Zen and the Art of Estrangement
By Michael B. Greenstein
Jan 11, 2011, Tue, 11 Jan 2011 22:22
Whether you are still in the same house together, negotiating a possible settlement, avoiding friction for the sake of your children, or simply trying to keep your blood pressure down while your case works its way forward through the court, your own perspective and conduct can make a big difference to your strategic situation and your quality of life. The suggestions below might be useful to help you to avoid making a bad situation worse, or – better still – to turn your experience into a source of personal strength and growth. You will get through this, one way or another; what you do, and how you deal with your spouse, will go a long way toward determining how you get through it.
A DIVORCE LAWYER FACES DIVORCE. I used to tell clients that I was something of a paradox: a happily married divorce lawyer. Like the doctor who does not imagine becoming ill, I thought I was different, that my own marriage was better-grounded than those of the people who hired me. Surprise! My wife and I had grown apart. She came to the decision that she wanted to move on even as I wanted to work on repairing our relationship, but that only works when both people want to do it. For a time she held on, too, to examine her own feelings and explore whether things could be made better between us. Hope swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed some more, and finally the axe fell: she wanted to move out. I believe in good marriage, and I believe in working to make marriage good; but when those become impossible, I decided to try for “good divorce.” I am now stronger and happier for having managed it, and what I learned from the experience is what I offer to you, below.
THIS IS HAPPENING. Denial will get you nowhere that you want to go. You might be facing cruelty or – worse in its own way – apathy. The person you have loved and trusted most in the world has become a stranger to you. Accept the truth that whether you deserve it or not, whether it should be happening or not, this is your new reality.
THE RULES ARE DIFFERENT. It is important to accept that the casual interaction and intimacy of a functioning marriage is done. Some of the habits may linger for a time on both sides like echoes, but you can safely assume that this is only temporary. Even if you didn’t want this, even if your view of your spouse has not changed, even if you remain very much in love, you cannot control the reality that your spouse’s view has changed. That does not automatically lead to hatred and war – hopefully not! – but it does mean that you can no longer afford to take anything for granted. It only takes one person wanting “out” to end a marriage, and whether it is for good reason, bad reason or no reason at all, the reality of it is what you now face. If your spouse is the one initiating the separation, being locked into thoughts of your own ruined expectations, sense of betrayal and unfulfilled needs can only make things worse. If you are the one initiating the separation, be honest with yourself about what your spouse must now face, and accept the negative consequences of your choice as well as the positive ones. If there are children involved, it is important to recognize that your relationship is changing and not ending, and that your reactions and choices will have a significant role in deciding what kind of relationship it will become.
WHAT ABOUT RECONCILIATION? Sometimes, the prospect of separation is the wake-up call that can redirect a marriage toward strength and restored intimacy. But... don’t depend on this. Although even the best of marriages have “speed bumps,” sometimes things just aren’t right and your spouse already has moved on, emotionally. By the time things have become difficult enough for one spouse to consider seriously the prospect of separation or divorce, a lot of water has flowed over the dam. Any prospect of restoring your marriage must be based on mutual willingness and effort, and an open-hearted acknowledgment of the problems put the two of you where you are. If you seek to restore your marriage, you would do well to revisit first principles: that successful marital relationships are best when based not on fear, loneliness or guilt, but on earned trust, mutual respect and commitment to shared goals. You would also do well to accept the prospect of failure, and to give some thought to how you will proceed if things do not go as you might hope. Things will never be the same again, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be better, with or without your spouse.
YOUR FAULT, MY FAULT... OUR FAULT. William Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue.” How you got into the quicksand matters less than how you will get out of it, and pointing a finger will solve nothing. Don’t expect to successfully convince your spouse that you are right and he or she is wrong, especially if it is true. Sometimes people wake up to what they are doing and mend their ways or apologize, but more often they tell themselves stories they can hide inside, about why what they did was not merely right, but necessary and righteous; the more extreme their conduct, the more defensive they become and the angrier they get when forced to face the truth. Even if your spouse does feel guilty over the end of your marriage, don’t presume too heavily on that; guilt often turns into resentment and anger if you push too hard. WORK YOUR WAY TOWARD HEALING. Anger and loneliness are mind-altering drugs, and being “under the influence” can lead you into some very destructive situations. The more you are able to heal and strengthen yourself, the easier it will be to deal with your spouse. There are ways to find much of the emotional support you need to help you move forward, that we ordinarily expect from a romantic relationship. Participating in a community organization is one such alternate path; whether it is through a house of worship, a hobby group, a theater company, a fraternal organization, or such like; no matter what form it takes, it gives you the opportunity to become part of something larger than yourself, a community brought together by common constructive purpose. Consider reconnecting with old friends and aspects of your life that you might have left by the wayside during your marriage. Physical activities, especially group activities such as sports and cooperative exercise programs, can be beneficial. Give some thought to how your food choices might reflect or reinforce your different moods. Consider personal psychological counseling or participating in a support group, which can give you the benefit of other people’s experiences as they struggled through difficult times very similar to yours. Take a moment to think about the people you know who have been through divorce, and give some thought to their approach to life, and to the kind of lives they lead. Whatever you choose, whatever you do, the important thing is to act affirmatively to reclaim your own life in a meaningful way, so that the dissolution of your marital relationship ultimately becomes a source of strength. That may seem out of reach right now, but keep reminding yourself that although healing can take time, you will get through this.
WATCH HOW YOU SPEAK AND ACT. It is never enough to speak the truth, if the truth is not heard. There are too many situations in which distrustful spouses are prepared to see only the worst, no matter how hard you try or how good are your intentions or how correct you might be. Give some thought to how your spouse looks at the situation, and at you, and how your spouse is likely to hear what you say and see what you do. Your emphatic gesture can become a cocked fist in your spouse’s eyes; your expression of anger and frustration can become a threat. Tread lightly; you can be as firm as you need to be to protect yourself and your children, and still remain courteous and respectful. If your spouse is willing to speak reasonably, be sure that you are not the one who gives in to anger and starts the fight. Act at all times like you will have to answer for everything you say and do before a judge who doesn’t know you and your spouse from Adam and Eve, and who sees things based on how they appear (or can be spun), rather than how they were intended.
BEWARE OF THE “CHEERLEADERS.” Your family and friends – and maybe a new romantic partner – want to support you in your difficult time, and often will be happy to pile on the insults about your spouse to show you that they are firmly in your corner. Many people you talk to will turn into lawyers and start telling you horror stories of what might happen if you do not put pedal to the metal and set all your guns to blazing. Bless them for backing you, but don’t let their unquestioning support blind you to the consequences of fighting for its own sake, out of spite or a desire for revenge. Don’t let them “go maverick” and confront your spouse. Your spouse might very well have the same sort of cheering squad, but ultimately this is about the two of you and your children; never surrender your own judgment of what should happen, in favor of becoming an avatar for those who are spoiling to see the two of you fight. Avoid escalation.
THICKEN YOUR SKIN A LITTLE BIT. A passing stranger could heap you with abuse, only to see you shrug it off with a smirk and a casually extended middle finger. Your spouse, though, can give you that look – and I may not know what look that is, but you do! – and there you are, ready to chew coal and spit diamonds. If your spouse is spoiling for a fight, letting your buttons get pushed is like putting bullets in a gun that is already aimed at you. It is better to back off and take some verbal abuse as you withdraw, than to get “sucked in” when a fight is in the making by someone who wants to gain power at your expense. Don’t let yourself get set up into crossing a line. Letting your negative emotions do the talking for you, however tempting, can get you into tremendous trouble, as well as reinforcing your spouse’s negative opinion of you. You can’t control your spouse’s conduct, but you must control your own, particularly if there are children involved and the question of who is better capable of exercising responsibility and personal restraint is at issue.