If you’re a divorced parent, there’s a good chance your life is often unbalanced, confused, and out of harmony. You perhaps live as a contradiction and even a hypocrite. At the same time, your life feels strengthened, focused, and contented. You live with self-acceptance, and at times, in truth.
Psychologists have a name for this, Cognitive Dissonance.
My very earliest memories in the days and weeks after my separation was an overwhelming sense of despair and doom, followed almost immediately by overwhelming excitement and anticipation. It’s as if I was teetering on this narrow path between the mountain cliff and a deep gorge below. To one side lay the vast dark reality that I had failed, as a husband and father, and that my children and future may soon be tumbling over the edge. To the other stood the bright heights of freedom and power this unknown future might now afford, leading to the summit and my chance to go back and regain some of what I believed had been lost over the last decade.
These collisions of thought and feeling became more intense when the divorce finalized, and I officially started my new life. The sense of empowerment was unlike anything I had felt before, beginning again, in my own way, unfettered from the expectations of another was invigorating. I was now free of a wife who was okay with ‘getting by’ and whose influence had reshaped my thinking, in good and not so good ways. What would I do differently and with whom? I felt invincible.
But those thoughts of optimism moved in concert with feelings of dread and grief at navigating fatherhood, and this new life, alone. I faced immediate and staggering questions if I could do it, successfully. My life became a serenade moving from dark requiems to bright melodies in equal and opposing measure.
This discord sent me on an emotional roller coaster. I thrilled at having my children in our new home, with the opportunity of doing and experiencing different things I, alone, thought best for them. It was my every other weekend in the sun, out from under the long shadow of their mom. But I was also annoyed at having those same weekend’s, and my sleep, intruded upon by diaper changes, bottle feedings, and Barney the Dinosaur.
On Sundays, relief washed over as my little invaders, and their ceaseless expectations, were redirected back on their mother; but emptiness and sorrow filled the vacuum as soon as I pulled out of her driveway.
I’ve never fully come to terms with this cognitive dissonance that seems so natural to divorce, especially when that divorce involves children. Of course, we’re happy to be free from what may have been a weak, unhealthy, and possibly dangerous marriage. We may sense a new strength and purpose to our lives, seeing our divorce as a new chance to rewrite old chapters.
But it’s undeniable not to feel a profound loss, humiliation, and fear, if not directly for ourselves, then almost certainly for our children. To be constantly reminded that not only have we broken a marital promise made in front of friends, family, and God, but we’ve lied to ourselves and let our children down. This inconsistency in thought and feeling, of happy and grief-stricken in nearly the same moment, has often wreaked havoc in my life and I’ve not always handled things as I should. I’ve too long withheld forgiveness and remained stubbornly blind to my weaknesses. I’ve lived in contradiction to my better nature. Existing in silos, father and man, where for years I prayed the two would never meet.
Experts say that humans are wired not to live with these opposing thoughts, this Cognitive Dissonance. They say we will naturally and even subconsciously try to do something to bring back balance. But is that possible? I’m not so sure. For me, the question is, should I nurture one feeling while trying to starve the other to bring about that equilibrium? At first, that might be an easy enough answer, but for me, at least, it’s been a far more complicated. It is right to enjoy, and even relish, in what I gained from that divorce, but how much can or should I when I see the substantial costs in my children’s faces? And if I try to ignore, forget, or push back against the unavoidable guilt I and every divorced parent suffers, won’t I miss the countless learning opportunities such feelings provide? Will I be destined then to repeat the same mistakes over again?
What then are we to do when It seems either direction leads us deeper into folly or insanity?
One might imagine this all gets better in time. But for me, this has not necessarily been the case. Ten plus years later this dissonance still comes in waves. Perhaps one of my kids says or does something or their mother acts in a selfish way, and suddenly I’m back again where I started so long ago.
Even when I consider that, on every single level, my life is infinitely better, far more blessed, and I’m happier with the person I am today, how can it be that I so often find myself at the precipice staring down into that abyss of shame and sadness? I recently asked the Queen if I’ll ever stop paying for those sins of the past?
I’ve yet to find the wisdom, or the right meme, that explains all this or helps it make sense. I keep thinking that years from now, God willing, when my children have successfully made their marks on the world, I will finally be rid of this emotional baggage and escape the darkness that at times still clouds my happiness and contentment. But until I get there, I’m left with no alternative but to continue forward along this path between the canyon and the cliff.