By Taryn Marie Stejskal, Ph.D.
Photo Credit: Kseniya Berson
Some of us must sink deeper in order to hit our rock bottom to stimulate change.
Three years into my abusive marital relationship, I found an ominous message on my bathroom counter. My then, first husband, a physician, and I had argued bitterly earlier in the day. He was on call at the hospital that evening, so he’d departed from our home for work after I did. When I returned home, he was still at the hospital, but waiting for me on the bathroom counter were two vials of Succinylcholine, that one word, printed neatly, almost innocently on the bottles’ label.
The compound within those glass bottles is not innocent. Is an injectable, used in hospital settings, to paralyze a patient for a procedure while maintaining the patient’s consciousness. There was no reason those vials should have left the hospital and have been waiting for me on the bathroom counter other than to threaten me into submission following our earlier argument. They were placed there to say to me, “This is what I can do to you.” Seeing that medication there, in our home, was frightening. I didn’t know if I should throw them away or hide them or keep them as some sort of evidence. In a panicked state, I slide the vials deep into the leg of one of my winter boots at the back of our closet.
For some, the placement of that unnerving medication would have been their rock bottom. They would have packed up their bags that very evening and left. It wasn’t mine. I stayed another year, trying to make the relationship work. I endured another year of pain, fear, arguments, and denigration. While this pain wasn’t warranted, justified, or deserved, I also believe it wasn’t wasted.
No pain is wasted in our formation of resilience through challenge
My point is that, while I cannot get those four years back, I look back on both the desirable and destructive experiences that mark that relationship with appreciation, for they have made me a stronger person today. In my mind, those years were not wasted. I like to think I stayed as long as I needed to in order to learn the lessons I was meant to learn.
Abuse is a tender topic. As such, it’s worth mentioning, at least one more time, that if you find yourself in an abusive relationship, leave as soon and as safely as possible, and do not go back. I am forever grateful that I did, eventually, leave, and only then, did I truly reclaim my life. Long after that evening, I pulled those winter boots out of my new closet, one I no longer shared with my former husband, after I had moved out on my own. I head something rolling around inside the sole of the boot, but I didn’t remember what it was. When those vials came softly clinking out of the boot, onto my bedroom floor, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for having been able to leave that relationship with my life and begin anew.
Staying the Course, or Not
Abusive relationships are a breed unto their own. Even in relationships where physical abuse is not present, there can be disrespect and denigration, and many people stay too long, giving away precious years, hoping the relationship would get better or staying for the kids or believing they were financially reliant on their partner. Then, later in life, they look back at their younger self, longingly, wishing they’d made the decision to leave sooner. Instead of ending the relationship twenty years earlier, those that wait, now face a narrower dating pool, potentially waning health, and fewer years ahead with a partner that brings them passion and joy.
Unfortunately, many people leave the relationship psychologically and emotionally before they garner the courage to leave relationship physically. They allow themselves to remain in the relationship in physical form, while they live outside the relationship mentally and emotionally.
Staying in a relationship, solely in physical presence, doesn’t do anyone any favors. Not even the children.
Society often places a premium on staying married. Instead, I wish we celebrated the quality of the years in a relationship, not just the quantity of the years spent together. Staying married is not an achievement if the relationship is absent the trappings of true partnership such as intimacy, trust, authentic connection, laughter, and support. Too many people are willing to sacrifice all the goodies of relationships in favor of avoiding the perceived stigma of ending a long-term relationship.
The Art of Leaving
I understand why people stay well beyond a relationship’s expiration date. One reason is that we want to have a level of certainty in our decision to leave. We want to know that the decision we are making to end a significant relationship is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the right decision. People stay and stay and stay hoping to get to a point of certainty. But certainty never arrives.
There is no 100% certainty, ever, that you will make the right decision.
Since there are no guarantees, look for 85% or 90% certainty. This would be a B+ or an A- of certainty. You will never have complete confidence you are making the right decision, but you will be reasonably confident, and avoid staying in a relationship that isn’t serving you for years to come waiting for that elusive 100%.
I remember the soul-wrenching way I wrestled with myself when I was deciding to leave my second marriage. We lived in a beautiful home in a suburb of Connecticut with a saltwater pool in the catchment of a highly regarded school system. On the surface, I had everything I wanted. I “should” have been happy. Yet, not far below the façade, I was deeply depleted and unhappy in this relationship. I had a foot in two canoes. I couldn’t bear to stay, and I was also terrified of the unknown that lay just beyond a decision to leave. Like so many others, I, too, wanted the salve of certainty that I was choosing the right side of this monumental decision that would forever change the structure of our family. I worried endlessly, asking myself questions like: Would my children be damaged by this? Would I? Would I lose the positive aspects of our relationship if we were no longer married? Where would we live? Would be able to co-parent effectively? Would this second divorce mean I was unfit to ever be in a productive partnership? What if wanted the relationship back after we filed for divorce or I ended up alone?
The sheer number of pivotal questions made my head swim and my heart pound. I distinctly recall one evening, holding my, at the time, two-year-old son at bedtime. As he relaxed into my arms and drifted off to sleep, allowing his body to become heavy, I cried tears of desperation and fear into his soft hair and kissed his head. “I love you so much”, I told him between sobs, completely uncertain about what to do next and terrified my decision would damage him, my son, a person I loved beyond compare.
It seemed everyone else was happy with the family arrangement but me. How could I upend my sons’ loves in favor of pursuing my own truth and living a life of my own authentic expression? I wanted to be sure I was making the right choice. But as with so many decisions, there was no 100% certainty. At times, clarity, but never the assuredness of complete certainty.
We must jump from the cliff to know that our wings work. We must leap to know the parachute will open.
The Polarity of Parting Ways
This is going to sound like I am talking out of both sides of my mouth. Because I am. This is the polarity parting ways. In addition to certainty, we also want everything to make sense. To match up. But polarity is just the opposite. Polarity is holding two disparate things, two conflicting things, and allowing both to simultaneously be true.
On the one hand, no experience is ever wasted in our formation. As humans, we are linear thinkers. This means we look at our life as a sequence, and think, well, this happened, then this happened, and after that, that event happened. It’s easy, with our linear brains to think, if I hadn’t stayed in this relationship, then this and that wouldn’t have happened, and I would be in a different place.
While we linear thinkers, but life is not linear.
There is no way to know that if you’d have made a different decision 2 months or 2 years or 20 years ago where you’d be now. Maybe being in this relationship prevented something tragic from happening. Perhaps if you hadn’t been on vacation with your former spouse and children, you would have been harmed in some way, hit by a car, robbed. We have no way of knowing if making a different choice in the past would have led to a better outcome.
No experience is wasted. Ever.
Now, go if you must.
On the other hand, don’t burn precious years simply marking time until you can leave. The father of my children, my second husband, is a wonderful person. He was and, thankfully, continues to be a wonderful man, father, friend, and co-parenting partner. Yet, he wasn’t the right person for me to build an enduring life.
A person who heals themselves heals their children’s children.
I could have sacrificed my truth, my soul, to stay. I could have gulped down my feelings and but a beautiful smile on my face. I am so relieved I didn’t. In the end, sacrificing our own happiness for the stability of others is never a winning strategy. Loving others, even our children, at the expense of ourselves, is not love. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, it’s martyrdom. Sacrificing ourselves means our friends, family, and children don’t get to experience the best of our humanity, and we teach others around us, especially our children, that they too are expected to swallow their own authenticity, their very own truth, in favor of the happiness and stability of those around them.
So, the best thing to do if you find yourself in a quandary about whether to stay or go is to look down at your shoes. Look at your feet there, just below your body.
Wherever your feet are is exactly where you’re meant to be.
Next, determine the next step you’d like to take in your relationship to move forward from this place. Resolve to learn the lessons you are meant to learn and, from this moment forward, sketch out the life you want to live. It may take time for your vision of your new life to come into view. Be patient, but also, don’t allow yourself to wait around for certainty – it’s never going to arrive. Once you have a clear picture of what the life you desire looks like, begin taking steps toward your vision, and pursue your ideal life with abandon. This picture will continue to evolve, be open to new possibilities and experiences that you hadn’t previously considered.
Feel the Feels
Allowing yourself to devolve into regret, depression, or indignation related to wasted time will not make your current state any less true. Or tolerable. These emotions won’t rewrite your relationship story. They won’t give you back lost time.
While it’s important is not to get swept up into these emotions, don’t avoid them either. Trying not to feel your feelings is also not advisable. Feelings are the energy with which our soul uses to communicate with us. Trying to “not feel” is essentially saying, “I will not connect with my inner self.” It’s like putting a spaceship in space, and then shutting down the command center on earth because the space shuttle captain doesn’t want to address a mechanical issue on the spacecraft. Guess what? Cutting off communication with command does not change the fact that you have a mechanical issue, it just means you ignore it for a time.
Feelings like anger and frustration can be powerful agents to facilitate change. There is wisdom in our emotions. Change often begins at the moment when we acknowledge that we are fed up when we feel deep in our soul that we don’t want to live another day, hour, or minute in a life that steals our joy, demolishes our spirit and does not align to our soul. At this instant, real transformation can begin.
From this moment forward, resolve that you have not wasted your time in getting to this important point of decision and resolve to not to waste another moment.
The Right Way to Grieve
There is no right way to limp, crawl, or stumble toward healing and wholeness. For those of you who think this “shouldn’t” hurt so bad, and maybe it would hurt less if you were doing it right, know this: A relationship breakup hurts because it’s devasting, not because your healing or processing or grieving wrong. In the 1960s, researchers Holmes and Raye found the end of a significant romantic relationship to be one of the top ten most stressful experiences in adult life.
For those of us that have felt the searing end of a relationship, barely breathing and unable to move or think or concentrate at the hands of devasting loss, we know the pain is real. A few quick tips, a slap on the bottom, and a pithy phrase somewhere along the lines of “fake it till you make it” or “a breakup is like a broken mirror, it is better to leave it than hurt yourself picking up the pieces” or “living your best life is the best revenge” wouldn’t have helped me. These quick fixes are not likely to help you. Except for that last phrase. The one about living your best life as a form of revenge did help me. But not until I moved through an acute phase of sadness.
In order to grieve well, surround yourself with people who nourish you, accept you, and are willing to simply listen without the pressure of requesting that you feel better in short order. As Brene Brown says, the phrase “at least” is not empathy. People telling you that ‘at least’ she didn’t cheat on you the way their ex did or ‘at least’ you didn’t get a communicable disease the way he did is not helpful. No matter how well-meaning. People who are comfortable sitting with your discomfort are few and far between. People who are willing to bear witness to your story without inserting their own relationship breakup odyssey are even rarer. Choose your comrades for your healing journey wisely. The people with whom you surround yourself at this time will markedly influence the quality of your healing.
Locate the people who will hold a sacred space for you to feel your loss, heartache, uncertainty, and pain. Feeling these feelings is important to your healing. These feelings, no matter how excruciating, will not harm you. The part of the agonizing healing process. Pain serves a purpose. Always. No pain will be wasted. Just as nausea is so often the plight of a newly pregnant mother, inducing vomiting and cleansing her body of impurities to house the growing baby within her, in the same way, the piercing pain you feel is purifying your soul.
Pain is part of the process of purging the things that no longer serve you, so you can go on to give birth to a new life of your own.
There is a new life out ahead. Early on, the new life ahead is one you can’t imagine. Or perhaps you’ve told yourself you don’t want this new life that is presenting itself because you’d just prefer to patch things up with your partner. In order to reach this new life, many times, we need to burn down our own relationship house, the way the Phoenix ignites its own nest. Things feel uncertain when life catches fire. Just as in a real house fire, the smoke billows in under the door, the fire alarms go off, and in a relationship breakup, we, too, become disoriented and frightened that we’ll be trapped in our current state of loss in perpetuity.
When we face the loss of a relationship, we face the truth that not every relationship will be a beautiful forever love story.
Not every person, in fact, most people, are not meant to be in our lives forever. People often enter our lives for a season to teach us how to love or be loved or both. In some, less desirable relationships, we might also learn how we don’t want to love or be loved. All of this is learning. We take the good, what we like and want, leave behind the less desirable elements, and set our intention to find something more for ourselves in the next relationship.
The Lessons that Emerge from Relationship Loss
We learn other valuable lessons too. We learn how not to settle, how not to give up. We learn our value. We come closer to acknowledging our worth. We learn that more is out there for us if we dare to dream and set out past the known quantity that is our current life. We learn how to find our voice and take up space. Maybe we learn to sleep in the middle of the bed or make empowered choices or to take accountability for our own spiritual development in the context of our relationships. Each lesson from loss is valuable.
Even when people leave, the lessons they teach us to stay. The truth and beauty of the experience remain long after the relationship has gone.
A Rejection is a Re-Direction
A breakup is a clearing away of what used to be, and an opportunity to welcome in a new life. Our new life. Both the person that did the breaking up AND the person who was broken up with can feel profound feelings of depression after the relationship has ended.
Typically, the grief and loss of the relationship manifest as depression and sadness, for one or both people who were in the relationship. The person who was broken up with often feels a loss of control, a sense of rejection, hurt, and even anger and frustration, among a myriad of other emotions. The person who did the breaking up can feel just as devasted, at times, even more so, because not only did they end the relationship, they may also feel a strong sense of responsibility for their former partner’s pain. They may feel guilty and inadequate for not being able to stay in a relationship with a partner who clearly loves and cares for them, even though they know the relationship is no longer right for them
God, the Universe, your higher power, does not, will not leave you empty. Try to imagine that this moment is being used in your life to make space for you to welcome the next learning, person, or adventure into your journey.
“Sometimes something good has to be subtracted from our lives before something better can take its place.” Ann Spangler
The process of clearing away, of letting go of what used to be, for both former partners, can look and feel a lot like depression. For either the person that was broken-up with or did the breaking up, it is normal to experience symptoms of depression-like low energy, difficulty sleeping, trouble concentrating, change in appetite, and/or not enjoying activities that felt pleasurable in the past.
Depression is not a wrong or bad response. In fact, feelings of depression are not only normal, they are part of the healing process. The pain is here to teach you. Paraphrasing the words of Glennon Doyle, a sense of loss, even devastation, is the receipt you waive in the air to say, see I truly loved.
Gently acknowledge and love the parts of yourself that feel depression and sadness and allow yourself to feel the pain. Honor that the pain is here as part of your healing process and will not remain with you forever. The only wrong thing to do at this point is to numb or avoid the pain.
If you’re feeling your feelings, you’re doing the work. For now, that’s all you need to do.
What you need to know is that you can and will heal. It won’t feel this awful forever. Know that sometimes healing doesn’t feel like healing, with its promises of being bright and buoyant and hopeful.
Healing after devastation, instead of feeling “better”, often takes the form of feeling a little less bad, day after day.
Tapping into Vulnerability
An important practice of particularly resilient people is the practice of vulnerability. While it’s tempting for loss to make you harder, more closed off, try to allow the grief, the pain, to crack you open, to make you softer, more beautiful in your vulnerability. We have a tendency when we face hard things to put on a game face, to allow this experience to toughen our heart. Try to resist that temptation to close off, and instead, allow this sadness to open you up to those who can support you during this tender time. Symptoms of depression can tap into the most delicate parts of ourselves. Depression can unlock these sensitive areas of our being and allow us to share our soul with confidantes in a way that we haven’t or wouldn’t if we are not feeling the loss so acutely.
Healing is an Inside Job
It is important to note that the person who broke up with you should not be called upon to help you heal. You’ll need to do the good and hard work of healing without this person by your side.
The person who broke your heart cannot mend it.
Earlier this year, for only a weekend, I met an incredible man while I was in Tulum. Mexico. I immediately felt an attraction and a sense of safety with him that I rarely do with men. Over the course of the weekend, he felt nurtured and accepted by me and told me truths about himself that no one else knew. He revealed that he was facing a staggering series of stressors and life changes: divorce proceedings, managing multiple successful companies, experiencing agonizing chronic pain, and facing significant health concerns. I held him in my arms while he told me these truths, assuring him, rubbing his feet and back when he became anxious to help him drift off to sleep. When each of us returned to our respective homes, his communication became less connected, until, shortly afterward, it stopped altogether.
When it became clear we would not maintain our connection, I was devasted by the loss of his presence in my life. Intermingled with my sadness, given that our brief time together, I felt also felt embarrassed that I was so tormented by the loss of this relationship that, measured by time, has been so brief.
Time does not dictate the significance of a relationship. Love does not abide by a calendar or a clock. The significance of the connection dictates the significance of the relationship.
Amidst my own pain, I was worried for him and wanted to support him in the considerable life changes he was facing. But I needed to nurse my own ravaged heart and not care for him.
Caring for your former partner’s emotional health is not part of your healing journey. You can’t heal your own heart and another person’s. You must prioritize your own healing, put your oxygen mask on first before you can help another person heal.
Now, I can see the wisdom of staying on my own path. I can now appreciate the intelligence in guarding my own energy and not becoming entrenched in his life changes. I understand now that he had to go on this passage on his own, and the best way for me to support him was by giving him space and time he needed to attend to his life. My learning was to protect and advocate for myself, instead of sacrificing my emotional process to attend to him.
“Love consists of this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” Rainer Maria Rilke
Now, I like to think of it this way: By respecting his desire to not be connected, through protecting his solitude, I continued to love him well, in the way his actions requested.
At the time of the breakup, neither of you are in the best position to support another person on their healing mental health journey. This is time to attend to you. You do you, boo.
to Win a Partner Back
Is it advisable to attempt to win a partner back? All situations are unique. There is no one right answer. Certainly, we are all aware of relationships in which a breakup catalyzed the couple coming back together, realizing that they did not want to be without one another.
In most situations, trying to win a partner back, especially if they broke up with you, is not wise. Essentially, it comes down to this: Don’t chase after someone who has told you they don’t want to stay in your life. Don’t expend your precious time, talents, and love going after a person who is willing to live a life without you. As my friend, the exceedingly talented musician David Ramirez says, “People call who they want to talk to.” If your former partner has ended the relationship, it is most likely, because they desire to end the relationship.
In relationships, our former partner can tell us we are too much or too little or not enough. Wish your partner well, but don’t try to win back a person who doesn’t appreciate your inherent value.
Do the work of healing the hurt and loss of the relationship so you will be available for a person who, when they lay eyes on you, wonders how they ever lived without you. Ready yourself for the person who can’t imagine life without you. Prepare for the person who can’t imagine doing anything but staying in your life. This is what you deserve. Focus your energy on what you deserve.
Explaining the Path Forward to Children
There are many therapists who are more practiced than I am with how to deliver these messages to children. A good marriage and family therapist can help you determine what your kids will want to know and what information they will be able to process, based on their age and level of maturity in the context of your unique situation.
In my years as a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist, here are the approaches that worked best for my clients (and me, when my former husband and I divorced, with children, at ages three and five).
- Share the information about your evolving relationship status with the kids together so they see you are a united front. Use this moment to set the tone, and expectation that the two of you, as parents, are still at the helm of this family, and will continue to make decisions together, in partnership.
- Share the same message. Alignment between you and your former partner’s messaging will enhance the children’s sense of psychological safety. Write down your main talking points in advance. Keep it simple and stick to the script. Leave time for the kids to ask questions.
- Attend to emotion. It can be easy, even feel safer to share the facts. Amongst sharing the facts, don’t forget about the feelings. Share with your children that any and all feelings are valuable and valid. Be willing to listen to and empathize with feelings that may trigger you and your former partner such as fear, disappointment, and anger.
- Give high-level information. Don’t try to share every snippet of information at once. This is likely to feel overwhelming, to both to you and, especially, your children. You can repeat key points and fill in gaps later. The most important aspect of the conversation is that your children feel a sense of safety and expectation about what is going to happen in the immediate future.
- “I don’t know” is an appropriate answer. If the kids ask about some aspect that you’re uncertain of, for example, “Will we still go on a family vacation this summer?”, it’s okay to say, “We don’t know yet. We’re still working that through, and we’ll come back to you when we have a clear answer.” Then, go back to them when you and your former partner have more clarity.
- Invite your children’s perspectives. This dialogue doesn’t have to be one-sided. Leave space to listen to their perspectives, desires, and feelings. They may have ideas about how they want to co-create the next chapter of your family structure. If they can be a part of the dialogue, they’ll have a greater sense of control and confidence.
- You are the barometer your children will use to determine if they should be concerned about their future. Try to be as calm and supportive as possible in conversations with your children. If you seem worried, the kids will be uneasy too. Elizabeth Gilbert wisely told Glennon Doyle, when she was getting divorced to think of herself as a flight attendant for her children. When our plane hits turbulence, we look to the flight attendant to see if we should be worried. If the flight attendant seems unconcerned, we relax. As parents, we are the flight attendants of our children’s lives. As Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Keep passing out the peanuts.”
- Make space for authentic expression. While your children will look to you as an emotional barometer for themselves, this is also a wonderful opportunity for you to share authentic expression with your children in an appropriate manner. If your children see you crying or down, acknowledge that you’re having a difficult time. It’s okay to share that things are hard and offer a sense of optimism that you know you’ll get through it.
Note: It’s important that parents be responsible for their own emotional experience. Allow children to see your authentic expression but don’t allow them to take on your emotions or have the expectation that they will take care of you. Children taking care of parents physically and/or emotionally is parentification and this behavior is unfair to children. Don’t allow your children to act in the capacity of a parent, no matter how difficult your experience.
- Don’t say you and your former partner don’t love each other anymore. When parents tell children the relationship is ending because the two of you do not love each other anymore, kids can worry that your love for them could go away too. Instead, talk with your children from the perspective that your relationship is in the process of evolution. You were once in a committed partnership, and now that structure is expanding, growing, and changing. With the changing structure of your relationship, your feelings for your partner are transforming as well.
We tend to think of love in a narrow way – filial love for friends or family or romantic love or not at all. But there are many more types of love. Eskimos see nuances in snow and have over 50 words to represent these subtle, but important differences. Love, like snow, has greater complexity too. Initially, when my second husband and I were divorcing, I focused on a type of love called Pragma – a pragmatic way to love someone. This was the easiest and safest love my heart could muster at the time. Since then, we’ve built on Pragma to form a deeper love within our new partnership. Find a way to continue to love one another in the context of this new relationship.
- Co-Create together. Spend time as a family to scope out what the new structure of your family will look and feel like. Consider outlining shared family values to which you’ll all agree to adhere or create a family charter or shield. Even though you are no longer a couple, you still have the ability to be a family.
Co-Parenting, from Civility to Community
I want to acknowledge that this is going to sound, if not incredibly naïve like I am an incurable optimist*. *I am an incurable optimist. Please, do what you need to do to take this in, even if that is preemptively eye roll. Go ahead, you can roll your eyes. I cannot see you.
Okay, now that we’ve got that eye roll out of the way.
First, let me say that ending a relationship is difficult. There were many (many) times I wished I had the luxury to lose touch with my second husband, the way I had with my first. Yet, learning to evolve my relationship with my second husband, the father of my two sons, to learn to build a new relationship, as I call us, co-parenting partners in crime, has been one of the most rewarding and formative experiences of my life. (You may need to roll your eyes again here, but not so much that you can’t keep reading, mind you.)
My profession in leadership development is to think about how we support people, leaders, in recognizing their strengths, addressing their opportunities for growth, and reaching their full potential. When I applied this lens to my divorce, I gained a new perspective. I asked myself, “How many times are we presented with this kind of opportunity for growth?”
One of my greatest opportunities for growth was the process of healing my wounds from this relationship, the places I felt deeply disappointed, misunderstood, and unsupported, and allowing myself to leave these experiences of hurt, in the past. To stop rehashing them. To stop holding them over my former partner’s head as a constant reminder. To stop allowing these experiences to define him, us.
When I allowed myself to let go of the disappointments, anger, and hurt, I allowed a new relationship to be born. In this new relationship, we’ve built up goodwill and formed interactions based on mutual love, respect, and teamwork.
How have we done this? Great question. I had to ask myself the same question when writing this article. I reflected on our process to get to this place, a place that, when I was rocking my two-year-old to sleep, kissing his soft head, and crying profusely about the end of our marriage, not knowing what would become of all of us, I couldn’t have possibly imagined that this positive, beautiful, affirming outcome would be the new version of our former marriage.
The Fortunate Few
As you read about my evolved co-parenting in a crime partnership relationship, you might think, “Yeah, that’s just for the fortunate few. But this is not accessible to the rest of us….”
I understand your perspective. I might have thought the same when I was on the precipice of my own second divorce, especially given the embattled and awful nature of the end of my first marriage.
But. It’s possible. Not just for me. More importantly, for you.
You might think nothing “bad” happened in my former marriage, so we didn’t have deep wounds to overcome. But we did.
I had an affair.
We had bitter arguments over finances.
We both did and said unkind things to one another.
We had very good reasons to not want to spend holidays together, much less, be in the same room.
And yet. We’re here. With a solid footing as a family, as co-parenting partners in crime, standing on a foundation of love, respect, and support.
If we did it, you can too.
That’s the most important thing to know. That my experience, our experience isn’t a one-off. It’s not a “that’s nice for them, but we could never ….” The possibility for a productive, happy, loving evolution of your relationship exists, even if you can’t imagine this outcome would ever be within the realm of future options.
From Embattled to Empowered
How did we go from being two people embattled in bitterness to empowered support one another for our family’s mutual benefit?
Be a family, even when you are not a couple
My single guiding principle has been that we are still a family, even though my former partner and I are no longer a romantic couple. When I began to think from a perspective of the collective, to think as a family system, rather than, from a place of my own hurt and pain, the paradigm shifted.
It’s tempting to subscribe to the scripts, structures, and frames we’ve known, even if we don’t, ideally, want to recreate that experience.
Instead of focusing on what you’ve known or seen, practice the resilience practice of possibility, and work (if possible, together), to create a new relationship and family structure:
Focus on being a family, even though you won’t be a romantic couple anymore. This concept of thinking of ourselves as a family, but not as a couple, was our north star. Rather than seeing my former partner’s and my relationships with our children as separate, we continued to think of ourselves holistically, as a family. This mindset allowed us to make decisions that benefitted all of us, not simply ourselves. Systemically speaking, when each partner does well, the family does well, AND the children do well. It’s been the most vital principle to having a conscious, positive divorce, but is also a difficult concept.
Trash old relationship templates, and create your own
Even if we don’t like the role models of relationships we’ve seen, we often recreate them, because we don’t have any other templates.
Create your own relationship template. Design your own divorce or relationship dissolution.
I’d seen the shitty, rigid way that couples devolved into divorce, dropping the kids off at specified times, barely speaking. I knew I didn’t want this for me, my former partner, or our family.
So, we got creative.
We began exploring what we did want. We talked about the experience we wanted to create for ourselves and our children. I was adamant that I wanted to go on a family vacation. We both wanted to be part of new experiences the kids were having, whether that was attending a professional sporting event or going to Disney World. We agreed we would include one another in these events and do everything in our power to plan these events with and around one another.
Here are a few other areas we focused in on to move from embattled to empowered:
- Let go of the hurt. Allow what’s happened in the past to be in the past. Letting go of all the ways I felt wronged, unsupported, and frustrated cleared space for me to embark on a new relationship without the old baggage and gave me a fresh perspective.
- Set yourselves free. Allow the evolution of your relationship to free you from old patterns of behavior and cycles of communication. Many couples, despite ending the relationship, continue to squabble as though they are still in the former version of the relationship. When my former second husband began questing my finances, a conversation that would have lead to a fight when we were married, instead of taking the bait, I said, “You know, since we have separated our finances, we don’t actually have to have this fight anymore.” I could see the realization of this truth cross his face. We’ve not fought about finances since.
- Allow yourselves to be you are and are meant to become. Honor one another’s journey to discover yourselves, to expand, grow, and change. Stop trying to mold your former partner into an expectation you had for him or her. Conversely, allow yourself and your partner to become new and different versions of yourselves. Accept that as your relationship and experiences evolve, so too will each of you.
When we Know Better, We Do Better
Merely being “civil” co-parents should not be our gold standard. In the world of diversity and inclusion, we’ve moved away from the language of tolerance, even inclusion, to instead, discuss the importance of belonging in professional settings. So, too, do we need to move away from believing that civility is aspirational when being “civil” to one another, while a step in the right direction, is table stakes.
Have you spent five minutes with people who are just tolerating each other enough to be ‘civil’? If you have, you can’t get out of that energetic black hole fast enough. So, imagine what it feels like to kids whose parents are ‘civil’ to one other. While I agree that ‘civil’ is better than embattled, I believe we can raise the bar for ourselves and each other.
Just as we are beginning to talk more about the importance of belonging of diverse groups of people in business, in moving beyond civility and becoming co-parenting partners, we need to raise the bar and talk about developing cooperative, collaborative, and communicative relationships.
Becoming Co-Parenting Partners (in Crime)
Cooperation: Think about how you can best help and support your partner.
Collaborative: Co-create the relationship and experiences you’d like to have.
Communicative: Communicate early and often about the kids, and other things. Be mindful of the language you use to describe one another
Language Creates our Reality
A word on the importance of language. There is power in the language we use because it both creates our reality and communicates our reality to those around us. I intentionally refer to my former husband as my former husband and not my ex. “Ex” sounded to me like I am crossing him out of my life. For me, the word “former” acknowledges that at one time were having a marital bond, but we do not anymore. In the same vein, it took me a while to determine what I wanted to call my former husband. This title, if you will, for me, was meant to encapsulate the new relationship we were developing. There is all manner of language out there, “Wasband”, a play on “was” and “husband”. For me, “Co-Parenting Partner in Crime” fit. This new way of explaining the nature of my relationship with the father of my children exemplified that we are endeavoring to raise to two boys, together, and enjoy all the adventures of all that brings, along the way.
7: For a normal breakup of a shorter-term relationship, what can the person do to simply feel better about themselves and get back out there?
Normative, but not Normal
As Holmes and Raye found, one of the top ten most stressful, normative experiences in adult life is a relationship loss or breakup.
But is there such a thing as a “normal” breakup? I would suggest that each breakup is meaningful, and each experience is to be honored, as it brings us the opportunity to learn something about ourselves. We can rise out of own indignation and pity when, following a breakup, we ask ourselves:
“Why is this happening for me?”, instead of “Why is this happening to me?”
This simple question ‘flips the script’, and rather than feeling angst about the loss, we can ask ourselves what we are meant to learn from this experience. Then, take time to listen to yourself, for reflection, journaling, or any other mechanisms through which you receive information and answers.
Recognize that “getting back out there” and “feeling better about yourself” may be diametrically opposed forces. These days, dating is not for the faint of heart. Jumping back into the dating circuit certainly may not be productive for those whose constitution has recently been rocked by a breakup.
An Open Heart is a Good Start
When you are ready to “get back out there”, start exploring relationships from a place of internal stability, not as a mechanism you’re using to fill a void. Get back out there when you feel whole. Don’t rely on the experience of dating to help you heal or make you whole. You must do this work on yourself before you are dating material.
It can be tremendously difficult for many people to trust again after the hurt of the breakup. Trust comes in many forms. Breakups challenge our ability to trust ourselves, our intuition, as well as others.
In high school, beginning at age 14, I had a man come to my window and watch me dress, then speak to me through the screen between us and say, “Take off your clothes, you’re beautiful.” Over the course of my high school career, he came back to my childhood home, when I was home alone. Each time his behavior escalated. I wouldn’t know it until years later, but I developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as a result, and walked through two decades of life with active symptoms of this trauma.
When I went to college, he brutally raped a woman in our neighborhood, and ultimately, went to prison for many years.
In college, a man at the gym, exposed himself to me, showing me his penis, making me feel queasy and unsafe.
My first husband, a man I loved, a person who I’d committed to spending my life with, threated me with the misuse of paralytics he brought home from the hospital and left waiting for me on the bathroom counter. He threatened my life. Which is what ultimately ended our relationship.
It would have been easy to have difficulty trusting people again, especially men. For a long time, I did grapple with trust. Along with safety and vulnerability in relationships. I even went through a period where to decided it was too risky to trust again.
Then, I learned to trust myself. I learned my own trust.
You Own Your Own Trust
Recognize that trust isn’t external to you. People may have your best interests at heart, or they may harm you. Either way, you will rise again. Deciding not to trust means you let the people who wronged you win. For me, it would have meant that I allowed my high school experiences to dictate my level of trust and intimacy in relationships for the rest of my life. For you, it means you choose to let those that meant you harm continue to dictate your life by leaving an indelible mark on your relationships when you resist the trust of the truly wonderful people who are also placed in your path.
You can be your own hero. You can be your own safe place.
Ask yourself, “Who will always support me and not betray me?” Then, look in the mirror and see your own face looking back at you. You can have the wisdom and courage you need within yourself. Trust yourself. Then, use that foundation of self-trust to extend trust to others.
You are the person who will always support you and not betray you. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, this person (you!) has been with you all along. You simply had to recognize this power within yourself.
If you or someone you know is having a difficult time in the wake of a breakup, if “difficult time” seems like the understatement of the century to you or someone you know, know this: Up until now, You. Have. Survived. You have survived every single challenge: loss, tragedy, and trauma. At the time, you wondered if any of these experiences were survivable. Exactly none of these experiences ended you. None of them defeated you. They changed you, yes. Molded you, absolutely. Taught you, indeed, they taught you. But one of them ended you.
In every chapter of your life before this, you’ve found healing in every heartbreak. Levity in every loss.
This will be no different. I promise.
Each trauma can be a turnaround, a triumph even.
This is posttraumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth requires trauma, loss, and tragedy to create growth. This means:
We can take the things that nearly broke us and wear them as a beautiful badge of honor.
As in the practice of Japanese Kintsukuroi, for allowing ourselves to crack open, we are filled with material and experience that is even more precious than our original constitution.
You’ve always beat back defeat and discouragement and darkness. The future will be no different. You always will win. Even if the pain doesn’t feel like winning. You are living and learning and growing, and THAT is winning.
When you’re feeling down, alone, adrift, have a cup of resilience “tea”, practice one of the five practices, have a cup of “resilience “tea”:
- Vulnerabili-tea – Share your feelings and experiences with a trusted confidant. Allow the pain to make you softer, open you to your experience, not harden your heart. Remember that a break-up is a normal part of our lives and learning as adults, and nothing to feel ashamed or inadequate about.
- Productivi-tea – reflect on the relationships your pursuing; Are these relationships bearing fruit, supporting you? Or is it time to pivot in a new direction and pursue something different?
- Connectivi-tea – Connect to yourself: Listen closely to your thoughts and feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, and learn from them. Connect to others: Seek out a supportive community of others who can support you.
- Gratiosi-tea – Find moments of gratitude, amidst your pain, glimmers of hope. No experience is all bad. Often, we can look back on the pain and feel a sense of gratitude for how we were formed. Then, we are willing to share your experiences with others, to deepen relationships and support others during their time of need.
- Possbili-tea – Recognize that adversity advances our capacity for resilience. Through this experience, you expand your tolerance to face fear and failure in both your personal and professional life. You will widen your experience. You will be less wedded to perfection and more open to a new experience.
Here are a few additional nuggets that have helped me in these moments:
There is nothing you must do. To quote Albert Ellis again, don’t fall prey to “musterbation”, telling yourself that you have an obligation to do something different from what you are doing in not productive. In the words of Jeff Foster, “This moment is an invitation to start again. Begin where you are.”
Take ownership for your own healing. You must be the one to heal your own heart. You have all the necessary skills, knowledge, and resources within yourself to heal. Remember, no matter how tempting it may be:
The person who broke your heart can not heal you. You need to heal you.
Don’t sacrifice authenticity for amenability. I almost didn’t leave my second marriage. Everyone else in the family was happy with our arrangement. Who was I to bust things up? If you find yourself asking yourself questions like these, as I did, realize you, your experience, desires, and needs matter as much as the other members of your family.
A person who heals themselves heals generations before them AND generations to come.
Your healing is bigger than you. Sacrificing your own desires, needs, and experiences in favor of going along to get along doesn’t serve anyone. Now, my children are happy seeing me thrive and embrace the life I desire. They have witnessed the courage and care I exercised to evolve a marital relationship with their father, and I believe, that when they are faced with their own crisis of authenticity and healing, they will now have a role model to be true to themselves.
“A woman [or man] who heals herself
, heals her [his] children’s children.” Liezel Graham
Voice is choice. Use this opportunity to speak up for yourself. Be your own advocate. If an experience, a person’s energy, or certain people don’t make you feel whole and happy, vote with your feet, and walk away. Find other people and places that support your healing and becoming.
Own the disowned parts of yourself. Allow yourself to take in, and (this is important) love all the parts of yourself.
Last year, I attended Burning Man for the first time, knowing exactly two people on the entire playa. I had many peaks, life-changing and affirming moments of connection and awe. I also spent much of the week feeling crushingly lonely, awkward, and out of place. There is a saying at Burning Man that “You get the burn you need, not the burn you want.” In most ways, I didn’t get the burn I wanted. Instead, I got the burn I needed, which was to be exposed to my own loneliness in an agonizing way, and for once and for all that I was enough, complete, on my own.
I believe life is like that too. You get the burn you need. From the charred contents of our relationship ashes, we clear away the wreckage that was no longer serving us and rise anew, ignited by new experiences and the possibility to live a new life as our best self.
In the airport, on my way to Tulum, Mexico, a destination where I would meet the stunning man, whose connection I described earlier, while waiting for my plane, I read a passage in an article that would be instrumental in the healing of the loss of the relationship with the man I was about to meet.
The article described a filmmaker who filmed a documentary in China on sea turtles. While filming, he held a giant turtle and carried the massive creature to the ocean, setting her free, watching her paddle out into the waves and beyond view. When he returned home, in the airport, the Chinese government, seemingly on a whim, revoked his permit and confiscated months of his filming the turtles. He described being overwhelmed by the loss of his work, but upon reflection recognized that, while the film had been removed from his possession, his memories and experiences were still his own. Even without the film, every good and magical moment he experienced during filming was still true. The experience of carrying the giant turtle into the waves was no less real or meaningful.
People leave our lives, but the lessons, the experiences we share, can never be taken away.
I understood, in the wake of my own loss, that relationships are like this filmmaker’s experience. While it is devasting to lose our partner, we never lose the memories, the experience, the love, or the learning. None of these can be taken from us. None of this can be incinerated.
“Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it is not fine, it is not yet the end.” Oscar Wilde.
I know, I know. I said I wasn’t going to give you one of those pithy quotes, but I just couldn’t resist. You’ve got this. I believe in you. Keep going. I’ll be cheering for you and praying for you – for all the people whose hearts are broken and are in the process of healing. Trust me, you’re in good company. You’re not alone. It will get it better. If it is not better, it is not yet the end.