Monday, October 08, 2007

What to do to end a relationship successfully

Sometimes, things really do happen in threes. And my rule is that when something happens three times, I should have a serious look at whatever the issue is.

Yesterday, I had three people call me about their divorces. One is just beginning a divorce, another is in the middle, while the third is just finishing up. (And actually, a fourth person called because she’s starting a new relationship, which is bringing up unresolved issues from a very long term relationship that ended a couple of years ago.)

They all had a few issues in common — grief, trust, letting go of attachments, and renegotiation. Grief is basically an intense feeling of loss. When any relationship ends, it’s normal to feel loss (you did lose something), and if it’s a marriage or another primary, long term relationship, it’s normal to grieve.

Usually, though, we associate grief with death, especially of a loved one, which makes sense, because it’s a serious, permanent (at least in this lifetime) loss. But there is a big difference between grieving a death and grieving the end of a relationship. When a loved one dies, your family and friends surround you, and support you. Everyone understands death, right? That person who was just there, in a body, walking and talking and hugging you, isn’t any more. And part of the ritual of death is that of family and friends speaking well of the deceased, remembering all of his or her good qualities, helpful actions, achievements, etc.

It’s different with a divorce. First, there is an interpersonal reason for the divorce, as opposed to death, which is more of a personal issue to the deceased. You loved the person you married — you thought this was the best person for you in the world, or you wouldn’t have married him/her. So something changed. Perhaps it’s the other person. People do change, not always for the better (having affairs, or alcohol or other addictions, for example). Or perhaps it’s you -- you may have changed. You may have grown and now be unwilling to put up with things you’d put up with in the past. Or perhaps the rose-colored glasses of love fell from your eyes, and you now see clearly something you successfully ignored or excused for a long time. Or both. (Perhaps you are the one with the addiction issue, but if so, you probably aren’t calling me, so I’ll leave that for others to discuss.)

That means there are huge issues of forgiveness around a divorce (which there often aren’t around a death). First, for your own well-being, you eventually have to forgive your ex for whatever he or she did or didn’t do or say — often over a long period of time. I’m not saying it’s easy, but remembering that people are doing the best they can all the time helps. Now, it may not be a very good best, but it is the best they can do, given who they are at the time.

The more difficult task is to forgive yourself for whatever you did or didn’t do or say — and most especially for what you didn’t see. Forgiving yourself for ignoring what is now patently obvious to you may be the hardest job of all, harder than moving forward each day, constructing a new life for yourself, (and your kids, if you have them). What makes it so difficult to forgive yourself is that you question your own judgment. How did I not see this (irresponsibility, addictive tendency, cruel streak, whatever)? If I didn’t see this, then what else am I not seeing? How can I ever trust my judgment enough to get into a relationship again? Trusting yourself going forward is critically important. You were doing the best you could at the time, too, and you learned from the experience, so next time, you’ll see more, right?

Another task is to let go of emotional/energetic attachment to the other person. While most people think that this is some huge process that takes a lot of energy over a long period of time, much of it can actually be done in just a few minutes with a simple visualization or two. I did this with a client yesterday, and at the end, she said, “That’s it? That was so easy! And I feel so much better.” Stuff happens — suffering is optional. (It’s different for each person, or I’d describe how.)

Divorce differs from death in another way, too. Your friends and family may, or may not, surround you and support you. Perhaps some of them disappear, either because they don’t know what to do or say, or because they “side with” your ex, or because they believe divorce in wrong in principle. And those who do stick with you will often begin to express the reservations about your ex they had all along, but felt it was wrong to voice. Perhaps they only know you as part of a couple, so knowing you as a single person is a completely new relationship. In any case, the important thing here is to recognize that you are recreating, or renegotiating, all your relationships, not just the one with your ex. When you do this consciously, it goes more quickly and easily than if you’re not aware of what you’re doing.

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