57: My Favorite Ex-Wife

We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart.”

― Pema Chodron

Let’s have a brief conversation about my ex-wife, K.

My ex-wife is a wonderful person, an amazing cook, and an excellent mother. Contained in her beautiful spirit she carries a loving heart, a sharp mind, a great sense of humor, and a stylish and artistic sensibility. She is a generous lover.

She is sharp as a whip, is talented with knives – both kitchen and verbal, and takes a no prisoner approach to arguments. Being right often trumped being happy. As a result, she was often unconsciously and unskillfully hurtful and too often made me responsible for her feelings.

Just like me. Just like C.

There are definitely things K did in our marriage that hurt me deeply and left me feeling betrayed and emotionally abused almost from the beginning. None of which justify my betrayal of my commitments to her or our life.

Often the things she was doing hit old hidden traumas that only recently have I recognized as existing. I don’t believe she ever did it to be cruel. If I don’t recognize what is happening with me how can anyone else?

K simply bounced pain back to places where my injuries and wounds were left unhealed. None of her actions makes her a bad person or a narcissist or dangerous. We were just unconsciously passing the hot potato of pain back and forth.

I know I hit her in emotionally soft places too.

K and I have discussed these aspects of our relationship ad nauseum and I will keep those in the vault. I will simply say our views on the same events will differ in their meaning and always will. Honesty is selective. The truth is found between what she feels and thinks and what I feel and think.

Honesty is rarely about what actually happened. Honesty isn’t always truth-filled.

What is true however, based on what I know now, is how I left my marriage injured K far more than the fact I left. Which was never the intention but definitely the outcome.

I really thought K would be happier and better off if I was gone. I thought I would be too.

The end of our marriage was also about my desire to live the life I actually wanted.

As such, my departure was full of ghosting and silence which created a great deal of emotional chaos for her and shame for me.

There was no empowering partings for her, just an empty bedroom, a note on the nightstand, and silence.

Her solution was to pursue answers from a man invested in emotional avoidance and lacking the skills and willingness to transform the conflict. As a result I often told K what she wanted to hear and not what I needed to say. Her life set the stage for her to shift her pain onto me, and being me, needing purpose and meaning, I picked her pain up and tried to fix it.

I could fall on the tired refrain I see elsewhere and shift the responsibility for my silence onto her. I could switch to the cliche narrative about how her anger or overreactions or rage or controlling makes her unsafe.

That is bullshit of course. Just stories to justify my actions. It is blame-shifting.

Ghosting and silence is about trying to cancel out my pain and discomfort but inevitably requires canceling out other people. People that did nothing more than have feelings, thoughts, ideas, expectations, concepts different than mine and failing my expectations.

Regardless of how K reacts to stress, pain, and fear I lacked the skills to maintain boundaries and maintain my integrity. It was simply easier to blame her than take emotional responsibility for my decisions.

The reality is, I left the way I did because it was easier. I left the way I left because I lacked the skills to take responsibility for my own life, needs, wants, anxieties and fears in a way that didn’t make K responsible.

I left, the same way I loved, and that was unconsciously, and without skill or boundaries. I left the marriage the same way I came into the marriage: horny, anxiously, clumsily, and selfishly. I left the marriage because I was painfully aware of my lack of integrity and because trying to love K the way I guessed K wanted and needed to be loved was killing me one deep and bloody cut at a time.

After failed attempts at counseling, lacking language to frame meaningful emotional conversations, and with no awareness of the work of people like Gottman, Perel or Chodron, I had no hope and found myself demoralized. Leaving or dying were the only choices as I saw them in the moment.

As a result, I abandoned K and I left because to talk to her, and listen to her would have resulted in my staying not for love, but for duty, loyalty, and shame.

I left the way I left because it seemed safer than vulnerability.

I left because I had to leave…but I didn’t have to leave cruelly. Except, I left the only way I knew how and it was cruel.

That is the root of more shame than I can articulate. It is also why I felt driven to try to fix it, why I felt trapped by K’s pain, and why I felt obligated to fix it. I could have been her friend and listened. Instead, I turned to sex to try and make her feel better. Sex is one of the intimate and vulnerable skills I have confidence around. I’m skillful at making my Lover feel good…which isn’t the same as making a Love feel heard, accepted, and understood.

Through this experience I have learned, sex is a quick charge but it isn’t stable or secure. As a friend lovingly said to me recently, “That tingling you feel isn’t passion or love, it’s your crazy meter. It means you are about to do something – or someone – crazy.”

It is also why so much of my acting out with K became crueler over time. I resented her for the exact behaviors I was using to try and fix the situation. I was giving her something that I knew belonged to someone else at the time and stealing time and energy from where I wanted to be.

Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. Hot. Cruel. Cruel. Cruel. Silence. Shame.

Repeat for three years.

Of course, it is self-serving for others to look back at that moment in my life and toss self-servingly shaming and judgemental labels like coward, weak, or sinful at a situation they have no experience with.

In reality my behavior was none of those things. Shallow people need simplistic stories full of cliche caricatures playing the roles of villain, hero, and victim. Nuance is the painful curse of the curiously self-aware.

Believe it or not, I didn’t know I lacked skills at the time. My fear of pain was so great that I didn’t make the time to reflect on what was happening. I was just a frightened rabbit jumping away from the shadows my mind imagined.

I realize now I led with the skills I had.

It’s the Peter Principle of Relationships: “I can get the girl but I cannot talk to the girl.” Life trained me to get the relationship but there was no training for being in the relationship, let alone ending the relationship. Ending and changing relationships is a skill we learn from experience with others. We do what we are taught.

SIDEBAR: I wonder if we should formally teach Emotional Ed next to Sex Ed. I certainly could have used a stable model to measure my feelings and choices against as I matured: Emotions 101: Emotions are Data, Not Directives, Emotions 201: The Trigonometry of Relationships and Emotions 301: The Neuroscience of Conflict.

Though there are a limited number of exceptions, most explanations for ghosting and the use of silence is bullshit. In reality, it is almost never about the other person. It’s about avoiding being responsible for our choices and feelings. It’s simply easier to imagine narcissism, abuse, or some other self-serving bugaboo for our choices than to acknowledge our own discomfort.

I call bullshit.

My ghosting and silence are about me and not K.

When K hurt, like me she ate it until she couldn’t eat the pain anymore and vomited it up onto both C and I. That’s what hurt people do. We hurt others. K pain shifted onto C as I pain shifted on to K as C pain shifted onto me.

That is what makes it a pattern. It’s what makes it a triangle. It’s why patterns perpetuate. People struggle to separate the pain from the stories we imagine about pain.

Although our marriage had problems K wasn’t the problem. She carried burdens into our marriage I was ill-equipped to help her carry. Burdens her trauma made her ill-equipped to confront.

And despite her stories to C being selectively accurate it was fully accurate as K sees it. It certainly isn’t K’s fault C ended the relationship. As C apparently told K, “I was looking for a reason to end it anyway.”

I don’t know if that is the truth because two weeks later C wrote to me and told me she had planned to spend the rest of her life with me and I blew it – also send more money. Which, of course, I did.

Which naturally, because of C’s silence and response left me even more confused.

At the end of the day we are all responsible for our choices and what other people know about us.

It is why I roll my eyes when I hear people claim, “I left because he/she cheated.” In response, I think, “You left because that’s what you wanted. Stop shifting responsibility onto others for your choices and you will both be free.”

As I asked someone recently, “How is blaming him for your choices any different them him blaming you for his?” Unfortunately, responses to this question have become predictably, and boringly, self-justifying.

…and I know a thing or two about the mental gymnastics of self-justifying.

I still talk to K and occasionally spend time with her. There are reasons I won’t get into here, but the bottom line is I don’t blame her for the end of my relationship with C or my consequences, and see no reason to cancel her out. I know what it feels like to be met with silence and I’m not going to ghost on someone because I am unwilling to confront my own anxieties. Break boundaries or try to leverage shame and I’m done, but it won’t be because of my anxieties.

I’m clear I make lots of mistakes. I’m won’t judge K’s.

This will work as long as I honor my boundaries and don’t take on her pain. She isn’t a bad person and wasn’t a bad wife or partner. The relationship just wasn’t what I needed or wanted then.

In reality, she did a few shady things around C and I, showing up at the art fair, and sharing selective truths with C to maximize the damage. All while holding me responsible for her healing as she unconsciously worked to subtly disrupt my life to avoid tending her own wounds.

K won’t see it this way of course, and that is okay, I don’t need her to see it my way and I no longer feel shame for not seeing it hers. My responses are not K’s responsibility, no more than her responses are mine. I can care about her for who she is without caring for her.

Which frankly, is probably one of the few truly loving things I can still offer my favorite ex-wife and someone I still love.