People don’t change their behaviors when other people yell at them, shame them, or send them away to be alone. People change their behaviors when they feel heard, understood, and loved. Growth requires connection and compassion.Katie Hurley, LCSW
In a series of facepalm moments I recently I found myself lying to my ex-wife out of habit to avoid conflict.
Frankly, I made a choice to do some things that are best for me personally and financially. And frankly, when given the opportunity to tell my ex-wife the truth I lied and deflected to other topics.
That was a mistake for lots of reasons. Besides the obvious reasons, my lying made her discomfort my burden. I made her discomfort mine to carry. I cut off an opportunity to build intimacy and connection.
I’ve been lying and avoiding this specific topic for a few weeks. As a result, on top of issues with my parents, and this thing from New Years Eve, I’m eating myself to death, feel like an idiot, and am shadow boxing a small amount of shame.
When someone else does something that is best for them I applaud. I applaud even if I’m disappointed, angry, or hurt. I say, “You have to do what is best for you even if others don’t understand. This is your path.”
For example, ©’s silent treatment and vindictiveness crushed me but I excused her abuse because she hurt (also because I didn’t believe women could abuse a man). As a result, among other things, I sent © thousands of dollars after we split, paid her bills, and left a community I loved living in to give her “space” because she asked me to do that…all while she kept secrets, retold lies of her own, made up stories about our relationship, and sold the victim narrative.
And yet I simply explained away her actions over and over as being my burden to carry.
In reality, I was making excuses for her behaviors even while I felt I was dying. After all, I told myself and others, “I deserved it.”
With ©, what she wanted or needed was always more valuable than what I needed or wanted. And while yes, I was at times assumptive, she never stopped me, never spoke up, and never took responsibility. She simply stonewalled and sandbagged her feelings and resentments abdicating her responsibility in the relationship, refusing to speak up.
I have in more than one relationship, thought, “If I show them how much I care about their things, take responsibility for their feelings, take every criticism to heart, and acted the hero, they will care about what is important to me too.”
That is never how it worked. Also, among other things it certainly reflected my sense of entitlement. My internal mantra, “I did this for you, how could you do this to me!?”
However, when I do something that is best for me I hide and feel ashamed. I try to avoid their anger, hurt, and disappointment. I want to avoid the conflict and the rejection. I seek approval.
What the actual fuck is that about?
Except I already know.
The reality is what I am, and am not doing, is none of my ex’s business. My sole obligation to her is legal and financial. An obligation I’ve kept despite the one sidedness of the agreement, how the agreement is structured, and my motivations for agreeing to it.
But I find myself in places where I end up trying to control her responses and feelings. I believe, and so does she apparently, I am responsible for how she feels and how she responds, not just for what I do.
However, I am not responsible for how she feels or responds.
For example, if she throws a vase down the hallway smashing it into glass shards as an exclamation on a fight I walk away from, I really believe it is my fault: “if only I were a better husband she wouldn’t be upset.”
It’s the same lie others told me living in a house with alcoholism: “if only you were a better son she wouldn’t drink.”
Continually taking responsibility for my ex-wife, and for C, has been a hard habit for me to break. I’ve been struggling, as I always have, with how to love her without drowning in her emotional waters. Maintaining my boundaries with her is difficult.
I love my ex-wife, I think she is amazing in a lot of ways. It shatters my heart every single time I see her hurting because I will not give her what she wants. It’s an immature love if we think if someone loves us they won’t hurt us. It is a shallow love if we think when they do hurt us they did it “to us.”
Unfortunately, I have porous boundaries between what is and isn’t mine and lie and keep secrets to control the emotions of other people. While some people use sex, money, or power in their pursuit of safety, acceptance, and love, with my ex-wife I use lies and secrets. I value her opinion more than my own. As a result the status quo remains and a pattern repeats.
I hate it.
The reality is when I lie to my ex-wife I am breaking my boundaries, not hers. When I take on the burden of her feelings it is because I ignored my boundaries. When I ignore my values, integrity, needs, and wants it is because I am ignoring what is important to me in order to keep the peace.
When she is angry and hurt, I am angry and hurt. My lack of boundaries means I feel her pain and act out to avoid my discomfort. I meet fire with fire, ice with ice, and contempt with contempt.
I know this, yet I do it with her.
When I choose to keep a secret to avoid a hard conversation it is because I’m afraid to be vulnerable or because I am getting a need met within the pattern.
When I avoid conflict it is specifically because I am not doing what I need to be doing for my own well being. And the way I avoid conflict around my ex-wife is to lie to her, avoid her, or keep secrets.
The Good Doctor asked me recently why I lie to my ex-wife. The simple, ugly, bottom line reason is her anger scares me and I’m avoiding it by using lies to manage her so I feel something similar to safety…or at least safety as I understand it. Historically, safety with her means she won’t throw me out. Meaning, I settle for far less than is constructive to a secure, mature, and functional relationship.
And so does she.
With my ex-wife, like with C and M and T and D, what she wants was always more valuable than what I want. I have a list of examples that have emerged in therapy but I’m not going rehash them here.
On many occasions I thought giving my ex-wife what I thought she wanted meant I was showing her I loved her, even when it hurt me. In reality what I thought she wanted and needed was simply a story I imagined.
Regardless, it’s not the best look on me.
Based on things I experienced while married – and after – I don’t trust her not to use my vulnerability as a weapon. I don’t trust she hears me and if she does, I don’t trust she is willing to accept me.
As the Good Doctor reminded me this week, “We condition each other to give the responses that make us most comfortable. We give an answer someone doesn’t like and so they ask ten other ways. They might get the same answer five times but at some point we start telling stories so we can get on with life. It becomes a pattern when we skip the formalities and just go right to the lie they want to hear.”
Frankly, I sincerely believed my ex-wife wanted me to leave. I really believed she wanted a divorce so by the time I left I wanted a divorce too. The tenuous and conditional nature of our love is precisely why I felt like I had to earn it over and over. This isn’t a criticism of her, but of the dynamic within our relationship. A pattern I actively contributed too. It doesn’t matter if the chicken or the egg came first.
My heroic willingness to take responsibility for all of her emotions is both a sign of my arrogance and my loneliness. It is arrogant because it reflects a belief that if I can control outcomes others won’t abuse or abandon me. It is an attempt to remain safe. It is borne of loneliness because if others know what I’m doing they may not like me and will abandon me. As a result I am constantly trying to prove my value to people in my life.
It is old, deep damage. It is an ill-fitting suit in the new life I have created.
In reality I’m constantly trying to prove my worthiness to my ex-wife…and my parents. And at times, I find myself absentmindedly still trying to prove it to C twenty-nine months later.
Definitely not a good look.
Recently, I told my ex-wife the truth about my life with © (“I really loved my life with C”), she began to storm off in a snit. I imagine it hurt her feelings and she responded defensively. As she said, she doesn’t want to hear it. And I thought, “We say we want the truth but I don’t think people actually do. We want the truth that reinforces what we we need to hear.”
A few days before my ex-wife discovered I was lying to her, I told her that despite my best efforts I could not have any contact with her. Frankly, when I’m around her I’m constantly charged, edgy, defensive, and waiting for her to blow up.
I am living on eggshells. Also, not a good look.
She agreed even before I could finish my sentence. She knows it too because whenever we talk she is charged as well, living on her own egg shells.
And honestly, we are both tired of the dynamic where dishonesty lies at the heart of our love. At least I am, and I imagine she is too.
We both deserve more.