March 13, 2011

Are Divorcées Pariahs?

Photo: Chris Drumm

Separation as a Rite of Passage.

While on retreat four years ago, I received a letter from my husband telling me that I was, among other things, a “manipulative bitch.” We had been together for 20 years and I was becoming increasingly uncertain whether I could stay married to him any longer. Still, his epithet was uncharacteristic of him and though we had been struggling for years, it stung. I knew that things were finally coming to a head.

With despair, I sat down to talk to a friend saying, “I can hear him, but—”

She interrupted, “No. You’re not hearing him.”

I protested feebly but of course she was right. After two decades of what felt like giving selflessly in order to keep the peace I was not about to accept that I deserved the term “manipulative bitch,” or any of the other harsh criticisms in my husband’s letter. When my friend stopped me I could hear Byron Katie’s voice in my head, “Honey, he could be right!”

However unpleasant, I knew that I had to not just listen to him but to investigate, for my own peace of mind.

So I started to look at myself. Was it true that I was manipulative? (I would get to “bitch” later.) In the quiet of the retreat, I started to recognize how I had strung my husband along for several years hoping that the marriage (and my husband) would change to suit my needs so that I could stay in the relationship. I saw I was painting a rosy picture of how our marriage might be saved if we moved—which I wanted to do—while inside harboring serious doubts that I could stay under any circumstances. I saw how even saying I could hear him was a way of manipulating my friend, my husband and myself, trying to get us all to see me as an open-minded and caring person—maybe even a saint.

The more I looked, the more I realized that I couldn’t find one place in my life where I wasn’t manipulating: in the meditation hall I sat up straight and didn’t move hoping that others would think I was the model student; I used a falsely sweet voice with my kids while I chided them so that others would think I was a good parent; and I had hundreds of examples where I said yes when I really meant no so that I could uphold an image of being kind and selfless so people would like me.

What really floored me is I saw that by manipulating others constantly I was causing my own suffering. And after 20 years of dishonesty to myself and my husband, I felt like I was dying inside. The constant stress of trying subversively to make others happy and satisfied, to keep the peace, to be seen as good (even perfect), and to suppress any negativity in myself and others was taking a dear toll on me. According to my husband, it was taking a toll on everyone around me as well.

The marriage wasn’t the problem, and neither was my husband. It was my own misguided efforts to make everything okay by using endless manipulations that was killing the peace and joy in my life.

With this realization, suddenly the house of cards I had been calling my life started to come tumbling down. I was beginning to be honest with myself, and I even developed hope that my epiphany might save the marriage after all. Now that both my husband and I were in agreement that I was, indeed, a manipulative bitch and that we were both suffering for it, we could start a new chapter together of radical honesty. Perhaps this was the magic bullet I had been looking for.

It wasn’t. If manipulation was bad, honesty was worse. In the past I had feared that if I started saying no instead of compromising myself that my usually accommodating husband might get angry.

Well, he did.

One night, he came to me upset saying he wanted to talk. I told him that I was seeing clients early the next morning and I needed to go to bed, but we could find a time to talk the following day. He started to yell at me and—rather than trying to calm him down or say yes when I meant no —I simply went to bed. He followed me into our bedroom, turned the lights on, and yelled, “I don’t care if you want to talk or not, you’re going to listen to me!” He then told me, just as he had in his letter, what he perceived to be all of my faults. Only this time, he was screaming.

Surprisingly, I was calm. I couldn’t help smiling inside with the thought of how long I had feared this very moment, afraid that if I was honest with him things would deteriorate between us. In fact, what was actually happening was much worse than I imagined. Somehow though, rather than feeling shocked, scared or belittled, I felt validated: my fears about his reaction hadn’t been crazy. My intuition was accurate. There really was an inferno of rage inside my husband that I had been tiptoeing around for twenty years. Moreover, I found that when confronted with this intensity, I was fine. While I had underestimated his anger, I had also underestimated my resilience and ability to stay cool under pressure.

The combination of seeing that my perception of him was accurate, and that my own resources were fully intact, unveiled confidence in me that had hitherto been untested. At that moment, I realized that I wasn’t ending a marriage, I was beginning a path of knowing myself. I was entering a rite of passage.

It has been my experience, both as a child of divorce and now as a divorced person myself, that ending a marriage is not about walking away from anything. Rather it is walking headlong into our karma. Karma is the aggregate of results of our own perhaps long-forgotten actions—the “lessons” we may have been avoiding. No more upping the ante, bluffing or folding. The cards are put on the table and everyone gets to see just what hand we have been playing.

As in a vision quest, a silent mediation retreat or being stranded on a deserted island, we are for the first time really alone, without resources and without the ground of our ordinary reality to support us. Truths come out, feelings spill over the top, retribution is dolled out and (as one of my therapist-friends said to me during my own divorce), “People go really crazy.”

What I have found is that facing reality is quite a shock. Looking honestly at my shortcomings—my fears, manipulations and avoidance strategies—has shaken me. And it has been equally shocking to face my strengths—my clarity of vision, insight, vibrancy, resilience and kindness. It has been similarly surprising to discover the strengths and weaknesses of my now ex-husband and, perhaps most importantly, to separate what is his from what is mine.

When we embark on a rite of passage, voluntarily or not, we do not know what we will find. It is a bit like Judgment Day, and the fear of not knowing how we will measure up can be a cause for panic in and of itself. However, recognizing at the outset that this enormous change is a rite of passage—a positive journey that will bring us more fully to maturity and fulfillment—can go a long way in giving us the courage to stay open to what we find.

There is no right way to navigate a rite of passage; it is uncharted territory by definition. Each journey is unique, and uniquely suited to each of us alone. Ultimately when we face our fears, we find ourselves and come to know ourselves better. We become better equipped to handle future obstacles.

My 12 year-old daughter said to me a few days ago, “I realize that I am my own role model!”

I loved that. When we take ourselves through a rite of passage, we get to find out how we measure up to our own standards, not those of our parents or our community. We get the chance to course-correct where we find ourselves falling short. Any true rite of passage is an opportunity to become more fully who we are, to become our own role models. When we realize this, divorce can shift us from being at the mercy of unbearable loss to embracing an unprecedented chance to wake up and become more fully who we are.

Unfortunately, we have been taught the opposite. Most of us pathologize divorce as weakness, a mere failure of will or an outright tragedy.

I ran into a former therapy client of mine on the street a few months after my divorce, and though we had had a very good working relationship, she was quite mad at me. She said angrily, “How can you get divorced after you counseled me on my relationship?!” I responded that I could understand her confusion and upset, but actually I was happy to leave my marriage—in fact, so happy it was almost embarrassing.

Our culture views divorce as one of life’s greatest failures. Even those of us who do not count ourselves as God-fearing people often succumb to the belief that, as divorcees, we are pariahs deserving of shame and dishonor.

At the risk of sounding heretical, I offer from my experience that divorce can be empowering and even joyful—a gateway into the next vibrant phase of our lives so fabulous that we find ourselves overwhelmed by how good life can be.

Like graduation, marriage or the birth of a new baby, divorce is no less a rite of passage to be honored, supported and celebrated—and even more so because it demands such strength, durability and wisdom to navigate well. Much like a serious illness, accident or the death of a loved one changes us forever, divorce is one of the greatest and perhaps most misunderstood teachers we can encounter.

So as you set sail into the unknown, many people who care about you may worry that you’re going to sail over the edge of the world and be eaten by sea monsters. But don’t let that dissuade you from embarking on your unprecedented journey. Know that there is a community of people on the other side waiting to greet you, feed you, celebrate and congratulate you on your sheer bravery. Know that we are cheering you on even now.

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