RD&T contributing writer, Robert Taibbi, explains how divorce and breakups can help with healing our pasts.
Amy has been married for six years, and it’s been great. Matt, her new partner, is laid back and gentle, in contrast to her first husband Ben who was all too controlling, micromanaging, and sometimes even abusive, much like her own mother. This relationship has allowed her to learn to relax, to let down her guard, and lean into Matt. And because she is not walking on eggshells all the time, she has become more outspoken. Compared to where she was, say ten years ago, she now feels more grounded and more herself.
Amy’s story illustrates the way we all can not only heal the wounds of our past relationships through new ones but heal deeper childhood wounds as well. Unfortunately, the path isn’t always easy. It requires some work on our part and comes with particular challenges.
Common Steps on the Path Towards Healing
We leave our childhood.
Some of us are lucky; we leave our childhoods with positive experiences, little damage, and we set out to recreate those experiences in our adult lives. But for many more of us, we leave with wounds – physical and emotional. We walk away with not only bad memories or emotional triggers, but something else, a particular view of ourselves, others, and the bigger world – a distrust of others, a belief that we always need to prepare for the worst, a blaming of ourselves, an understandable need to avoid what we most hated or feared. The bottom line is that we cannot leave our childhoods without some moral of the story that we decide we need to change or keep.
We are drawn to what is less bad.
And so, we venture forth with this childhood perspective in place. Amy is drawn to her first husband not because he is controlling, but because he is less controlling than her mother was. Or that he apologizes, something her mother could never do; or because he has other qualities like a sense of humor or is a hard worker that her mother never was. Similarly, if we had a physically abusive father, our new partner may have an explosive temper, but unlike our father, he never gets physical. What we are drawn to is always in contrast to what came before, to what seems less bad.
We try to make it different.
These small differences give us hope that this relationship can be different, and we apply the best of our old childhood coping skills to make it happen. Sometimes it works. Amy continues to walk on eggshells. She accommodates Ben the way she did her mother as a child, and by and large, it works. It’s okay; it’s a good-enough life.
Or it doesn’t work – Amy walks on eggshells, but over time, Ben’s control seems tighter, his anger flares up more often. Instead of having a better version of her childhood, she, more often than not, begins to feel like she did when she was a child. The healing that she needs isn’t coming.
We reach a bottom line and need to reboot.
We’re doing the right stuff, and it isn’t working. We get fed up and angry or feel depressed, frustrated, or hopeless. This is where we talk about separation or divorce, where we break up, where we are vulnerable to affairs or collapse into ourselves with withdrawal or addiction.
The underlying problem is the underlying problem. Time to reboot the relationship – hence the separation and need to get to space, break up, slip into the affairs that pull us in because they tell us what we’ve been missing, and what we once again need to find to heal.
Amy and Ben get into couples therapy to break the dysfunctional patterns, and it works – Ben understands how his control and anger trigger Amy, and he works hard at changing it. But he also talks about what he really needs, his wounds, and how Amy’s accommodation instead of helping him only leaves him feeling like he is living without an equal partner.
Or they try therapy, but can’t break the dynamic of arguing over whose reality is right, who’s to blame. Or they skip all that and get divorced.
We look for that better version.
Again, we bounce out of what came before. Amy finds Matt, and he is not one-step up from Ben, but several, and her finding and staying with him is not just luck but a sign of how she has already begun to change. His laid-back style is comforting, and over time, with many tentative steps, Amy finds that she can let down her guard, stop that walking on eggshells. And with that in place, she begins to do now what she couldn’t do with her mother, with Ben – begins to take the risk of speaking up, finding that she doesn’t collapse when he seems to be in a bad mood.
Amy begins to heal.
But the Real Moral of the Story
The danger here is one we all know, what we see in our family members, our closest friends. They don’t move through these stages, but instead, continue to repeat the same patterns in different forms – the abuse or anger or disappointment are still there but slightly different, slightly watered down; our old coping styles are still not quite working, but, we tell ourselves, it’s not really so bad. It’s good enough; there are the kids to worry about, we say to ourselves that probably this is as good as it can get. We settle.
The key is learning that the moral of the story – the take-away of our past relationships – is to not settle, not simply replicate those patterns in minor ways but instead acknowledge these larger patterns and have the courage to change them. To speak up, push back, get out – if necessary.
We need to see what our lives are telling us; we need to learn. We need to believe that our lives and our relationships can move us towards healing.