A healthy critique of the idea that divorced people should just mellow out and move forward.
When I read Kate Bartolotta’s 10 Tips on Divorce for Grownups, I noted some practical bits of advice. I see the good intentions in her tips, and consider some to be worthy reminders. For example, if you lose it while dealing with your soon-to-be ex, apologize. That’s excellent counsel in all areas of life.
It’s good advice long before we’re headed for divorce court. If we treated our spouses at least as well as we treat our best friends, we might not wind up on warring sides of a conference table. But marriage seems to bring out our worst selves far too often, and those worst selves carry over into divorce.
To pretend otherwise is to underestimate the complexity and cost of divorce. It is to discount the reality that millions of us face not only during a high conflict divorce but for years afterward.
Tips? How About This: Be Lucky
I consider tip #1—Accept that there is no bad guy—and then I consider tip #10, Let it go – I get angry. More than angry.
I see red.
Where is the tip that says “be lucky”?
Sometimes there is a bad partner. What if your divorce is the unilateral decision of one partner unwilling to work through the problems? Once divorced, they refuse to abide by court orders, to adhere to visitation schedules, or to pay child support on time. There is a bad partner when you find yourself unable to see your kids or unable to pay the rent, increasingly isolated by a messy, expensive situation that you didn’t choose.
And no, this isn’t solely the domain of women. I would never say that it is. Plenty of men have had their lives irrevocably changed by their spouse’s unilateral decision to end a marriage.
And tip #10? Let it go?
We have this Pollyanna idea in American culture that we should forgive and forget, that anger stands as a barrier to love, that we should “let go and move on” and that “forgiveness sets us free”.
Some things are unforgivable. Do we learn to live with them? Sure. But forgive and let them go? The judgement that we aren’t evolved if we don’t? It’s ridiculous.
High Conflict Divorce, High Conflict Aftermath
What if you spend years in and out of court, or taunted by an ex, or your children are hurt by benign neglect or worse? What if your children are emotionally shredded by the desertion of a parent? What if they’re constantly on eggshells in the shadow of his or her manipulation? What if you spend years putting a child back together as best you can? What if you’re left with crippling marital and legal debt, fighting for support for years? How do you let go and move on?
This isn’t your past. It’s your present.
These are the realities for millions of us for whom tip #10 does not apply. It does not make us less adult. Nor are we less adult because we’re unwilling to play the semantic feel-good game of “letting go of my anger”.
Life Lessons from Divorce
But here is the paragraph that galls me. Ms. Bartolotta writes:
“Our relationships change us. They shape us and help us grow. When a relationship ends, we get to choose whether it makes us bitter or whether it strengthens us.”
Yes, our relationships change us. Yes they shape us. But no, they don’t always help us grow. Some of us may be able to take lessons from the pain, the dirty tricks, the abandonment, the bewilderment. From friends walking away.
These are lessons in paralysis, in waste, in fear. These are lessons in loss after loss.
Some of us are more resilient than others, and we will create positive lessons out of the mess that may linger for years. But that’s the least of our concerns: we’re trying to survive, and to help our children survive.
Are we stronger? Possibly. Are we bitter? That, too.
Just as Ms. Bartolotta writes that divorce does not come in purely two flavors (amicable or messy), when it comes to the termination of a marriage, there is no single spectrum on which we can place enlightened versus embittered, or angry versus peaceful. And the notion that “letting go” is a choice is simplistic. It’s like saying a serious illness, accident or the death of a loved one is something you can just get over.
Will we be able to keep going, managing that anger and finding good moments?
That’s a different question. The answer: It depends.
The Nature of Life After Divorce?
It depends on circumstances—on the reasons the marriage ends, on the honorable behaviors of both parties during and after divorce, on our children and how they handle it, on our support network (or absence of one). It depends on finances, health and age. It depends on luck.
We figure out a way to make the best of things if we can. Many of us do, yet it may take years. But don’t tell me that, if we can’t refashion our lives in some positive way—if we aren’t boldly marching forward with a smile on our faces after one year or three—then we’re engaging in less-than-adult behaviors, in not choosing our better selves. To do so is to place blame where it doesn’t belong, to further isolate and judge us, as well as to marginalize the issues that bring so many marriages to an end. We would be better off looking at marriage itself and the skills that individuals need to bring to it.
Photo by soosay.