Yesterday I posted about the inspiring longevity of my parents’ marriage and received admiring comments from some of my divorced friends, Michele, T, MomZombie, and AAC. As I read them, I wondered if they, like me, felt just a twinge of sadness at their inability to hit similar marital milestones. I suppose that every couple that gets married assumes that they will stay together forever. However, with my parents as role models, I was especially convinced that I had all the ingredients and tools for a lasting union.
When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1970’s, my parents were involved in a multi-faith spiritual community called Creative Initiative Foundation. This group was certainly a product of its times, as its main goal was really personal growth. However, they also reacted against some of the prevailing ethos of that era, namely sexual liberation and an increased divorce rate, as spouses often favored exploration and independence over the bonds of marriage. CIF, as they called themselves, insisted that marriage was a lifetime commitment, and my parents attended seminars that emphasized communication, conflict resolution, and spiritual education as a means of making a successful marriage.
My main memory of that time of my life is that my parents never let us stay angry about anything. No matter what we were doing or where we were going, when we got mad about something, we had to stop and “work it out.” In addition, we had a Sunday ritual of family night, where at first we spent time talking about the spiritual precepts they were learning, but later on it just became a night to be together. There were times that I resented my parents’ commitment to the CIF principles, but as I grew up, I realized that I really benefited from them. In fact, I began to believe that they endowed me with exactly what I needed to make my marriage last forever.
Certainly, my ex and I had many of the ingredients that my parents had in their marriage: a continued attraction to each other, shared spiritual ideals, common interests, and a really strong friendship. That combined with the conflict resolution skills they had taught me as a child led me to feel very blessed in the marriage department. My ex and I were extremely happy in the beginning, and when the initial infatuation didn’t wane even after several years, I was convinced that we had one of those great loves, just like my parents.
When we started having problems, once we added new jobs and kids to the mix, my mother constantly counseled me on ways to “work it out.” Since I had learned to never go to bed angry, I spent many a late night hashing out issues with my emotional ex who took a lot longer to get in touch with what was truly bothering him. However, I would wake up the next day exhausted, “hungover” from the long hours of fighting and emotional analysis. I never waivered from my commitment to him, though, because I thought this was the price you paid to make a marriage work.
Eventually, our conflicts came to a head and my ex admitted that he no longer felt that he was capable of resolving our differences. At first I refused to accept his decision, but he didn’t really give me any other option. I was truly stumped, and distraught, that all the relationship skills that I had been taught hadn’t worked. At this point in time, I felt like a failure. Divorce, which had never been an option in my family, was happening to me. I couldn’t believe it.
Yet once my ex left the house and the dust settled, I realized that the peace that I developed both inside of me and with my kids was not only delicious but frankly, necessary to our well-being. With time I realized that while my ex and I had shared many of the characteristics of my parents’ marriage, there was one key component that we lacked. We did not have similar temperaments nor styles of conflict resolution. Whereas my parents were able to get mad at one another and let it go, my ex remembered every single one of our disagreements. Every sharp comment I ever made left enduring scars in his heart. I wanted to use logical reasoning to resolve our conflicts. He only knew raw emotion. I interpreted that as confounding and irrational. He thought that my cerebral approach was cold and unfeeling. These were eventually stylistic differences that impeded us from forging lasting reconciliation.
Even now you can see my need to logically explain the situation. I am sure that his take would be vastly different. While our divorce may have been a bittersweet outcome, I nevertheless don’t regret it. Just as my parents have benefited from the continuation of their marriage, my ex and I have each grown immensely from being apart.
And much to my surprise and delight, as a divorced couple we are much better equipped at conflict resolution. I now know not to directly confront him about our differences but instead to let them go until we have both calmed down. Instead of stopping in my tracks and forcing us to reach an agreement on something, like I learned in my childhood, I now find a way to bite my tongue, change the subject and wait until a better moment. I therefore no longer escalate my ex’s natural instinct to get angry. He, for one, is now much better at letting his anger go instead of bringing it down on me in full force.
So, as I look at the lessons that I have learned from both my parents’ and my marriage, I realize that maybe we are not so different, even though my ex and I are divorced. We still have a commitment to each other and to getting along. We certainly feel connected through our wonderful children. And we still push each other to grow and learn. Perhaps we will even grow old together, just as devoted co-parents and really, really good friends.