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"Into the Wild" - Charting Uncertainty During & After Divorce

Today, Vanessa and I are headed off to an overnight camping trip with our son. We will share a tent and "enjoy" (as much as one can) this scouting adventure. This is our second such excursion. And this weekend getaway has me thinking about the "wild" - both literally and figuratively.

When divorce happens - it is uncharted territory - akin to camping. Unless one is of the Larry King or Elizabeth Taylor variety - most of us have never been through our own divorce before. It is scary. It is disorienting. It is confusing. Like campers with a feeble flashlight to illuminate the path - we stumble and fumble about. We trip over ourselves. We lose our way. And as when we camp, we go to bed often feeling cold and afraid. Our fear responses heighten and we become over-vigilant and anxious.

It is during such times, in the midst of divorce or after it, that we look for some form of security. We look for comfort and for guides. We consume self-help books, we go to the gym or to yoga, we enter therapy. We engage in self-care and self-protective measures. We envelop ourselves in the warmth of the figurative camp sleeping bag and we zip it up tight.

And this is normal and it is good so far as it goes. But I would suggest that we also need to get out of those comfortable zones and into the "wild." Not the wild of turning into a party girl or a barfly. Not a Caligulean orgy of hedonistic excess. Though, perhaps some people benefit for a short time in getting that stuff out of their system proximate to a divorce.

What I am offering for consideration is a more transformative and bolder form of "wild." The wild of radical transparency, communication, honesty and reflection. That sounds simpler than it is. And it is a thoroughgoing honesty, communication and reflection regarding yourself and your spouse as well as what your marriage was and what your divorce will be. One of the most striking aspects of my practice is the overwhelming lack of reflection in the moment and the false consciousness that so many people have relative to their divorces. I do not judge or criticize it - this too is normal. We all do it to some extent. It is understandable that when in crisis or conflict - we don mental and emotional armor to protect against pain, suffering and harm.

But, I am suggesting taking a leap - toward each other (to the extent circumstances permit or justify it at the time) and not away from each other. Even as doing so activates feelings of pervasive anger and rage and pain. What do I mean by this? It is as simple and yet excruciatingly difficult as: first, beginning to truly take inventory of ALL aspects of your relationship and your role in it. It means exploring the myriad ways in which the dynamic of your relationship and your role as a participant in it led to the demise of the marriage. This doesn't mean beating yourself up. It doesn't mean shaming and guilting yourself. But it does mean having a more robust and realistic view of marriage and divorce and how the two people in a family system do not act as simple independent actors but as mutually interdependent parts of an organic whole.

It also means deeply understanding that for all of your pain, regret, anger, betrayal and sadness - there is someone else -- your ex or soon-to-be-ex -- who also has those feelings that you do. Two wounded people, wounded by each other and wounded in and by the relationship - are in pain. Blame and shame and guilt are irrelevant ultimately if you play the scene out fairly and fully. Like cross combatants in battle who meet and talk after hostilities have ended - there is a way in which the conflict (like the peace that preceded it and hopefully follows it) between spouses creates a shared store of experience and emotional content. This is where something can be done - carefully and over time.

I often refer to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - the famous play and movie that starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In their roles as George and Martha - we see clearly how the war (in an ostensibly intact but horribly disfigured marriage) makes a kind of curious comradeship for its participants. The real gist of why that matters and what I suggest here - is that we all endeavor to find a more productive, affirming and adaptive way to work with that conflict experience, emotional content and comradeship.

Nightly, George and Martha soaked themselves in alcohol and then played a sick game of destruction with themselves and with others. They present to us a stark and bleak example of what occurs too often in divorce litigation. The litigation becomes that "proxy war" I have referred to previously. And while the litigants in divorce consciously express horror and regret for the legal conflict - in so many ways they are blind to how they feed it, stoke it, advance it and revel in it. It is a way of actually maintaining a relationship (albeit a maladaptive one). Like George and Martha - they play new roles with each other. A more conscious approach would attempt to take that raw material and transfigure it.

Again, this is not a judgment but an observation. And my parting thought is that we simply be mindful of this. And that we make that attempt to remold the material into something more positive. So, by all means, go into the wild. By all means, engage with the feelings. But do so wisely. Compassionately. The feelings are just the wood. You can whittle it into a spear or you can make a flute. A good scout is always prepared. So take good care. You CAN leave the forest transformed and all the better for it. Have a good weekend.

 

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