Taking Responsibility

“Accept responsibility, and power will be given to you. Taller trees grow from lower ground” – Tao Te Ching

A few days ago, a friend and I got into a discussion about divorce and blame.  We discussed the common tactic of assigning fault to explain a divorce:  “she was a bitch” and “he was an asshole”.  That makes it so easy, doesn’t it?  And in the complicated world of divorce, we relish the easy explanation- especially if it absolves us of guilt.

It was Gandhi who suggested “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”, and I believe that’s true.  In an effort to “be the change”, I’ve decided to publicly take responsibility for my role in the meltdown of my marriage.  For those of you who are new to this site, it was my ex-husband who initially suggested that we separate.  I later found out that he’d been seeing someone else.  I could easily pin the whole thing on him, but it wasn’t all his fault.  Here are some of my contributions:

  • I got married when I knew I shouldn’t have.
  • I (knowingly) didn’t fulfill my husband’s domestic, emotional or sexual needs.
  • I participated in horrible fights which marred the respect we had for each other.
  • When possible, I avoided him instead of embracing him.
  • I was neither appreciative nor accepting of his affection.
  • When he told me he wanted to work it out, I told him I didn’t.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  That being said (originally by Shakespeare), the above list is not a regretful one.  It is plainly stated facts… facts which can (and will, I’m sure) be judged based on the emotional filters of whoever reads this post.  Of course I had reasons for making the choices I did.  And of course, I regret the emotional turmoil endured by everyone involved.  Yet, it is what it is and none of it can be altered now.

I claim to be neither a hero, a victim nor a villain.  I’m just claiming ownership of what is mine.

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  1. This is one of the many reasons I love your blog and respect you. You are authentic and your writing causes us to think. There is no “one sided” divorce. As the band Casting Crowns sings…. “it’s a slow fade.”

    I love your last line “I claim to be neither a hero, a victim nor a villain. I’m just claiming ownership of what is mine.”

    Claiming our part in the deterioration of the marriage, I believe, allows us to work better with our ex.

    Well said.

    • Thanks Heather. I think when we stop blaming, we allow the ex to put down his/her defenses and that’s when real communication can take place. Furthermore, taking responsibility for what went wrong in one relationship can work wonders for all future partnerships. We can’t learn from our mistakes unless we first admit they exist.

  2. I have issues with this – I feel like I never got a full dissection of what hurt him or and sent him to his decision. Was it because I didn’t refill the Britta pitcher? Really? Because I paid more attention to the infant and toddler I had (did I have a choice in this matter? They have still yet to become self sufficient. Lazy 6 and 4 year olds!!)? So while I was willing to change, I simply didn’t know what was upsetting to him? Which, in a way, is becoming an acceptable answer for his leaving, but it leaves me a little lost at how to improve my next relationship.

    • I never received an explicit explanation from my ex either. The bottom line is that “I didn’t meet his needs” and that can be a tough pill to swallow because some would equate such an admission with “failure”. But I don’t see it that way- I see it as a simple fact. And I can own that; it’s the truth. Now, as far as *why* I didn’t meet his needs… I think he and I can share that one. There were some things I knew he wanted that I simply refused- that’s on me. And I’m certain there are other solutions that could have been tested if he’d had an honest conversation with me about how he felt- that’s his responsibility.

      Presently, I have a good relationship with my ex. I believe that he has forgiven me for not being everything he thought he’d find in a wife. And I have forgiven him for attempting to soothe his hurt through the affections of another woman.

    • I never got an explanation of what led to my ex’s decision, either. Every day of my life, I hold myself to a very high standard of behavior. I just won’t do something that I believe to be wrong. For example, I cannot rush a traffic light, fudge numbers on my income tax return, or even be late for an appointment. Believe me, if I had any inkling that my ex was unhappy with our life together or with anything that I was doing, there is no way I would have continued a problem behavior. But he never gave a hint of unhappiness with me. How do I work with that? Even now, almost two years since the split, he is still so ashamed(?)…guilty(?)…something(who can say?)…that he cannot meet my eye. He was extremely generous in the financial settlement. Yet he refused to answer my questions about “Why?” or consider working on the marriage. Later on, I discovered he was already “in love” with another woman. I’ve been in counseling and gone over everything that happened, but I still don’t know what went wrong. I would have thought he owed me maybe 24 words about why he threw the marriage away…one word for every year we were together…but no. I do blame him for leaving me and the kids. He hardly sees them now. He spends less and less time with them as time goes by. And yet, they are good kids and miss their father. The only conclusion I can come to is that his decision had nothing to do with the kids and me. He just decided he wanted to start over again and live a single, childfree lifestyle instead of being a middle-aged married guy with children, in the hope of recapturing his lost youth. I do blame him for this, very much, and consider him a weak and selfish person. Sometimes a marriage does end unilaterally, especially when a midlife crisis hits a person hard, and they want to hit the restart button. “One sided” pretty much covers it.

      • You don’t rush traffic lights either? Boyfriend would like me to think I’m the ONLY one!

        You’re probably right about your ex’s decision having nothing to do with you. People are naturally selfish creatures: we do what we want because we want to do it and on the flip side, we are quick to believe that other people’s actions have something to do with us. I was reading the comments on a Huffington Post article yesterday and someone suggested “your husband didn’t betray your heart. he found his own.” I love that wording (slightly different situation though, the original poster’s ex was gay).

        Why assume you exhibited “problem behavior” that should have been changed? “Problem” is largely a matter of perception. I’ve been accused of reading too many books and not playing enough video games… but I don’t think that’s a problem and I’ve no intention to trade my paperbacks for a Playstation. For whatever reasons, your ex chose to end the marriage. It doesn’t mean you were “bad”, he simply made a different choice. If you had known what he wanted and made massive adjustments, you might have lost yourself in the process. In that case, would it have been worth it to keep him?

        In my marriage, I tried (quite unsuccessfully) to be more of the “wife” my husband wanted, but I ended up hating my life and feeling dead inside. Every waking moment, something within me was screaming to at me stop living the life of a fictitious character. I spent a lot of time sleeping. I can now say “I didn’t meet his needs” without guilt/shame. I take responsibility for that because it’s a fact. But I don’t believe there was anything that I could/should have done to make the partnership work. We both needed something else.

        • The difference with us is that we were extremely happy together for a very long time. Our personalities complemented each other wonderfully, and we were quite content as a couple. The stresses of life, child-rearing, and aging did take their toll on us over time, but we were still the same two people. I’d like to know what happened to the “two of us against the world” powerhouse that we were. That’s one of the most tormenting aspects of his decision. Something stopped working for him at the end, and he decided to keep quiet about it and look elsewhere. I wish he had talked to me instead. Maybe he couldn’t speak to me about it because the problem was that I was getting older. He did hint at this in something he said about me to the children. If that really was his issue, then there’s nothing I could have done. It’s easier for men to start over, I think. Men stay fertile much longer than women, so they can start a new family if they want to, and many have an attitude of “you’re as young as the woman you feel.” I can’t help but feel that the institution of marriage is wildly overrated if one member can unilaterally decide “I divorce thee” and call the whole thing off for any reason at all. When there are children involved, the aftermath of a cancelled marriage is excruciatingly painful. Without children, the pain would have been mine alone and much easier to bear.

        • This has been vaguely playing in the back of my head – you say you take responsibility about not meeting his needs and then also say you shouldn’t have had to change to meet his needs, because it altered you too much. Those statements are not quite congruous to me. If I am ‘taking responsibility’ for something, I am admitting I was wrong and there were things I SHOULD have done differently (not just COULD have). This distinction changes the tone of your post from “I did these things wrong that helped cause my marriage to fail” to “These things I did helped cause my marriage to fail.”. In the second, you don’t say you did anything WRONG. And that is entirely different. I certainly “take responsibility” in that sense, because I know I LIVE a different way than he does, and I can see how he does not want a life like mine. I can also see how living life more the way he wanted caused me to feel depressed (not enough social/life activities).

          • Right and Wrong are labels that can be applied differently depending on one’s perception of a situation. I think it’s possible to take responsibility for something (success or failure) without labeling the action.

            Take the example of a Big Box Mart opening in a small town. The townspeople will make judgments: “it’s good because we have lower prices” or “it’s bad because the mom-and-pop stores will go out of business”. The various opinions don’t change the fact that the store opened and the major corporation was responsible for that action.

            Could and Should are also up for debate depending on an individual’s preferred outcome. I could embrace regret and say “I should have tried harder” or I could say “I should not have gotten married”. Either way, I can’t change the past. I choose to be happy with the outcome of my divorce and I don’t feel the need to label my contributions- people would disagree anyway. The past simply is. All anyone can do is accept it, learn from it and move on. Taking responsibility is part of that process.

        • I guess I’m just not seeing where what you’re saying ties in with personal growth. I feel like there’s a follow through that’s missing (that maybe you’ll post about more?) where you looked at what you did and didn’t do and why you did and didn’t do it and how that applies forward to new relationships. Do you think you just chanced into meeting someone better suited or are you actively deciding to do certain things that make you a better partner? This is why I get frustrated that I didn’t get a “you did A, B, and C”, because I don’t feel like I can fully evaluate what happened, and how to A) choose a better mate next time and B) meet said mate’s needs better and C) get my needs met better. Which is all theoretical, admittedly. I feel kind of pushy posting this, but then, it’s a blog! 🙂

          It’s akin to failing a test. You can say, yup, I didn’t study enough. And then the point is that for the next test you study more. To accept that the past happened is one thing, to learn and change your behavior for a more positive outcome is another. I, for one, would like to hear more about that 🙂

          • You’re right: I haven’t addressed the next step of evaluating all those facets of the first relationship in order to make better decisions next time. Thats a critical step in building a better relationship next time. I’m sure I will eventually write a post discussing that aspect… And dealing with the “unknowns” as well.

  3. I love the authenticity in your post, and your words just ring so true. Nobody is blameless, no matter what. It’s not black and white, there are gray areas, and it takes two to make a marriage work and to break it apart.

  4. I think about this exercise a lot. I’ve read (everywhere it seems) that second marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages, third marriages higher than second, and so on. But I think that if both previously married partners have “done the work” (which includes your exercise here), then the prospects for the second marriage should be better than for the two first marriages it follows. I have also read, I think in “Stepmonster,” that remarriages with kids that survive the first five (?) years have the highest success rate, which may correlate with my theory.

    I can say this: I spent a lot of time (and money on someone with a lot of degrees) working on this for about ten years after my divorce before I met my fiancé. He did the same. The fundamental qualities of this relationship, now five years old and living together with kid(s) for two, is orders of magnitude different from my first marriage. My fiancé says the same. Maybe most of that is because at 40/44 we are much more mature than when we were 24/23, but some of it has to be the work, right?

    On the other hand, his former wife has rejected one proposal, accepted another and then ended the relationship before the marriage and sent all three members of her immediate family (fiancé, SD & SS) into therapy to “learn to communicate with her” since they divorced. I assume that is the detritus of someone who has not done the work? (No idea about my former husband; we had no kids, and we are not in touch.)

    • I think it was Stepmonster that reported that stat about stepfamilies.

      I agree with your hypothesis that people who examine themselves and their previous relationships are more likely to have better partnerships down the line. It goes back to learning from the past… if you can’t do that, you’re destined to repeat it, right?

  5. PS: your list reminds me of the responsive reading on Yom Kippur day in which the congregation collectively says aloud all the bad things we did in the past year (I ignored someone’s needs, I spread gossip, I did not do my best, etc). There is something very liberating about doing that every year; it feels as if you have a new slate on which to write in the coming year. Must be the same mechanism as work here.

  6. Well said Tara! I’ve rarely met anyone, when inquired about why they divorced, who said that they had a part to play. As you noted, we love to lay blame and it’s easy to do when the person you are laying the blame on isn’t there to defend themselves. Anyone can be made to look like a villain with little effort.

    Marriage is a two way street, to think for a moment that only one person deserves the blame for the relationship’s failure is indicative of unaddressed guilt.

  7. Hallelujah, Sister!! So many people work SO HARD to defend themselves, as if we all have to be perfect. It just isn’t possible; and trying to maintain a face of perfection just leads us to lie to ourselves and to each other. I’m so happy for you…

    • I think “divorce” is still such a dirty word that it adds to the pressure to portray that perfection. But that’s just not realistic. And I’ve always felt that lying creates so much extra work- because you have to keep lying to keep the lie alive. And I’m just too lazy for that. I’d rather admit where I went wrong and move on.

  8. One of the best pieces of advice was that each partner needs to take their own 100% responsibility in the ending of their marriage. I have accepted mine. I am a caretaker, a people pleaser and put too much energy into him and not enough into myself. I was overtired, overly responsible, and not meeting his needs. I chose to ignore several red flags right from the beginning, I chose to believe I was special and different. He needed someone that made him #1 all the time and with 2 kids I couldn’t do that anymore.

    Like you mentioned in one of your comments, there are things he listed as being “wrong” with me that I feel are just fine. I am organized, responsible with money, like doing things with other families and don’t plan on changing them

    Funny thing is… none of the 100% responsibility I have accepted and am dealing with is much like the 100% responsibility he assigned to me (and so far has not indicated he feels responsible at all). He blindsided me, and left me for someone else because I was horrible, treated him like crap, didn’t do what he wanted, didn’t let him buy what he wanted etc etc etc. There was whole lists of what was wrong with me and why it was all my fault.

    It would be easy to stay stuck feeling like a victim but taking responsibility and moving on s so much more empowering.

    • Finger-pointing and blaming the other person is often a tactic to avoid one’s own shame. It takes a lot of courage to consider the situation from a place of vulnerability and ask those hard questions: did/could I meet his needs? was/am i true to myself? Those answers are what provide the solid foundation from which to build the rest of your life. “Empowering” is right 🙂

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