People often assume because I don’t hate my ex that our breakup was mutual. It wasn’t. When my husband told me he wanted a divorce, I was still breastfeeding, frazzled by almost no continuous sleep, still wearing maternity clothes, just passing 41 years old and making my own baby food. Lamaze never prepared me for this.
If you asked me then to empathize with my ex’s struggle to leave or ask me what was my part in the breakdown of my marriage, you would have gotten one of two responses (usually depending upon if I was sober or had a few drinks in me). You would have beheld my withering angry stare (I’ve been told mine is quite noteworthy) or been privy to an extremely long, embarrassingly personal sharing of my story of shock and betrayal. I was the victim and he was the jerk. It was all very simple.
I needed it to be simple. I was not in a place where I could see beyond my own devastation. I could not, as I can now, think about him struggling with the knowledge, as he lay awake at night that he was desperately, profoundly unhappy and very, very scared. I could not think of his guilt and shame other than to be glad he was hurting as well. What I know now is that he did not want the divorce, to lose our family, but he did not want the marriage either.
I was angry; I wounded him skillfully as only a trained therapist can do. Slowly however I began to see that my anger apart from feeling good in the moment wasn’t serving me. It did nothing to dampen the pain and nothing to ensure my happiness in the future. I also began to notice that despite the situation, he was often taking responsibility and taking steps to care for my future. No, he was not a saint or a martyr, but at times he took an unexpected path of kindness. I began to lose grip on the surety that he was a narcissistic ass.
I don’t mean to take credit for his decisions, but as I began to look beyond my own anger I began to see his struggle and his pain. It was hard to see and it was different than mine- but it was there. His fear of being ruined financially, his shame for being the instigator of all this devastation.
What I did was this:
I began to pause and stop a conversation when I felt that familiar heat move from my chest to my head and he began to appreciate, notice and do the same (and even when he didn’t I held myself to my own commitment instead of using the moment to righteously expose his lack of control). I began to give a chance for respect to rebuild our relationship based on the present-not on the past, which could never be undone.
That didn’t mean there weren’t fights, but a thread of trust that was not there before began to form. A trust that we weren’t going to try to hurt each other on purpose and that we could both ask for what we wanted from equal ground. I would no longer take the stance of victim and would not keep him indebted to me because of his “betrayal”.
He didn’t placate me or give into whatever I wanted. He stood his ground, but he did so respectfully and showed an ability to give or at least understand. As time passed many of my unfounded beliefs that added to the conflict came into focus. In challenging each of them, I came to my own truths that I carry with me as I move forward:
1. Just because my ex wasn’t a great husband doesn’t mean he isn’t be a great father.
2. Even if my ex disagrees with me doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking about the best interests of our son (we can have different views).
3. Just because I was the more experienced parent didn’t mean that I get to make all the decisions- I have to know when to step back and allow dad to step forward.
4. I have power over my own parenting and not his dad’s parenting. We don’t need to seek each other’s validation, agreement or permission for everything – we’re divorced.
It took a long time to get here, and it wasn’t easy, fast or graceful. I must say I am probably very lucky in having the ex that I do, however I believe strongly that many more angry ex-spouses can take this path as well. Oh, I hear many of you piping up declaring; “well good on you, but you don’t have a ass like my ex to deal with”. I know, I don’t walk in your shoes. Still I hold to what I’ve learned.
Despite who your ex is, acting like a jerk is much more likely to make them act even jerkier and acting reasonable, even when you don’t feel like it, makes you pretty damn proud of yourself and can often lead to surprisingly decent interactions when you least expect it. Most importantly it protects your children’s childhood. If your ex is truly a piece of work, maybe your efforts only bring you and your children small gifts, but you can know that you have risen to your best self, done the best for your family with what you have and to savor every victory.