I was a jerk in my divorce. It was at a time of incredible stress and sudden change, which I can now look back upon with understanding, or at least some self-compassion. Still, when I was in the midst of my worst moments, I had little idea that I was being petty, unreasonable, vindictive or when I was just plain wrong. While most people are good at identifying when the other is behaving badly, it is much harder to spot your own mistakes and devious intentions.
I vividly remember smashing the anniversary gift defiantly in front of him. I recall all of the times I slid an emotional uppercut into normal everyday, home or parenting interactions. I wanted him to hurt and feel my pain in equal measure. I needed him see my suffering and share my pain. It was punishment, but it was also likely, my vain effort to connect or force him to second-guess his decision to end our relationship.
My greatest wrath came during the time we began to negotiate our future in parenting and financial decisions. I held the belief that since he "caused" the divorce, that I was due financially and also in parenting time. If he did not agree with me regarding the parenting schedule, well, then he obviously did not have the best interests for "my" son’s wellbeing. As a therapist I used my skills unfairly and staked out the higher ground. While I don’t regret my attempts to voice my concerns, my views in parenting and financial issues, I do regret focusing on what I could “win” or “get” and using the parenting schedule as a way settle emotional scores. I was focused upon a way to get more of what I wanted rather than focusing on solutions that would serve me in my new life and support my son’s relationship with both his dad and mom.
Looking back, I don't judge myself too harshly for those moments as I know they were an authentic part of experiencing my grief and fear. In all honesty, I don’t believe they could have been fully avoided unless I completely numbed myself and disassociated (which causes it's own host of problems). Yet, in time, when I was free from the grip of rage and sorrow, I could see how much I had hurt a man who was (I know now) also hurting. I knew how damaging my actions had been and offered a sincere and deep apology. I thanked him for allowing me to be the victim and allowing himself to be seen as the "bad guy". I thanked him for patience when it must have been so hard to resist and for being able to allow me to repair our changed but vital relationship. This did not mean he was faultless and full of wisdom- we both had our moments. But my healing began with fully owning up to my part of the hurting and ceasing the relentless focus on him.
Recognizing and giving critical thought to your own behaviors is not synonymous with swallowing whole the criticisms of your ex or others. It does not mean becoming a caretaker and avoiding any possible conflict. I does not mean being perfect or ruminating endlessly about what you might have done/are doing wrong. Actually it means quite the opposite. Instead it requires easing self judgment (good/bad), being aware as to how you feel in your body, curious about the thoughts in your mind, both when you are alone and when interacting with others and especially during conflict or high emotion. When you judge yourself harshly, you look away, and it’s awfully hard to learn from what you don’t or won’t allow yourself to see. When you judge others, you put things neatly into boxes and put them away. You make assumptions, and since the boxes are so neat in their little cubbies you resist looking to see if the label truly describes what's inside and if there might be anything useful in there.
These are just my suggestions, but they're hard earned. Allow yourself to explore and consider if you are taking a stand worth holding or if you are the one standing in the way of healing and positive change.
1) Take care and know well your emotions, before you act. You can be angry/sad/scared and still make good decisions and boundaries, but your emotions should not be the determining factor. Feelings and actins are separate and independent. Divorce and parenting is not a place to exact emotional retribution and sometimes there really is no single solution or action that will soothe your aching heart.
2) Focus on solutions not problems. If you identify a problem, you should be looking for solutions that don’t include cutting out or marginalizing the other parent unless it is an extreme safety risk and as a last a very unfortunate last resort. You may have to accept a lack of skill or ability in your coparent, but you shouldn’t be happy or use it as a way to strategize in getting more of what you want. Children can handle imperfection much better than losing a parent or both parents lost to never ending conflict.
3) Beware of easy answers that justify you absolving any responsibility for the work. Labeling your ex a narcissist does not mean you no longer have to negotiate and parent with them. It does not magically take away your children’s pain. It might be a way to help you to manage your expectations and not take inappropriate responsibility for changing his behavior, but it doesn’t end the emotional relationship for your kids. If your ex is truly unreachable or unresponsive to you or your children, you may find some peace, but your children will need your support to make sense and manage their feelings, perhaps over a lifetime.
4) Allow for differences. Kids don’t need carbon copies in parenting. They may learn good but different things from each parent and as they grow older. They may learn to take the good and leave the bad and grow into adulthood with a full understanding and appreciation for both of their imperfect parents.
5) Be flexible and sometimes, if it is something you can live with, try it their way. It’s not about equal and sometimes not even about fairness- sometimes you give because you can and it makes your kids life better in so many ways. It may be a different discussion if there are systemic inequalities and that may require some support to sort out, but save the line-in-the-sand for the important stuff and enjoy the experience of being generous with whatever you have to spare.
Even now, I am capable of occasional thoughtlessness, selfishness and poor judgment. Sometimes I catch myself before acting and other times it is only in hindsight that I recognize my mistakes. But whatever the timing, I know now to stop and explore inwards; what does this feeling mean about what is important to me, how it is unique to me, what was I needing or now need? I also give myself a healthy dose of grace, allowing myself to be a messy human with urges, fears and longings. Feelings don't always mean a justification to act, but instead give me information on which to base my decision to act or not act. Divorce gave me a gift, it taught me how to manage overwhelming emotions and to challenge deep shame and fear. It blew my (self illusionary) cover on being well-behaved or "perfect"and allowed space self for validation and humility to accept myself as trying, even when I fail bigly. Now, whether I catch my mistakes or only see them in hindsight, I try to really own it, I call myself out first and follow with a simple, clear, no-drama apology to whomever needs it. It sounds strange, but it seems like my new superpower. It feels strong and authentic and makes me more forgiving in the presence of others who are also in deep pain. I realize I am not unique in experiencing suffering .
I’m sure my jerky ways are not completely in the past, but I am much happier knowing that I can check myself and accept feedback from my coparent without spiraling into anger, fear or doubt. Without being so overwhelmed by emotions, I get to choose- I may hold my ground firmly or I can change direction- without all the drama. If you find yourself being a jerk, I encourage you to look inward and pay attention to your own experience and needs. Make centered, clear decisions that only come from knowing yourself deeply. Focus on becoming a master at accepting mistakes and cleaning up your own messes. Maybe your parenting partner won’t follow suit, but it still feels good to know you are on your own path moving at your own pace with your own vision clearly ahead.
Please visit kristinlittlecounseling.com for more about Kristin Little LMHC, Child Specialist services and published books supporting children and families in divorce.