“I just don’t understand how he could do that to his wife and kids…”
“Her words and actions are so cold. I just don’t get it…”
“How can someone have so little regard for others?”
I’ve been seeing questions like this with ever-increasing frequency, their authors pleading for answers. For some sort of sudden and maybe-even-magical insight that brings clarity to the situation.
It’s natural that we want to understand. From the time we were first learning which sounds out of our mother’s mouth meant that we were being attended to, we have placed an inordinate amount of importance on understanding the world around us. And when the words and actions originate from our chosen life-partner, finding understanding becomes a given, an assumption.
Until suddenly it isn’t.
When one day, that person that you thought you knew so well suddenly seems to act out of character and without consideration for others. The shock reverberates through your body as you stumble through your memories, trying to make sense of this new information. You’re disoriented. Confused.
And consumed with an overwhelming need to understand both why and how this is happening.
Searching for the “lightbulb” moment…
As a teacher, I live for the “lightbulb” moments, those times when the math that was a struggle suddenly becomes clear and comprehensible to a student. Those moments are magical, where confusion and frustration are instantly transformed into mastery and appreciation.
When my first husband disappeared, I expected, that with enough effort and practice, I would experience my own “lightbulb” moment, where my shock and bewilderment would be replaced with understanding and I would be able to see and comprehend how he could have made the choices he did.
I believed that reaching this understanding was crucial for me to move on, much like my students have to demonstrate mastery in order to advance to the next level. I expected this understanding to place the event within a larger context, to provide meaning for the pain and motivation for the cause of it.
But no matter how hard I tried, understanding remained elusive. I knew much of the “what,” but little of the “why,” much like a student that simply memories material for the exam without fully comprehending any of it. I finally reached two realizations:
1 – I was attempting to apply rational thought to irrational actions. I simply wouldn’t be able to understand because there wasn’t a logical motivation or explanation for what had occurred. It is simply not possible to make sense of the senseless.
2 – Part of my struggle to understand originated from the fact that I couldn’t fathom, no matter the circumstances, making the same decisions he did. My brain couldn’t go there, even as a purely cognitive exercise. You cannot understand what you cannot even imagine and sometimes an inability to comprehend is a reflection of your character.
There is the person and there is the perspective…
“Who was I married to?” I questioned myself endlessly after his double life was revealed. I felt violated, like I had been assaulted by this stranger masquerading as a loving husband. I wondered if he had always been this way or if he had undergone some dark metamorphosis. I turned the options over and over again in my mind until the edges of him grew soft like a stone polished in a tumbler.
I simply couldn’t reconcile the view I had of him with the person he now appeared to be. And without a doubt, he held much of the responsibility for that disconnect. He deliberately and consistently hid behind the persona he had constructed for himself.
But I also had manufactured an image of him and allowed cognitive bias to filter out information that didn’t match my viewpoint. Part of my drive for understanding arose from the dissonance between my construct of him and the reality that had burst through the projection. Yet what was needed was less comprehension and more assimilation between the person and the outside perspective.
Strangely, it became more about understanding my motivations and choices than about wrapping my brain around his. After all, your own mind is the only one that you can observe from within. You may as well take the time to get to know it.
Assimilating the new information into your story…
It felt like walking into the movie theater as the film reached its climactic scene. I saw the explosions, felt the vibrations of the aftermath, but had no knowledge of what had advanced the story to that point. Even worse, I thought I had signed up for a romance flick only to discover that it was actually a crime drama.
At first, my energy went into trying to piece together the parts of the narrative that I had missed. What caused the conflict? What incited the destruction? The action without the background felt meaningless, a sucker punch out of nowhere.
Part of the need for understanding was driven by a desire to have the story make sense, to have defined antecedents for each behavior and to have clear consequences for every wrongdoing. I wanted the “bad guy” to pay and the “good guy” to come out ahead.
Eventually, I realized that my ex was a particularly crappy script writer, since he elected to leave his character’s motivations unclear. I decided to take the matter into my own hands and, picking up where he left off, create meaning from the wreckage. I may not be able to reach an understanding about his choices, but I could make sure that my decisions were guided by a larger purpose.
I never found understanding, I created understanding. You cannot change what happens to you, but you can always adjust your view of it. You may never be able to assemble all of the pieces of your past, but that doesn’t stop you from building your future.