Often the externals change, regardless. Divorcing parties have to square up to and resolve such issues as creating parenting time arrangements for their kids, dividing assets and liabilities, and selling the homestead and relocating.
Divorce is also a time for potent change internally – if chosen. Some of my clients don’t want to touch personal growth a ten-foot pole. Others embrace it.
Candidly, I am concerned about the folks who do not choose to use divorce as an opportunity for self-reflection and change. I have seen too many of them repeat the same mistakes – and end up back in my office. I call these folks “frequent flyers.” Their reticence to grow personally seems to book them on the same flight, in the same seat, again and again and again.
I think divorce is particularly primed for personal growth, because it often coincides with the proverbial “mid-life crisis.” At this time, the rules by which life is lived seem to change, as Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, noted: “Thoroughly unprepared, we take the step into the afternoon of life. Worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and our ideals will serve us as to hitherto. But we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie.”
Let’s take a typical example. Say Sarah met Tim in college. They dated in school, and then afterward, as each of them began their careers. After a few years of dating, they got married at age 26. Then, a couple of years later, the kids came – two of them. Three years apart.
For Sarah and Tim, the early years of their marriage are filled with ambition and the donning of certain roles – getting established in their careers, getting married and becoming a spouse and parent. This is also a period of acquiring things and experiences – buying that first home or a new car, taking trips, etc. This is generally not the time for individual personal growth for either spouse. Their commitments related to marriage, children, work, social connection, etc., practically ensure that Sarah and Tim do not come up for air, let alone reflection, for several years.
Self-reflection and personal growth tend to be hotter topics a little later on in life, and at times of big transitions. The end of a marriage (especially one that has had some years on it), coupled with being over 40 (when the specter of mortality begins to loom in the background), often lead my clients to ask “who am I and what am I going to do with the time that I have left?”
Many clients, especially women, are stepping out of roles they have played, and which have defined them, for decades. Some openly wonder “who am I if I’m not someone’s wife or a mother with children who are still at home? Who am I if I no longer live in Green Acres or the home I’ve been in for twenty years?”
This is why I always recommend therapy or coaching for my clients. I can help them navigate the “legal” divorce, which, at its heart, is just a business transaction involving the negotiation and settlement of parenting time schedules, support, and the division of assets and liabilities. The “legal” divorce is the “how” – that is, the mechanics of getting divorced. The “emotional” divorce is the “why,” and it is, by far, the biggest, and most important, piece of the dissolution pie.
At first blush, the “why” of divorce can appear superficially easy to discern. “He cheated on me.” “She left.” “He’s a drunk.” “She loves her job more than me.” These “causes,” however, are almost never the instigators of the divorce. Rather, they are almost always the outer effects of deep-seated issues between the marriage partners, which have festered for a long time.
Often, these deep-seated issues reflect unspoken expectations between the parties. Many couples don’t have the hard conversations. I commonly hear stories that reflect complete silence between my clients and their spouses as to how they were going to manage their money, whether they planned to have children (and, if so, when), and if the relationship was going to be monogamous or not.
Turns out, silence is not golden – at least not with respect to marital expectations.
Turns out, silence is not golden – at least not with respect to marital expectations. Silence on these important issues can be a predictor of marital doom. In fact, whole books have been devoted to how best to flesh out these expectations, through important, and sometimes difficult, conversations. (See, e.g., Dr. Robin L. Smith’s Lies at the Altar: The Truth About Great Marriages.) In fact, Dr. Smith came up with 276 (!) questions to ask, and discuss with your partner, preferably prior to marriage.
One core, tacit expectation that I regularly see among my clients and/or their spouses is an expectation that someone or something else (their spouses, their children, their jobs, their possessions, etc.) is responsible for both their experience of life and their happiness. This misplacement of personal responsibility makes it very easy for them to blame their spouse or the situation, generally, rather than using the opportunity to evaluate their own needs, their own feelings, and their own behaviors.
As a seasoned divorce attorney, I can now spot this projection a mile away. When I ask what led them to divorce, I’ll hear responses that reassign responsibility. For example, “I cheated on my spouse” gets translated into “she cut me off” or “he did things that made me not feel close to him.” With regard to money, “I overspent repeatedly and incurred substantial debt” is told to me as “he micromanaged me, including my spending.” In a recent example, “my wife’s just jealous” turned into the revelation that my client had a girlfriend for the last five years of his marriage.
In my experience, folks who blame and who make their spouses “the bad guy,” while claiming “the good guy” label for themselves, are in for trouble. The unwillingness to be personally responsible for their contributions to the demise of the marriage (and it always takes two to tango) means that the likelihood of repeating these same issues in a new relationship is high, because the behavior, as well as its underlying cause, have neither been identified nor changed.
According to the late Debbie Ford, author of Spiritual Divorce – Divorce as a Catalyst for an Extraordinary Life, we pick partners with the same level of woundedness as our own. In other words, twos don’t end up with tens and tens don’t end up with twos! Rather, there is always parity between the partners in a marriage relationship. What we hate about our spouse is really what we hate about ourselves! Our spouses are just convenient mirrors for our own reflection and learning. Blame deflects the analysis away from the parts of us that we hide from ourselves and judge, and places the focus, instead, on the parts of our spouses that we despise and criticize! After all, it’s easier for us to accuse than admit, isn’t it?!
The biggest opportunity for personal transformation in divorce is the reclamation of personal responsibility for our lives.
The biggest opportunity for personal transformation in divorce is the reclamation of personal responsibility for our lives. Even if our spouses abused us and/or our children, we still have to own the fact that we selected this person as a marriage partner and likely tolerated unacceptable behavior from them for way too long. I am not saying this is easy! Or that it comes without having to deal with a lot of guilt and shame! But, “[e]ven if I can’t see how I did it, or why I did it,” says Debbie Ford, “the very fact that this problem is in my life tells me that I have participated in its creation.”
Reclaiming personal responsibility means no longer looking for outside causes for our feelings. There is tremendous power and healing in this. We’re no longer giving our power away to someone else. Once we own our power, we can begin to look at the unhealed emotional wounds that contributed to the demise of our marriages. “Our anger, bitterness, grief, fear, guilt, and shame drive us to behaviors that sabotage our happiness,” says Debbie Ford. When we understand how we sabotage our own happiness, we have the ability to cleanse the underlying wounds, which will enable us to make different choices going forward. Making different choices on a go-forward basis will completely change both the circumstances, and the experiences, of our lives.
If there is a silver lining in going through a divorce, perhaps this is it: We can use the experience to change ourselves and create life anew – lives with new relationships to ourselves, and to others, which are happier, more peaceful and loving.