “do not hit your spouse or kids”). If you are still thinking of saving your marriage, I encourage you to dedicate a period of time to trying, single-mindedly and at the exclusion of any outsiders besides a trained therapist, to do so. If, however, you have already come to that impasse where things are unresolvable, here are ten things I have learned about how to let go—and go forward—with decency and mercy towards all concerned:
1. Don’t try to control everything. Most of the mistakes I’ve made in my life have stemmed directly from my attempts to control outcomes or calculate other people’s potential reactions like moves on a chessboard, as well as from the false stories I’ve told myself to hold on to the illusion of being in control. My affair was the most extreme example of this, but my inability to tell the difference between things I could change or control and things I couldn’t also created major shock waves in my divorce. The truth: I can’t control anything except for my own behavior … and attempts to control things outside of that sphere have usually led to my behaving badly.
2. Pick your battles. What is genuinely a threat to you or your children, vs. a behavior you just don’t like or approve of, or that makes you feel twinges of grief, anger or vulnerability?
In divorce, one of the great dangers—and one I initially fell prey to—is an escalation of aggression and retaliation until ending a marriage can feel like the last moments of the Cuban Missile Crisis. One rash or unethical action begat another between my ex and me, and so on until we both seemed unrecognizable from the people we had once been, in all the wrong ways. During the worst days of my divorce, I often thought of an exchange my ex and I once had when we were still married and witnessing one of my cousins going through a years-long hideous financial and custody battle, in which I said to my ex, “Promise me that if we ever split up, we will never act like that,” and he said to me, “We would never act like that.” But by the time my cousin’s divorce was over and his ex-wife had devastatingly committed suicide, my ex and I were months into our own ugly divorce.
The truth is: divorce holds up a mirror to parts of yourself you can’t see when things are going your way, or even when they’re mildly hard. It’s shockingly easy to become enemy combatants who forget that the other possesses any core humanity, much less that they were once your favorite person. Yes, sometimes, an ex is truly trying to do harm (and may treat children as casualties in a campaign to wreak revenge). Sometimes it is necessary to fight with everything you have.
But most of the time the reasons are not that serious. Is it possible to simply release the need to react to everything? Is it possible not to nickel and dime every issue, not to rule your parenting time schedule with an iron fist? If you can adopt this attitude, you won’t just be giving your ex a break, you’ll be giving yourself one too. The physical and emotional ramifications of an endless war are potentially devastating and deny you both the necessary time to heal.
3. To that end: forgiveness isn’t the same thing as being a pushover. Kindness isn’t the same thing as weakness. It is possible to let go of your own toxic resentment, anger, or feelings of betrayal and victimization even if family, friends, lawyers, or your new partner are telling you that whatever your ex did was monstrous and unforgivable. Nobody but you gets to decide who and what you choose to forgive … and forgiveness does not have to be mutual for you to choose it.
4. The same goes for forgiving yourself. Maybe you, too, were unfaithful. Maybe you gambled away family money. Maybe you were addicted to alcohol or drugs. Maybe you abused your spouse emotionally or even physically. Maybe you were appallingly selfish or negligent. Maybe you have profound regrets about the way you parented. Divorced people are experts at shoulda woulda coulda. But self-flagellation and self-hatred help absolutely nobody in your life.
Your misery isn’t a thing you “owe” anyone as atonement, and is a disservice especially if you have children, as being raised by bitter, depressed, angry parents is perpetually re-traumatizing. Continuing to punish yourself in the court of your own mind doesn’t help you become a better person, but rather blocks your growth by keeping you stuck in a narcissistic loop of thinking about yourself constantly.
One simple trick that can reveal whether you are being too hard on yourself: ask yourself what you’d want to do if your sister, your best friend, your child, had done what you did? Would you want them to despise themselves about it forever, or would you want them to have a chance at redemption? There’s your answer. You, too, have the right to be happy again, even if you have made terrible mistakes … and as long as you are breathing, you have the chance to evolve, to grow, to improve. Atone sincerely for your actions—then move on.
5. That said, atonement is, in the end, a private act. While many divorces eventually resolve into some level of amicability (at least feigned amicability for the sake of children), others simply do not. Even if your ex will never forgive you—or even talk to you—atonement is still possible. Here, certain tenets of the Twelve Step Programs are useful: recovering addicts are encouraged to make sincere amends to those they have wronged even if the other person basically tells them to go screw themselves. Amends are about you, not about controlling the other person’s reaction to you (see #1). The Twelve Steps also tell us not to attempt interactive amends when doing so would harm the other person. Sometimes, that Ninth Step is taken alone.
6. Understand that love and trust take time, and that many people—including children—find change traumatic. If you have a new partner, do not expect that your children will jump up and down with joy and consider this person part of the family overnight, or perhaps ever. Don’t try to impose a whole cast of characters and a brand new lifestyle on kids who are still grieving your divorce, or who may be going through other hardships.
Within a year of my marriage ending, my father who lived in our home died, and I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a bilateral mastectomy and chemo. Amidst these massive life changes, both my ex and I had new partners. Understandably, our children were reeling. There are reasons that experts on divorce recommend not introducing your children to new partners for a year after a divorce. Neither my ex nor I ultimately heeded this advice, though our approaches were different. (In my case, my cancer diagnosis catapulted my new partner into my familial sphere a few months sooner than we’d planned, so he could care for me and allow my kids to just be kids.)
Whenever it happens: approach family blending with humility. Try to allow your children to dictate the pace, and if they can’t entirely dictate the timing, at least let them dictate the intensity of contact and exposure.
7. Be willing to stand in the fire with your kids to re-earn their trust. In my case, my teenage daughters discovered my affair when snooping on my phone, as kids that age are likely to do, especially if you’re acting freaky because you are doing something shady like having a clandestine affair. Upon being caught, I proceeded to make the matter far worse by telling my daughters the affair was over and then never speaking of it again until I left their father nearly three years later for that same man, (with whom I’d been on-again/off-again the whole time), proving that I’d lied not just to my ex but to them.
Although they still loved me, my children did not know what to make of me, with good reason. Was I a pathological liar? Could they count on me, when I’d betrayed the whole family? These are painful questions, and it is easy to want to find ways to justify or excuse your actions to avoid facing them. For starters, do not try to distract your children from your own mistakes by pointing a finger at your ex’s, whatever those may be. Instead, get family therapy. Have the hard talks—and also give your children space away from relentlessly having hard talks, and just have normal family downtime and fun.
Accept that your children may indeed judge you, and don’t spin in circles trying to change their minds. When discussing sensitive matters, maintain appropriate adult/child boundaries; don’t make your kids your confidantes about their other parent or about your own pain. Rather, be present. Show them that despite your failures, you will never abandon them. Demonstrate unconditional love, which means nurturing kindness even in the face of their anger. Be the grown-up and keep showing up, every single day, no matter how snarky or stonewalling they may be, or how you may wish to evade your own shame. Demonstrate loyalty. Be there always. Your actions spoke louder than words to your kids when your previous actions were messed up—and your actions will speak louder than words to your kids when, for the rest of your life, you provide a steady love, free of melodrama and lies.
8. People are not either good or bad, either “keepers” or to be discarded like yesterday’s trash, either lovable or forgettable. The human heart has many chambers. You will miss things about your ex that you can’t see in the stagnation or anger of your wrecked marriage, much less in the fight-or-flight of your vitriolic divorce. The longer you have been away from the bad years, the more you may remember the good times when you were both young and in love and good to one another. Note: This will be true even if you are madly in love with your new partner/spouse.
You cannot spend decades sleeping next to someone, going through births and deaths with them, and then just forget they ever existed. (Likewise, if you try to conclude that your ex was a unilateral monster you never should have fallen for to begin with, you will end up negating many happy, emotionally genuine years of your own life in the process, thus creating a schism in which you no longer trust your own judgments and pivotal life experiences.)
My new partner and I both left long, troubled-but-real marriages to be together, and we each understand the enormous complexity of our continued care for our former spouses, even when our friends, therapists or kids may not get it. If you love X and are happy with X, then how can you still be grieving Y after all this time? But while romantic and sexual love often have an exclusive focus and burn, other forms of love, like the sharing a home and a family for a quarter-century, do not disappear because you grew incompatible over time, or even if you both committed grievous actions upon the other. You will live with this duality forever, and while you don’t have to talk about it all the time, your mental health will benefit if you can make peace with it.
9. Surround yourself with people who bring out the holistic best in you, and in whom you bring out the best. This sounds simple but is actually incredibly difficult. Many people bring out positive sides of our personalities and encourage us in different ways. My ex was incredibly generous to my elderly parents and unflaggingly supportive of my literary aspirations; likewise, I often served as a conduit to our social world of family and friends and kept him connected to other people instead of lost inside his work and head.
Without there being ways we enhanced each other, we would surely never have lasted as long as we did. But we also fought too often, each struggling to be “right” rather than prioritizing happiness, and his temper frightened me and left me walking on eggshells (which I later used as a big fat excuse—to myself and him—for my dishonesty in our final years). On a more basic level, we shared fewer and fewer interests as we aged, so we often experienced the other as rejecting, and our increasingly rigid gender roles caused each of us to atrophy in certain life skills. I still don’t see this as meaning that we “chose the wrong person” when we married, but rather that the things we each most needed in a partner at 22 became vastly different by the time we were 45. Our marriage thrived when it was only the two of us, but as we added in three children, sick and dying parents and friends, and increasingly demanding careers, we stopped nurturing one another emotionally.
In my new relationship, I did not seek someone who was “easier” in some absolute way (in fact, my new partner possesses a variety of traits that on paper might make him seem “harder”), but rather someone who I found easier to support unconditionally and be interested in, which has to do both with the mysterious alchemy between people and with my actively striving to change old patterns of how to react in times of stress.
10. Finally, love your children more than you hate your ex. Rinse and repeat. There is a reason every single expert on divorce uses this phrase. No matter what you and your ex did to one another during your marriage or divorce, the divorce decree begins a new page and gives you the opportunity to put your children first. That includes not just prioritizing their feelings above grievances with your ex, but also putting their needs above the new partner’s needs too.
Remember that anyone who is a positive addition to your and your children’s lives will encourage you to be your best self as a parent. Your children have lived through a failing marriage and a brutal divorce, besides any other wrongs you and your ex may have visited upon them, and they have been through enough.
But more than that: you are bound to your children in ways that differ from your bonds with consenting adults. Your children did not get to choose you—they are, so to speak, stuck with you—so treat their hearts gently and never underestimate the enormous impact you have on their lives.
Bonus: Don’t lie. About anything. Nope, not about that either. Just do not lie. Full stop. Take it from me, as someone who knows the consequences, both intentional and unintentional. If you must fail, if you must hurt anyone, if you must do something you are afraid to do, at least do so honestly. Start now. In the end, our truth is all we have.
Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction and a forthcoming memoir, Blow Your House Down; for more information, visit her website.