I have dated quite a few men in my adult life. Most of those men have been married before. Many of them also have an acrimonious relationship with their ex. And one thing I’ve learned the hard way is this: I need to stay out of it (minus listening with a sympathetic ear and giving lots of hugs). Because when there is a lot of anger, court battles and drama between the two of them, I can’t possible know where the truth actually lies. His version might be totally accurate—she could really be that pathological liar crazy bitch he portrays her to be. And then again, maybe she’s not. The reality is that I wasn’t there, there are two sides to every story and this is one battle that is not mine to fight. Maybe my new guy is the one to blame (as was the case with my ex-husband; apparently his ex-wife was a cheating lazy bitch, yet I soon learned, he was a volatile, explosive alcoholic, which he forgot to tell me about). Or maybe the two of them had super terrible chemistry and with new partners, the dynamics are different and everyone is fixed and happy.
And this is my musing of today. Can someone who was a horrible partner in one relationship be a better person in a new one?
In my case, I think I was a pretty decent partner. And then I married an alcoholic. I tried my very best to be a great partner to my husband but, truth be told, there was nothing I could do to heal my marriage. When substance abuse or addiction is concerned, really, there is no hope. But the dynamics of my marriage created a Lizzy that I hated. I was a shell of who I was once. I didn’t laugh or smile so much. I became obsessed with cleanliness and order. I communicated typically by silence—simply not speaking, texting or emailing my husband at all for days after his drunken screaming episodes. He would email, text and call me begging to resolve our latest argument and I simply wouldn’t respond at all. A good idea? Not really. Or… if I didn’t take the “silence” approach, I simply fought back verbally with the most awful accusations and put-downs I could muster. “You’re a drunk and I fucking hate you,” I would say. “You’re lazy and stupid and every time you open your fat mouth you are embarrassing.” When I said those awful things to him, it felt good. I felt powerful. It was really sick. And on some level, I really felt that if I said the right combination of words, it would inspire him to finally be “better.” A good approach for a good marriage? Of course not!
Now from my ex’s perspective, he tells people that I was verbally abusive and was trying to change his fabulous personality. I know this because his “friends” told me what he was telling people about me. I only cared about myself, I was lazy, and not fun. Where did the truth lie? If you ask me, I was simply sticking up for myself, trying to survive, and trying to heal a sick man. Two sides to every story.
But behind all of that is this: Outside of that very unhealthy marriage, who was the real Lizzy? How would I interact in a better relationship? Would I be the kind of partner I wanted to be, or would I be that awful communicator who excelled at verbal insults?
Post-split, as I started dating, I was really curious to see which Lizzy emerged. Were my ex-husband’s opinions of me accurate? Was I angry, volatile, a failure at communication? Was I un-fun, demanding, a perfectionist and stoic? Was I reserved and snobby around my partner’s friends?
As I dated one man for a long time, I uncovered Lizzy. I almost studied my behavior and feelings as my new relationship progressed. It helped that my new guy was sober every day. I didn’t need to ever wonder if the guy I was talking to wasn’t in his “right mind.” And it also helped that I felt “safe” in discussing anything without fear of being screamed at.
Yes, we argued, though extremely rarely. We really were very similar in our likes and wants. We had similar beliefs and goals. We had fun together. That was nice. When we finally had our first argument some six months after we started dating, it was rather heated. But there was no screaming. At one point, I lifted my arm to grab my handbag and he visibly cringed. He thought I was going to hit him! The whole experience was a learning moment for us both. Our next argument was many months later and there was no fear of screaming or hitting—we both knew that neither of us would “go there.” And I became quite pleased at the new Lizzy emerging (or, should I say, re-emerging). I was happier, far more fun and relaxed. Did my cancer diagnosis change me (how could it not?) or was the person I thought I was pre-marriage still there? Did the dynamics of my terrible marriage to an alcoholic temporarily change the “real” me and, with that relationship gone, was the old Lizzy back? And, if I was really a decent girl without the drunk husband, was my ex-husband really a great guy without me in the picture? Now that was a crazy thought!
The answer to the first is this: I believe my terrible marriage brought out a terrible side of me. The answer to the latter is: Who knows if my ex-husband is now a great guy without me in the picture. I highly doubt it. An alcoholic doesn’t all of a sudden become awesome because he has a new partner.
Yes, dynamics of a marriage can change people. How can they not? And that’s why I advise anyone I know to stay out of the drama between their new guy and their guy’s ex. We simply don’t know if his ex is truly a monster, if the dynamics of the relationship were just “bad”, or if he is the crazy one, not her. The more we can rise above that, simply support our guy emotionally the best way we know how, and be a calming force, the better off we’ll be. Choosing sides and inserting ourselves in the middle of their battle never fares well for us. And, really, if things don’t work out for you and Mr Wonderful, you might start realizing that perhaps she wasn’t the only problem, maybe it was him.
Relationships are complex. The more we stick with our own and stay out of others, the better off we’ll be.