When a marriage ends in divorce, many feel as if they have failed. I felt like a failure when my husband and I first separated. I have now weathered the emotional storm that is the first six months post-separation, and I have come to see that my marriage was not a failure.
I made mistakes and allowed behaviors to go unchecked, but I have an opportunity to learn and not repeat those patterns in my next relationship. While at this point in my divorce, it’s hard to imagine ever loving again, I suspect I will someday. And even if I am single for the rest of my life, I have learned what I bring to a relationship that can create dysfunction. And I don’t want to do that again. I’d like to grow from this experience and model for my children a healthy dynamic, even as a single mother.
There are many theories about how we attract a partner and choose a mate. One simplified cliché is that opposites attract, and it has some merit. But opposites how? It’s not so much that we attract people with opposite personalities. There’s the theory that introverts choose extroverts, the tall are attracted to the short, or creatives love those with more logical mindsets, but it’s deeper than that. Many relationship experts believe that we attract mates who fill a void in us—that we come to relationships with childhood wounds, patterns of behavior and expectations—and we choose mates to fix or match that dynamic.
One such expert, Harville Hendrix, bases his books and therapy model on the notion of Imago, the Latin word for “image.” Imago refers to an idealized, subconscious concept of familiar love that develops in childhood and continues into adulthood. The Imago is based on early life interactions with parents or other significant adults. Due to a child’s individualized construct of love, he or she will develop specific behaviors or “survival patterns” (either by expressing or inhibiting personality traits) in order to obtain love and stay safe. In Getting The Love You Want: A Guide For Couples, one of Hendrix’s most well-known books, Imago posits that we choose partners who trigger our best and worst selves. The therapeutic goal is to look at childhood patterns, to dig deep, and to explore old wounds so that our partner can help heal our inner child and give it the love it wants.
This theory supports the unfortunate truth that those who have been abused often marry abusive partners, or children of alcoholics are drawn to alcoholic mates or otherwise unreliable partners with whom they eventually play a caretaker, codependent or enabler role. Often, it’s not that blatant, nor does it have to be traumatic. We may have had a wonderful childhood, but our parents weren’t perfect. Maybe one parent traveled regularly for business and left the caretaking and nurturing to the other. We may, inadvertently, marry someone who parents from afar, even if present physically.
On the other hand, we may have lived with a caretaker with low self-esteem. We absorbed those messages and may have become a person who questions oneself, wonders if they’re good enough or seeks validation from others. It’s easy to get into a pattern with your partner that feels familiar, even if it doesn’t feel good or right. I did that. I brought my wounds and hoped my partner would heal them. While I believed I was emotionally beyond that minefield, 30 years of familiarity came with me to my marriage. I ended up repeating patterns and ultimately creating a dysfunction that was familiar but that did not make me happy. And for my children, I want to learn from those mistakes.
In my next relationship, there are three key things that I will not do and am working on so that I’m emotionally equipped to break the pattern next time. I have lamented that I’m 50, that it’s too late. But I’ll be 50 whether I do the work or not. I’d like to be happy, to be emotionally healthy, and most importantly, to model positive behaviors for my children so that when they become adults, they can skip divorce.
I will not expect my partner to meet all my emotional needs. While this is something I knew intellectually, I fell into an unhealthy pattern nonetheless. I expected and wanted certain emotional caretaking from my husband, and he was not to be that person for me. I had expectations of how he’d understand every feeling and wound and absorb them, thus changing his behavior to take care of me. That was unrealistic. I had an emotionally unavailable father and was constantly reaching out to him only to be disappointed. As a child, I kept going back to a dry well. I had nowhere else to go.
As an adult, I have choices. I had them in my marriage too. Eventually, I did seek emotional support from others, but I came to the marriage, and left, with that same deep wound of disappointment, ingrained from age 5, which was familiar, albeit painful. I have grown over the course of 17 years, and in the last three or four, I was no longer asking for and being disappointed by a lack of emotional intimacy. And then I felt alone. Alone and lonely in a relationship is one of the hardest places to be. Our dysfunction was in place, the groove in the record so deep that we had nowhere to go but apart. I will start anew with myself, with friends, and perhaps someday, with another partner.
I will maintain balance with marriage, children and my work. I always was, and still am, a self-confident and accomplished person. That was me for years, working, writing a novel, feeling strong, and then came kids and an intertwining of patterns and years of letting things fester, and gradually I lost my sense of self. When I had no balance between being a wife, mother and person, things broke down for me. I found myself wanting and needing validation from my partner—all the time.
I watched my mother struggle with feelings of worthlessness. She was a single working mom and was always overwhelmed. While I was a stay-at-home mom, I was hard on myself and often lonely. My only respite was the gym where I socialized and kept some sense of individuality. Yet, I didn’t have the energy nor the time to write, create and do what I had done in the past to feed my needs and passions, and I felt drained of strength.
I have slowly built back my self-confidence. In the last several years, I have started working again, slowly doing contract work, and finally, rekindling my passion for writing, blogging and connecting with a community of online writers and readers with whom I share ideas and stories. I have rebuilt my confidence, because of my work and who I am. I like feedback from others, but I don’t need it. I love what I do now, have a community of support and coworkers across the world. And my writing touches others, forms connections, helps people and entertains. I am growing as a writer, taking on more responsibility and expanding my skill set. I’ve got my sea legs back. I’m still a mom, a single mom, but my boys are older and more self-sufficient, and I have time for myself, to find my path and balance.
I will not be complacent in my next relationship. We all fall into ruts. It’s a cliché and one which I swore would never happen to me. And it did, because I let it. My husband and I let it. Things were hard, yes, and that’s normal, but there was inertia. We’d reach impasses, dead ends where neither was happy nor able to make the changes needed for, well, change, and rather than sit down and face it, I ignored it. I was aware. I just didn’t listen to that little voice in my head, and the tug in my heart that said something was off. This is not what either of us deserved or wanted. We tried. Oh, how we tried. It’s easy to do that when you have children, have a history, are settled in and are scared of the unknown. And yet, that complacency drains you of happiness, of opportunity, of growth. It is not something I will choose for myself ever again.
I cannot deny I have had many moments of regret. Why did it take me 17 years to get here? Couldn’t I see I needed a change, that there was too much dysfunction to create function, and that we’d be better apart as single parents than as a couple? I don’t know the answers except that it happened when it happened. Life is like that. You can’t rush things, nor can you slow them down. I have spent much energy trying to control life, and it will not be controlled. Life happens in its own time—when you are ready. Something is not working, and life seems like shit, and then it doesn’t. There is light and growth and change and opportunity. And I’m ready.
This article was originally published on The Good Men Project as “3 Things I Will Do Differently In My Next Relationship.”