Thursday, December 31, 2015

Failure Condition

by Annabeth Leong

When I divorced my first husband, I ran into lots of people who wanted me to talk about what my mistakes had been. I realized eventually that the path to feeling decent about myself and my ex was to consistently refuse to think about it like that.

This is what I say about my ex-husband when asked: We weren’t compatible partners.

I would perform an elaborate ritual to express my gratitude for no-fault divorce. I think it’s one of the best legal innovations to have ever happened. After growing up watching my parents tear each other to shreds in a contested divorce, which went on for something like three years, it was an incredible gift to be able to write “irreconcilable differences” on the form and call it a day. I am so, so powerfully glad that I didn’t have to go to court and try to prove what was wrong with my ex-husband or with me so that we could be free of each other.

Let’s talk about this mistakes idea a little more, though. My sense from the many conversations I’ve had about this is that I’m supposed to pony up my mistakes for several reasons.

For one thing, it’s supposed to show that I learned something from the failure of my first marriage and am in a position to never screw up exactly that way again. I also strongly suspect that it’s supposed to reassure my listener—if they can check out their own life and see that they’re not making the same mistakes, then they know they’re safe from the trouble that’s hit my life.

(By the way, I’m constantly resisting the urge to put scare quotes around everything. I’ll spare you that visual scourge, but please keep in mind that I’m using all words like mistake, failure, and screw-up with a sense of deep skepticism in this post).

So that idea that I learned something… I definitely did. I learned so much from being married and from getting divorced, and I carry those lessons with me every day. The most important stuff that I learned, though, forced me to change my worldview significantly.

I went into that marriage with a lot of beliefs about how marriage was hard work that I was prepared to do. I believed at the time that any two people could work things out between themselves. Maybe they wouldn’t stay madly in love, but with a strong commitment, they could remain effective partners. I believed there was deep value in this exercise.

It’s that set of beliefs that drives the desire to hunt for mistakes after a failure of a marriage, I think. Noticing mistakes and learning from them protects you in the future. Accepting the mistakes you made in the past makes things your fault, which means you should have known better, which means you had or should have had control over painful events.

I don’t think things really work this way, though. I don’t think that avoiding specific actions I took with my ex-husband will inoculate me from relationship difficulties in the future. I don’t think there was any way he or I could have or should have known better in the past than to do what we did.

People want to believe in recklessness, too—that either our marriage or divorce was hasty or insufficiently considered. To which I say, welcome to my brain. No one thinks more than I do. I promise I applied all my best effort and thought to both situations.

***

The idea of a failed marriage contains the idea that there’s a successful marriage. The success condition is to die married. Anything that deviates from that path means that mistakes were made.

This year, a relative of mine died of cancer. He and his wife had a lot of unhappiness in the many years they were together, and they had always worked things out. My relative and his wife were often congratulated for their commitment to marriage. What I saw, though, was a pretty sad scene at the end of his life. His care was in the hands of a woman he didn’t really seem to trust, who didn’t seem to trust him. There were all sorts of fights in the family as he lay dying, often instigated by the tensions between my relative and his wife.

Seeing that brought some of these things into sharp relief for me. I’m not inclined to call that successful. I honestly wish my relative had released himself from that difficult marriage years before so he could have felt safer at the end of his life. Now, I know I’m not in his head. He might strenuously disagree with the way I’m characterizing things. What I will say is that I don’t think that situation would feel like a success to me.

***

The idea of a failed marriage suggests that a successful marriage was always possible. It is only mistakes that stopped that from happening.

My parents brought out the absolute worst in each other. I don’t think there is any world where that would not have been true. Each of them was much better off without the other. I can’t see their divorce as a failure. I can’t see the trouble between them as a series of mistakes.

At the same time, I appreciate that my mother doesn’t characterize the marriage as a mistake altogether (another thing that people sometimes seem to want me to do). My mother resists labeling thirteen years of her life that way, or calling the connection a mistake when it produced the children she loved.

***

I spent my entire first marriage working on it. I scanned myself relentlessly for mistakes and tried to fix them. I consulted others for advice. I spared myself no scrutiny. If there is something I would call a mistake, it is that. I wish I had seen my misery for what it was sooner and trusted it. In my life since that marriage, I have tried to believe in myself more, to stop operating that pitiless radar, to open myself to the idea that sometimes, when a relationship is work, it means it’s not a good one. There is an ease and a joy to things I want in my life. There is a magic I can feel in the background, even during a difficult conversation. It’s not that I never take the actions that might be called hard work, but they don’t feel so hard. I no longer feel like I’m trying to dig a ditch with a spoon.

I remember the day I decided to get a divorce. I was writing a pro and con list, trying to solve for the right answer as if my life were a math problem. And I saw it in a flash. To me, my life was a set of correct answers, colored in green, and mistakes, shaded red. But what if getting a divorce was just an action, something that couldn’t be classified so simplistically? What if red and green would always mingle to color everything I did? What if life didn’t have a right answer?

That was the moment that freed me from a paralysis and obsession I’d been living under for many years. I understood something about courage, what it means to step forward without knowing what the outcome will be. Suddenly, there was space in my life for my heart, my desires, my feelings.

13 comments:

  1. This is one of the best blog posts in the history of best blog posts.

    A few specific comments:

    1. I think the thing about life situations, especially those as complex as marriage-type partnerships, is that no amount of "learning from mistakes" or other wisdom or preparation can entirely prepare someone for the countless complicated, individual challenges that could conceivably arise for the specific people in their particular life. (One key factor, I think, is the difference between working from a very specific set of trade-offs and working from an ideal menu.) So to expect someone to "learn from mistakes" to the point of avoiding all bad outcomes in future just isn't fair, even to the limited extent that the outcomes are within one person's control.

    2. The cliché that "hindsight is 20/20" is very applicable to things as complicated as committed relationships. What turns out to have been a "mistake" in hindsight might very well have been "making an excellent decision with the knowledge at hand" at the time it was made. The hindsight might teach someone not to make that exact same decision with that exact same person in future, and maybe to be wary of similar situations with similar people, and maybe there's a bit of general wisdom to be gained; but (to trot out another cliché) there's a degree to which one won't be stepping in the same river twice, and lessons learned can only go so far.

    3. I think you're so wise to reflect that it is not necessarily worth it, or even possible, for every conceivable couple to work things out, no matter how hard they try. I can testify to how much work even the most ideal partnership between the most compatible and most mutually loving and understanding people can be at times. Under those circumstances, it's not only totally worth it (an understatement), but the work, I find, can strengthen the relationship in ways that go above and beyond the specific problem-solving it accomplishes. But, holy cow, I can see how it would be a different story entirely for two people who were just not enough on the same wavelength in some major way to begin with, or whose trust or affection or mutual comprehensibility or investment in the relationship wasn't strong enough or deep enough. I've had a little taste of that kind of thing in contexts like workplace and creative partnerships, enough to be familiar with that feeling of going around in circles with someone where, no matter how much effort you both make to understand each other's needs and wants and listen to each other and be patient with each other and talk through problems, you just repeatedly end up at odds or pulling in different directions or frustrating each other or hurting each other's feelings.

    Anyway, it seems that you've done something that's very difficult but extremely important: learning the most important, personal lessons that could be taken forward to keep you intrinsically happier, and make you freer to make the choices that will work for you through all the variety of situations that life might bring.

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    1. Jeremy, I'm really touched. Thank you so much for this reply. I really admire the partnership you have, and I'm so happy you've been able to put in that necessary work. I'm also really appreciative of the empathy you're able to have for other situations.

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  2. This is a great post, Annabeth. (I too have tried to avoid discussing the "mistakes" in my first marriage by saying "We were just incompatible." However, I still think the man was a dishonest, gold-digging alcoholic who was probably delusional, and if I had my youth to live over again, I would avoid the mistake of starting a relationship with him.) :)

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    1. Thanks, Jean! Maybe it's my dark sense of humor, but your comment made me laugh out loud. :)

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  3. "I believed at the time that any two people could work things out between themselves. Maybe they wouldn’t stay madly in love, but with a strong commitment, they could remain effective partners."

    I will say that staying in love is a big part of a long relationship. Once two people get to hate each other, the path is seldom reversed. When the blips in my marriage became too uncomfortable, we'd split before the point of hatred or waiting for irreconcilable differences to grow uncontrolled. We never got to hating each other. Once apart for any length of time, however, we'd realize how good we had it with each other. Of course, we didn't realize these specifics at the time, we were just feeling around through blind emotion, which everyone is prone to doing. Luck break that we stumbled into something that worked for us..

    My parents, on the other hand, never did split. For one thing, my Mother could never make it on her own; her constitution was too fragile for the real world. She would have been institutionalized without a support base. The only reason they didn't split was my Father's love and sense responsibility for her. No matter what horror she ever accomplished, he always stayed. There were times they were getting along, although for only months at a stretch. They were the examples I saw would work: Talk to each other. Touch one another. Make love with one another. Allow your partner space to be a person without you.

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    1. This is beautiful, Daddy X. I really like your advice at the end. And your point at the beginning, about staying in love, seems super important to me. I was taught at one point that that part didn't really matter. Since then, though, it seems to me that the question of love is the main thing that matters. With that alchemy present, hard work feels worth it. Without it… not.

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  4. Social expectations (or our perceptions of them) are responsible for so much unhappiness. I'm glad you had that moment of clarity in which you found the courage to step out on your own.

    I've been fortunate in my marriage (perhaps because I never expected to marry), but as a child of divorce I know how toxic it can be when a couple struggles to maintain a relationship that no longer works.

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    1. Very much agreed! I feel like my Grip posts could be compiled under: Negative Effects of Social Expectations

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  5. In marriages it's not necessarily a matter of mistakes, but, as Lisabet says, sometimes a relationship just doesn't work any longer. People change, or discover things about themselves they never had occasion to discover before. The sooner a marriage that isn't working ends, the better it is for both parties, because they'll still have a chance of finding a relationship that does work.

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    1. Yeah. You don't want to tear down a house that just needs some repairs; but there's no point re-painting an edifice whose foundations are crumbling. (Yes, I do hackneyed metaphors as well as simple clichés.)

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    2. Sacchi, I think it's really important to remember that there are other, better chances potentially out there. I know there could be a grass is greener syndrome, but my nature is the opposite.

      Jeremy, a funny thing in my life is that I often can't tell the difference between your two metaphorical situations. Funny, that. It's so obvious when it's houses. :)

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  6. Re compatibility in relationships, I tend to think this doesn't simply rest on emotions, which can change like the weather. When I was single, I made myself a checklist of deal-breakers versus characteristics I could accept in a Significant Other (if and when I had one). For instance: Could I accept a diet of kosher food for the rest of my life, if this was a requirement of the relationship? (Yes. A kosher diet would offer enough variety. Same with a vegetarian diet.) Could I swear off alcohol for the rest of my life? (This would be harder, but yes. I could be the non-drinking partner of a non-drinker.) Could I accept a right-wing political viewpoint? (No. I would have to leave, or the other person would have to change.) My final question for myself was how do I imagine my ideal man? My answer: "He" would have breasts. Aha! I thought. I've been fishing in the wrong pool. :)

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    1. Yeah, again one of the hard things to discern for me is the difference between deal-breakers and things I don't like. And I love your final answer! :)

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