Saturday, July 4, 2009

Shame -- the root of much bad divorce behavior

Recently, I asked a client of mine if she was ashamed of her "failed" marriage. She answered "no" -- that she did not feel shame at all. She was proud of the fact that she had had the courage to leave a marriage that was not working for her. Her self-esteem was growing as she discovered things about herself that she had suppressed during her marriage. And, she had a new love interest who was treating her with the dignity and respect that had been lacking from her ex-husband.

However, I pressed a little bit more, because there were things I was concerned about. Did she still attend the same church as she had during marriage? No. Why not? She just didn't feel as though she "fit in" anymore. Did she hang around with the same friends as before? No. Why not? Same reason.

And the coup de grace: how many times in the past week had she told someone her "divorce story"? Well, there was the hairdresser. And the air conditioning repairman. And the teller at the bank that she had spoken with about a bill that her ex-husband was supposed to pay but hadn't.

After an extended conversation, my client finally came to realize that she still felt very much ashamed of her failed marriage. She felt compelled to explain to everyone that it was not her fault, that she had done all that she could to save the marriage, and that it was her ex-husband, not her, who had committed adultery and subsequently filed for divorce.

Then we spent the next few minutes talking about all of the ways that shame can creep in, and the behavior that it can drive. When a person is ashamed of the outcome of their marriage, they will squander a lot of energy attempting to convince the world that they are not at fault; they are a victim; they are free of accountability. This sets the divorced person up for two potential problems.

One is, being a victim disempowers people. When a divorced person stays stuck in their victimhood, they cannot move on from the marriage. They have shackled themselves to a post-divorce world from which there is no obvious escape. This person often sabotages future relationships without even realizing what they are doing. This is the first date who can't stop talking about their "evil ex"; the co-worker who walks around sighing all the time whenever they aren't engaged in weepy, hush-toned personal phone conversations; the neighbor who whines about how difficult and overwhelming life is since that jerk or 'witch' left the family. The sad part is, most folks who are stuck in post-divorce purgatory don't realize it. They cannot figure out why their friends no longer want to hang around, why neighbors and church members avoid them, why they cannot ever seem to get that second date.

The other potential problem -- as mentioned before -- is that an ashamed divorcee is a bad-behaving divorcee. When a person cannot reconcile the failure of their marriage and feels compelled to redress the wrong, this leads to many of the classic maneuvers that so many divorcing people engage in. A "wronged" person can justify stalking their ex, sabotaging their ex, stealing from their ex, poor-mouthing their ex, harming their ex, and many of the other acts that take place during and right after divorce. This harms the ex, obviously; and the children of the divorce, also rather obviously... but what many divorcing spouses do not realize is that it harms them, as well.

As paradoxical as it seems, the path to overcoming victimhood is often accountability. It takes an acceptance that what happened is real, and it takes a willingness to courageously examine one's own contribution to the end of the marriage. Only then can a person feel empowered enough to rise above the wrongdoing of the other party.

And the key to accepting accountability is to face the shame. Face it head-on, admit that you hate walking around without that ring on your left finger, confess that you somehow feel "lesser" when you think about not being married any more. Wade unabashedly into that awful emotional milieu and own it. Utter the words out loud. "I feel embarrassed that I couldn't make my wife love me". "I feel ashamed when I go to church and everyone else there is married". "I feel like a failure when all of my children's friends come from 'intact' families". "I don't want anyone to know that my marriage didn't last". "I believe that being divorced makes me a bad person somehow". Whatever the feeling is, whatever the belief is, bring it out, and look at it. A coach or counselor can help you explore the feelings in an emotionally safe space, so that you can see what is triggering you, deep down below the place where you make decisions or choose behaviors.

A person who has faced their shame, lifted it out, addressed it, and disposed of it, gains several positive rewards. He or she can now move past the divorce itself. If the divorce is still being settled or negotiated, he or she can have clarity regarding which values are important to them -- which will help the parties reach an agreement more swiftly. Most important, a person who has reconciled their own shame and put it to rest, can then save all of the emotional energy that would have been squandered on protecting their psyche... and put it to use creating the next phase of their life, for themselves and for their children.

Shame is a part of any divorce -- in small quantities or large -- and can easily hide beneath other, more obvious emotions, or hide so well that the person experiencing it never even realizes that it's there. Removing shame, and creating a new life that is free of shame, should be a primary goal of any divorcing person and their coach.


No comments: