I love the quote about life being a cruel teacher, administering the test before the lesson (which I believe is from Oscar Wilde originally and is now being attributed to Drake??).
And it’s true, isn’t it? We’re presented with challenges that we don’t yet have the tools to overcome. We face situations with which we are unfamiliar and unpracticed. Somehow, we muddle through and make it through, only to look back later and finally reach a level of understanding.
My now-husband once made a statement about I handled my divorce gracefully. I laughed at the absurdity of that statement, remembering my early (and rather ugly) emails to my ex and my hours spent trying to learn everything I could about his other wife and his other life. I made poor decisions. I was reactive instead of proactive, since I was making it up as I went along.
My now-husband then clarified, “No, I mean after the early emotional stuff. You didn’t try to punish him and you used the experience to make yourself and others better.”
And that’s how life’s lessons are:
And only understood after you’ve survived the test.
Supposedly, we learned all that we needed to know in kindergarten. Apparently, I should have been held back. Here are 7 lessons I didn’t master until later:
“Tell her you’re sorry,” the teacher admonished my classmate when I became upset, assuming that the boy next to me was somehow responsible for my state. Because that was the rule in my kindergarten class – if somebody was upset, you apologized. No ifs, ands or but it wasn’t my faults allowed.
As a kid who wanted to play by the rules, I internalized that message and allowed it to grow into a belief that I was somehow responsible for the okayness of those around me. I didn’t learn then to distinguish between the, “I’m sorry” that assumes culpability and the, “I’m sorry” that expresses empathy.
And I grew into an adult that apologizes too much. That begins a conversation with, “I’m sorry to ask this, but…” and has even been known to apologize to desks in my classroom when I bump into them.
There are certainly times to apologize for your actions or words (and make sure that the apology is just the starting point) and there are also times when an apology isn’t needed. You are responsible for being honest and kind, not for never causing somebody distress or discomfort. Say you’re sorry for your part, not their reaction.
When I was in kindergarten, one of the objectives was for all of the students to learn the names of recognize the basic colors. Each week, we had a different color and we were challenged to come up with as many examples of that color as we could. One week, our color was orange. The boy next to me that Monday was wearing a salmony-colored polo shirt.
He raised his hand. “My shirt is orange,” he declared proudly to the class.
“No it’s not,” little-miss-has-to-be-right me responded, “It’s pink.”
A spirited argument broke out as our teacher tried to convince us that we were both right. That made no sense to me. After all, we were looking at the same shirt. How could we see it differently?
Of course, we all perceive situations differently depending upon our prior experiences, our expectations and even our mood at the moment. All you have to do is read the Amazon reviews of a book to see this diversity of opinion in action!
Little-miss-has-to-be-right eventually learned that it was nicer and more interesting to be open rather than always trying to be accurate.
But that shirt was pink:)
We still had nap time in my kindergarten class. I guess I should say, they still had nap time because I never slept. Which made me feel different. And ashamed for being different. Some days, I would pretend to sleep just so that I could play at being just like the rest. Other days, I would look around at them and wonder what was wrong with me that I couldn’t nap like them.
Some teachers were understanding and let me read quietly while the others slumbered. And some teachers grew frustrated with me, thinking that my lack of rest was somehow a personal attack.
So of course, I apologized.
What I didn’t know in kindergarten was that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to have different needs and desires that people around you. It’s okay to show your true colors instead of trying to blend in with your surroundings. And yes, sometimes standing out will get you noticed.
But that external criticism is infinitely more preferable than the feeling of not being true to yourself.
Kindergarten was a year for rules.
Stand in a straight line. Sit this way. Raise your hand first. Write this word. Color inside the lines. Say this. Don’t say that. Don’t jump off the swings.
And I was a rule follower. I trusted those that made the rules and I trusted the rules themselves. It was like we had an agreement, the rules and I – Follow me and you won’t get hurt. Follow me and people will like you. Follow me and you don’t have to take risks.
That approach worked for me in kindergarten. I played by the rules and the rules played nice.
It was only later that I learned that sometimes those making the rules don’t have your best interest in mind. That sometimes you can follow the directives and still get burned. That sometimes rules are used to confine and limit rather than protect. And that sometimes the best things can only happen when you’re willing to challenge the system.
We had one boy in our kindergarten class who was different. Now, I would either recognize him as a kid from a neglectful home or as one with some type of developmental delay (or both). But in kindergarten, he was just plain weird. And a bit smelly.
I assumed an attitude of polite indifference to him at first. I never sought him out, but I also never singled him out.
But then I became friends with a popular girl in class. One who wasn’t as nice to the odd boy. And I was loyal to her, defending her actions. When I really should have been loyal to my beliefs, even if that meant breaking my bond with her.
Faithfulness is an excellent quality.
Blind faithfulness is not.
Pledge allegiance to your own values before you vow to follow any others.
“Now, Lisa. You know you have to share with her,” I was told over in the playing house corner of our classroom after the teacher was alerted by my playmate’s cry.
I handed over the dress and watched silently as the other girl proceeded to dominate the play group, commandeering all of the items and directing all of the play. We had all been taught to share. And she had learned to take advantage.
In kindergarten, there was very little discussion of boundaries. What was mine, was ours. Everything was to be given and released upon request.
And sharing everything is a lovely idea. As long as everyone shares everything. And as long as everyone is looking out for others more than themselves.
Yet life has its takers. And we have to have boundaries. Lines in the play box sand that say I will give this and no more.
Because it is possible to share too much, to give until you are no more.
I was so excited to go to kindergarten. I thought that this was a sign that I was ready to begin learning. I saw it as benchmark of growing up that I was going to be taught. I watched my neighbors and babysitters struggle through homework and grapple with loads of books. And that’s what I wanted – those outward signs of learning.
Yet I had already had 59 months of lessons before I ever stepped foot into my kindergarten class. 59 months of observing and imitating and experimenting, most of which I was never told to do.
Yet I did.
The most important lessons are not the ones you are told to learn.
They are the ones you have to learn in order to solve a problem.
They are the ones you decide to learn in order to reach a goal.
And they are the ones that you are inspired to learn through wonder and curiosity and joy.
“This is it, though.” I said to my then-boyfriend when he brought up the idea of marriage. “I want to be married again but this is it. I’m not going through another divorce.”
And with that vow, I decided to do some things differently in my second marriage. Because even though there is no such thing as divorce-proof, I can still make sure that I do everything I can to inoculate my second marriage from dissolution.
I based my choice of my first husband largely upon how he treated me. I chose my second husband more because of how he treated people other than me. It’s easy to treat somebody well when you’re in the sunshine-and-roses stage of a new relationship. That’s more a sign of hormones than character. But how somebody treats people in general? That’s telling.
I also looked for concrete signs in my second husband that he wasn’t afraid of imperfection and that he had a proclivity to repair rather than replace. My ex was concerned about appearances. How he was perceived. Weakness and flaws were to be feared and concealed. In contrast, my second husband sees cracks as an opportunity for creative problem-solving and reworking. I’m still learning from him on that one.
Awareness That Sustainability is Not Inevitable
I assumed that my first husband would always be there because he always had been there. I expected that marriage to last because I wanted it to. I thought that since we had been okay, that we would continue to be okay.
It was a naive view of marriage – seeing it like a Rube Goldberg design with it’s upfront work followed by effortless activity. I see more like a garden now. Yes, much of the work is concentrated in the beginning. But it takes constant monitoring and consistent attention to ensure its continuation. If it’s neglected for too long, the flowers will fall to weeds.
Never Take Anything For Granted (And Never Fail to Share Appreciation)
My ex husband was good to me. But I wasn’t always good to him. I transferred my work stress onto his shoulders, lessening my load but also burdening him. I would thank him for some kind deed, but then negate it with criticism about some detail. I expected him to help and grew accustomed to his willingness to do so.
Now, I allow myself to be surprised at every gesture of kindness or every offer of help. Not because it’s rare, but because I appreciate it every time. And I more generous with sharing that appreciation and keeping any disappointment in the details to myself. To say, “Thank you,” rather than “Thank you, but…”
Allow My Husband to Feel Like a Man
Perhaps because my first husband didn’t fit neatly into society’s stereotypes about being “a man,” or maybe because I went through my formative dating years without my dad around, I didn’t have an awareness of the importance of certain conditions and their impact on a man’s self-worth.
From my now-husband, I’ve learned about the importance of feeling like a man. Of feeling in control over his domain. Of being recognized for his contributions. Of feeling a need to protect his family. Of feeling a need to appear the strongest when at the most vulnerable. And of the shame and emptiness that can come from not feeling like a man.
Do My Own Thing (And Encourage Him to Do His)
My ex and I used to do most everything together. We enjoyed each other’s company and we enjoyed many of the same experiences. We even shared many of the same friends. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it meant that we grew to depend upon each other for much of our social, intellectual and entertainment needs. And that’s a lot to ask of one person.
Although I may sometimes grumble that I’m a Ju Jitsu widow, I’m glad that my now-husband has passions apart from me. And I make sure to engage in mine as well. Our separate interests keep us interesting to each other. It means that we get some of our needs met elsewhere, placing less demand on the marriage. I miss him sometimes, yet that also means that I’m always happy to see him.
Prioritize Self-Care and Extinguish Martyrdom
I can have an ugly tendency to do it all and expect empathy or recognition for my efforts. In my first marriage, I sacrificed my well-being for the financial health of the family, taking on every additional school and tutoring assignment that I could. Rather than doing it from a place of generosity, I often did it from a place of martyrdom – look how much I’m working for us.
Needless to say, that’s not a healthy approach. I now strive to recognize when I’m slipping into that mindset and when it’s noticed, I either shift to a place of giving or I switch to a period of self-care. I also work to be careful of my decisions. Rather than claiming I’m doing something because of someone else, I recognize that I’m choosing to do (or not so) that thing. The other person may be a factor, but they are not the causal factor.
Manage My State of Arousal and Anxiety
I can get pretty worked up. My emotions and anxieties can build until they feel like soda bubbles beneath my skin. In my first marriage, my ex became the expert at talking me down. All he had to do was wrap me in his arms, skin to skin, and my heart rate would quickly slide back down to normal. I grew dependent upon that power. And he abused that power.
When my anxiety is spiking, I can’t reason well. I can’t engage meaningfully and fairly in a difficult conversation. And I can’t listen fully because the fears are screaming too loudly. I’ve spent the past almost seven years (wow – has it actually been that long?!?) learning to recognize and tame my anxiety. I’m not always successful. But I’m always working to be better. And it’s my responsibility.
Have Patience With Problems and Openness With Solutions
I’m impatient when it comes to…well, just about anything. And problems (or perceived problems) in my marriage are not exempt. When I used to be upset at my ex for something, I would bring it up right away and expect an immediate solution. That led to a lot of bandaids, I figure, hiding the bleeding fatal wounds beneath.
I’m now more patient (sometimes too patient – always learning!) with bringing up issues. And I try to pose them as questions to be answered, not as problems with solutions I’ve already devised (which, let’s face it, usually consists of the other person needing to change). I try to be open to solutions that I haven’t thought of and be accepting of the fact that they may take time to work out. Curiosity and a sense a teamwork go a long way in negotiating life with another.
Be Willing to Confront and Challenge
When my ex was laid off yet again and had trouble locating a new company in his limited field, he elected to go solo. I supported him completely, surrounding him with pep talks and agreeing with all his decisions. But underneath, I had doubts. Both in his business model and in his justifications of money spent on equipment and software. Instead of just nodding along, I should have challenged his decisions. But I was afraid to.
When I have concerns now, I voice them. Not in an effort to shoot my husband down, but with the goal of helping him – and helping us – make better and more informed decisions. I’m not afraid to stand up to him, even if it means my toes get stepped on. A little bruising of the feelings is better than standing back and letting someone veer off course.
Trust But Verify
My avoidance of verification got me into real trouble in my first marriage. I took his word way too easily because it’s what it seemed on the surface and what I wanted it to be deep down. In my second marriage, I trust my husband. But it’s not blind trust.
I am also more aware of the importance of trusting myself. To see what’s there and to be okay even if I don’t like what I find. I’m better at checking in with my intuition and making sure it agrees with what I’m being told.
It’s sad how many of us don’t really learn how to do marriage until we’ve buried one. I guess it’s one of those areas where we have to experience it to really learn it. I’m just determined to not need a repeat of the lessons. Because that’s a class no one ever wants to take again!
I love serendipity. And, at least today, it must love me back. Just as I was feeling completely overwhelmed with updating the blog, I received an email from Liz with a request to send a guest post. Once she told me the topic, I was sold.
There is no shortage of information and discussion about the effect of divorce on children. But adult children? Not so much. It’s as though we think they are grown and launched and the split does not (or should not) impact them (Just think of how many couples wait to divorce until the children are gone).
But it does.
Liz shares her experience with us to help provide understanding of what it is like when your parents divorce once you are grown.
It was the summer of 2013, I was 28 years old and just starting a new career in marketing – and my parents were in the midst of a divorce. Their marriage of thirty years had been slowly dissolving before my eyes for quite some time, but I still couldn’t believe it was actually happening.
Growing up, I had considered myself lucky to live in a two parent home while watching as my friends’ single mothers struggled to balance work, home, and the rigors of parenting. Now I was just another child of divorce – even though I was no longer an actual child.
To make matters even more difficult, I – like many Millennials – was living at home as I couldn’t afford to make ends meet on my own. Helping my mother move out of her home of 20 years and into a small apartment was one of the most heartbreaking moments of my life. However, it was nothing compared to watching her fall prey to crippling grief.
It’s hard to truly explain what it feels like to be caught between two parents on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Dad had been bottling his negative emotions for years, and the divorce had in essence freed him to pursue happiness. Mom had been blind-sided, thinking that they were just experiencing a rough patch. She still loved my father as much as she ever had and the divorce sent her spiraling into depression.
On one hand, I was happy to see my dad smiling again. He was cheerful and full of life – something that had been missing for so long that I had almost forgotten what it looked like. On the other hand, I was trying to keep my mom from losing herself to hopelessness and sorrow.
The swinging emotions were taking their toll on me – and so were the conversations both parents insisted on dragging me into.
Dad told me how he’d grown unhappy ten years into their marriage and had essentially been a prisoner to his sense of honor. He refused to abandon his children and my mother – even if her wild emotions and poor decision making made him crazy.
Mom sobbed on my shoulder, bemoaning the fact that my father had never expressed his feelings and had refused to seek marriage counseling on numerous occasions. In her eyes, he was an emotional tight ass and the whole thing was his fault.
There’s a multitude of resources for parents of small children going through a divorce. I’ve read many of them, and the parallels between the feelings of both young and adult children before, during, and after a divorce are numerous.
Attorney Cheri Hobbs reminds parents, “remember that a child is half of each of you and therefore when you disparage the other parent the child then believes that one-half of them is bad or wrong or negative.”
Listening to my parents complain about each other was like being stuck with a hot poker repeatedly. Much like my mom, I can be overbearing and spend money unwisely. Do my friends feel the same way about me that my father feels about my mother? Do they just not say anything?
I’m a lot like my father in many ways – both good and bad – but I definitely bottle my emotions. Does my mother hate me for this?
To hear them tear each other down was to hear them tear parts of me down. And the worst part of it was that I didn’t do anything to stop it from happening.
I remember taking a stand pretty early, telling both of them to discuss what business they had with each other and leave me out of it. They agreed, but I don’t think it lasted for more than a couple of weeks. They needed me, and I reneged on my own ultimatum.
“There are few needs more compelling than those of our parents. And parents going through divorce are just like other people going through divorce: they are a bundle of need with little or no regard for boundaries or decorum,” says Lee Borden of DivorceInfo.com.
My father is pretty good at not dragging me into the middle of it, but my mother uses me as a go between, even going so far as to CC me in all emails to my dad. It’s absolutely maddening – like being slapped in the face every time I open my inbox.
There are lessons to be learned here – on both sides – but as I’ve only experienced divorce from this side of the aisle, I’ll advise those who are like me:
It’s been two years since my parents divorced and a lot of things have changed. It’s the summer of 2015, I’m 30 years old, and I’ve settled into my career in marketing. My dad still lives in my childhood home and is working on renovating it with his girlfriend. My mom has a nice little condo, two dogs, and an active social life. Things aren’t perfect – there are still hiccups, grumbling, and tears from all parties, but it is getting better. Slowly, but surely, things are getting better.
Liz Greene hails from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. She’s a lover of all things geek and is happiest when cuddling with her dogs and catching up on the latest Marvel movies. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene.