We stood in front of the security line of the Atlanta airport. I felt so loved, so safe in the familiar space created between his chest and his arms, listening to his heart beat through his shirt. I teared up a little as I turned away, already missing my husband of sixteen years as soon as the physical contact was broken.
It was supposed to be goodbye for a week.
It turned out to be goodbye forever.
By the next time I saw him, eight months later in the courtroom, he had become a stranger. A forbidding stranger.
In an instant, this man had gone from my protector to my persecutor. My ally to my greatest threat. And instead of professing love, he was waging war.
It was as though a switch had been flipped.
I just couldn’t wrap my head around the seemingly abrupt transformation. Had this malicious man been hiding in my marital bed the entire time? Did he somehow wake up one morning a different person? Or was he always this way and I was finally able to see the truth?
The reality is probably a little bit of all of those.
Self-protection is at the root of behavior.
To begin with, it’s important to remember that at its core, all behaviors are self-protecting. To that end, it made sense for him to play the part of a loving husband while he chose to remain in the picture. This act allowed him to avoid my rage, sadness and disappointment over the reality of his actions.
Once he left, the distance and coldness again protected him from feeling my pain. In essence, by acting as though he didn’t care, he could begin to believe it. A barrier of disassociation. In this view, the switch was flipped more in an effort to prevent pain than in an effort to inflict damage.
For my part, believing in his good-husband routine insulated me from the painful truth during our marriage. I didn’t want to see the deception he was capable of, so I chose to believe in the best of him. And then once he left, a switch was flipped in me. I couldn’t understand how someone I loved (and who I thought loved me) could do those things, so I chose to see him as all-bad. This view, and the distance it provided, served to protect me from further damage to an open heart.
Cognitive dissonance is a powerful force.
Cognitive dissonance happens when somebody’s beliefs about themselves and their behaviors are not in alignment. It is a very uncomfortable position, and so we often strive to change either our actions or our beliefs so that they again line up.
One of the ways that my ex minimized his cognitive dissonance between the conflicting belief of seeing himself as a good person and the action of committing bigamy is by justifying his choices. Over time (and without my knowledge), he had demonized me, both in his mind and to others.This belief then allowed him to act in a cruel and hateful manner towards me while still maintaining his internal integrity.
My own cognitive dissonance was amplified towards the end of the marriage as the belief that my husband was an amazing guy was beginning to be challenged by the cracks in his facade. And then upon the receipt of the text that ended it, the wool was brutally ripped away from my eyes.
And for the first time, I saw him as he was, not as he wanted to be seen.
You can’t see the big picture until all of the pieces have been assembled.
I now believe that the man I married was not the same man I divorced many years later. He changed, significantly and detrimentally, most likely from a combination of addiction and unaddressed childhood trauma.
Yet, even though he was not the cold and calculating man when we wed, that potential was within him. I saw some of the signs and yet I chose to discount them, brush them off as inconsequential.
And it was only later, once he removed his mask and I began to assemble all of the clues, that I could see how it all fit together. Even though the change felt abrupt, it was more a matter of the final piece being slid into place.
Hate is not the opposite of love.
And then there’s this – the opposite of love is not hate. It’s indifference. When we truly don’t care about someone, we don’t expend the energy to make them miserable. When an ex is trying to make your life difficult or attempting to manipulate you, it’s a sign they have not yet let go. And it can also be an indication – albeit an agonizing one – of their own pain.
When you’re facing the brunt of your ex’s coldness and distance, it’s hard to respond with anything but shock, hurt and indignation. Maybe this will help.