It’s always amazed me that second marriages end in statistically higher rates of divorce. I would think that enduring perhaps the most difficult time in a persons’ life might leave a more lasting impression. It would teach us a thing or two. I can appreciate the passion of those who swear off marriage, though for most it’s a temporary position. What I don’t get are those who pull an Elizabeth Taylor, remarrying several times, only to have the same result. It reminds me of that old, but true saying, ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.’
The effects of this hit close to home. In our small group of seven, all remarried, couples, one couple divorced shortly after we formed and two others may well be on their way. While each story is different, they all share a common thread that I think gets to the root of why so many second marriages hit the wall.
They never embrace what can be the larger blessing of divorce.
Divorced dating necessitates retelling your story over and over again, and particularly the part about why you divorced. Like most things we work to arrange those details in a way that puts us in the very best light. We emphasize some points while downplaying or omitting others. Based on listeners’ reactions, the story gets fine-tuned until we have something that sells but likely resembles a fraction of the truth. But here’s what’s more intriguing. Have you ever noticed that with most divorced stories, the person who’s telling it always casts himself as the victim? Can you recall meeting someone who took any real ownership for why the marriage ended; who didn’t rationalize and justify cheating, or who admitted his or her behaviors probably led to the marriage ending? Me neither, if you do, I suggest you marry that person right away.
I can speak confidently about this because I got so good at doing it. This was easy since I had the perfect alibi – an affair. I would use her cheating like a warm, cozy blanket of self-righteousness, insulating me from any doubt about my infallibility or guilt. I wrapped her sin tightly around me while I told myself, and countless others, that I had been the perfect loving, devoted husband who was deceived and betrayed. I was this great guy; she was that horrible girl. It became a very compelling story, one I rehearsed so often I could naturally fit it into any conversation where I needed to boost my sanctity or garner sympathy. It takes two to tango in any marriage, but adultery is a great distraction from that.
I should also note that victimhood makes an incredible aphrodisiac.
While all this may have elevated my moral superiority and turbocharged my romantic life, it was also, to a large extent, why I found myself moving from one failed relationship to the next after my divorce. All the effort that went into shining light on my ex-wife’s faults blinded me to my shortcomings. I could ignore my sins by staying focused on hers. Since believing that I did nothing wrong, or at least nothing equal to what she did, I could naturally and understandably drift towards this attitude of the victim. I was good; she was bad. This thinking permeated everything in my life. It fueled the contempt I had for the ex-wife. It was the moral lubricant I needed to act selfishly towards others. It was my justification for countless poor decisions. Her betrayal gave me license to act out in any way I saw fit. I had a right to be happy after everything I went through; all others be damned. Several wonderful women were sacrificed on the altar of my selfishness.
Worse, since crafting this immaculately innocent persona for myself, I concluded there was nothing about me that needed help. There was nothing to fix, I had been the right person and believed I still was. I told myself I had been this good husband, loving father, and a great provider. I was still cheated on. Because I had no responsibility for her decision why then should I take any responsibility for our divorce? In time it simply became a question of marrying the wrong woman, I never considered if I’d been the right husband. Because of this, there was little worry about the outcome if I got married again. I wasn’t going to marry her, and that’s where I believed the problem lied.
This is the thinking of far too many. We are incapable, or more precisely, unwilling, for even a moment, to sincerely look in the mirror. To set aside our anger and resentment to ask the tough question about any part we might have played in our divorce. Because of this, people remarry too quickly, and whose marriages, just as quickly, fail. If I don’t believe my behaviors, attitudes, or actions had anything to do with the divorce, why would I be worried that the next marriage would end the same? Different spouse makes for a different outcome, right? Wrong.
I’m not sure when or how I arrived there, but eventually, I came to this crazy realization that while she may have done the ugliest part, our divorce didn’t happen in a vacuum. I still don’t know why, but I started to see that no one wakes up on a random morning and just decides, over their cornflakes, to have an affair. Adultery doesn’t work that way. As naive as this may sound, I do think most of us when we say ‘I do,’ believe and take that vow seriously. But in time things happen inside a marriage – mistrust, abuse, addiction, inattention- that lead to things happening outside the marriage. It’s widely understood that men do not cheat merely because of sex. As much as we might want to believe otherwise, it’s much more profound than animal urges. Women are little different. Things were, or were not, happening within our marriage that led her to believe another man was the best solution.
This becomes a very jagged pill to swallow, but when I did, my thinking changed, and I started to experience what I now believe is the larger blessing of divorce. Yes, my life was upended, of course, my finances were thrown into disarray, and sadly the relationship with my children was forever altered. I was bitter, bruised, and beaten. But I also started to learn about myself in ways I’d never done before. I was slowly becoming another person. I grew more sensitive to things I could have done differently in that marriage. I started to see things more from her point of view than just my own. I accepted some of the responsibility for our divorce.
It’s important to understand; this feeling was more than the universally thin response of so many that goes, ‘I wasn’t perfect, but she/he…’. This was much deeper and, most importantly, meant I could no longer play the victim. That was critical, because when that moment arrived everything else started to fall into place, an entirely new viewpoint opened to me. I began to see personal faults that had been hidden before. Sins that were kept in the dark suddenly shone brightly in the light. That’s when I realized there was lots of work to do – on myself.
I understand this may be difficult to accept, especially for those whose divorce felt like a professional hit. And from the comments on an essay I wrote several years ago, most people may never arrive. Their hurt is too deep, and it takes our humility while clashing with our pride and dignity. We don’t want to whitewash our pain, particularly for the sake of the one who inflicted it. But let me be clear on something, being accountable for the part I played doesn’t whatsoever abdicate her responsibility. She has to deal with those consequences in her way. She will have to explain to our children why their parents divorced. She will have to manage through their shock, disappointment, or anger. It isn’t my job to act as her judge, jury, or executioner. My responsibility lies only in naming the pieces I owned and doing something about changing them.
And no matter how big or small that part may be, we must own it, and if we do my experience has been that healing can follow:
1. We can no longer play the victim. I don’t think we can take responsibility and be a victim at the same time.
2. Forgiveness comes easier. Anger melts away under the light of our mistakes.
3. We stop carrying those same problems into other relationships. To find the right person, we must be the right person.
4. Revenge takes a back seat. We’re less concerned about getting even with them as we are getting right with ourselves.
None of this comes easy. Fixing ourselves never does. It takes time, humility, soul searching, letting go of grudges and wrestling with demons. But on the backside, we can discover, as I and many others have, that a divorce once considered a curse might actually be a larger blessing.