As the saying goes, there are two sides to every story.
I’ve found this particularly true in the world of second-time-around dating, in the stories told by the consciously uncoupled of the unravelling of their marriages. Having been through divorce myself, I’m struck by these one-sided soundbites of marital collapse. And more often than not, in the post-divorce first date elevator pitch, the scenario painted is a black-and-white picture of something that is seldom so simple.
It is natural to want to see ourselves – and have other see us – in an image that flatters, particularly in the early stages of any relationship.
We walk a fine line when talking about something so personal as divorce, and our roles in it. Whether we choose to share a lot or a little is also a very individual choice. But at the core, our stories tell as much about ourselves as they do about our exes.
I used to buy into these one-sided narratives, but I’ve grown wary. I’ve even come to recognize the archetypes: “The Selfish Ex,” whose blatant self-centeredness derailed the marriage. If the wife, she likely goes to Soul Cycle religiously, while the nanny cares for their children. She has an advanced degree but chooses not to work. She either over-mothers her children or ignores them completely. If the husband, he is likely an unengaged father, having a midlife crisis and leasing a Maserati. There is also “The Cheater,” who for no reason at all, had an affair and singlehandedly tore apart a perfect family. And there’s “The Workaholic” – typically the man, but potentially an overambitious woman who leaned in too far. And on the other side of these marriages is the blameless partner, now improbably reentering the dating world in all their glorious perfection.
How can it be that so many marriages tank at the hands of one bad partner…and can I meet this bad partner? Is she (or he…both genders are guilty) really so fundamentally awful? Or perhaps, in some parallel universe, would we bond over craft beer?
The collapse of a marriage is devastating, and there is almost always hurt and blame. When I first got divorced, my story was equally one-sided. But over the years, the story has come into focus. There is no question that we shouldn’t have stayed married, but apportioning fault (whether to him or to myself) impeded my own healing and growth. The fault was in the intersection of two incompatible people – and we each own those qualities that produced the incompatibility.
In recent years, I’ve tried – not always successfully – to bring compassion to our divorce narrative.
Ten years later, it’s still sad and hard for our family. But it cannot be boiled down to a reductive good-versus-evil tale, no matter whether I’m talking to a potential suitor or a member of my innermost circle.
For the former, I have a few easy tales to paint the picture of our marital discord. One example is the fact that I run late to almost everything (I missed my own brother’s wedding ceremony by 15 minutes). He has never been late to literally anything … ever. Or the way that I constantly try to please the entire world, including total strangers, while he is focused on a few key actors. I also try to stay mindful of the positive parts of our post-divorce relationship, which have taken time and effort to cultivate. He is a devoted father and a solid provider. We can even take our boys together to the most annoying place for birthday celebrations – a Hibachi steakhouse – because it makes them happy.
Some days are easier than others … we trigger each other regularly. But the fair and compassionate narrative can lead to a softer heart, which is better for all parties involved.
And yes, some divorces really do have heroes and villains. My primary care doctor, who has been my life coach over the years, carved out very specific reasons for ending a marriage: emotional or physical abuse, addiction without treatment, and a handful of other diagnosable conditions. I thought her advice a bit extreme. Many exes do not fall anywhere near these categories, and yet still do not make ideal life partners. But when they do, I humbly call all bets off, and understand any narrative that allows for healing.
The compassionate narrative should not, by any means, sugarcoat the truth. But the truth is elusive, and we each seem to have our own version.
My personal goal, of late, is to search earnestly for the truth that most accurately reflects the world outside my own mind. The truth that embraces how my former partners have experienced me (gulp…). If, in this second act of life and love, we are looking to get it right, we have to start with ownership of our roles in what went wrong. And from that place, I am far more optimistic about our chances for a happy ending.Read Similar: What Do You Want In A Relationship?
Lisa Freudenheim is a law professor and founder of Legal Writing Consultants, a professional writing coaching firm working with individuals and companies nationwide. After turning 50, she decided to make time for writing about things that mattered deeply to her, like her two boys, her love of the water, and punctuation.