Sunday, April 13, 2014

Playing nice when breaking up. With friends or with lovers. A how-to guide.

It's no secret I am divorced.  It's really no secret, at least to those who knew me 'in that life', that it was a messy, contentious, and difficult divorce.  It took waaaay longer than it should have and cost waaaay more than it should have, because my ex-husband refused to come to the table and 'play nice'. Eventually, that led to me having difficulty playing nice.

Where there was once love and compassion, there became anger, resentment and a very broken relationship.  The reality was it was broken from the beginning and poor communication and all that goes with it set us up for failure. It takes two people to make a relationship work.  Both of us were responsible for it's ultimate failure.  Blaming serves no one. Least of all the children or other important people in our lives.  We are both to blame for it's demise.

Despite that, we could, and should, have gone about ending our relationship differently.  More kindly. I tried.  But it takes two to end it amicably, too.  Therein lies the challenge for most couples.  We could have ended it in a much kinder way to both of us.

The details of the failure of our marriage are not important for you to know.  The lessons learned, however, are.

This is not about him.  Or me. Or our divorce. Or even about collateral losses as a result of or related to the central one.  It's about YOU and YOUR relationship(s).  It's a bit of insight into what I learned along the way that I hope others will benefit from on their journey.  Whether you are party to a divorce or break up now, have been in the past, or may be someday in the future, this is for you. Maybe it's a romantic relationship that has ended.  Maybe it's a long term friendship.  It doesn't matter. A break up is a break up and someone hurts.  Often, everyone hurts.  Yep, that's pretty much anyone who has a heart.  No one is immune.

Why am I writing this now?  It's been on my 'things to write about' list for years.  I have several friends in various stages of relationship crisis right now.  Some in messy divorces.  Some in amicable break ups and divorces.  Some who are married and working really hard on resolving their issues and learning to communicate better.  Some who are married and outright lying to their spouses about really important stuff. Some who are trying to repair damage done in the past when they didn't know what they do now.  Quite simply, it is time.  So if you are reading this, it's for you.

That, and I actually have time to write it today!

Some people are in unhappy relationships.  They have fallen out of love.  They don't want to be with the other person anymore but they choose not to tell them.  Or maybe they do tell them, but they agree not to divorce if married.  They may no longer wish to live together, some don't.  Despite that, they decide to stay in those relationships.  Some because they are in abusive relationships and are afraid to leave and afraid to ask for help in doing so.  Some choose to stay because they are afraid of the repercussions or the financial strain separating or divorcing will impose. Some stay 'for the kids'. Some stay because it's just easier to lie to themselves or their spouse than it is to speak, honor and live their truth.  This often leads to extramarital affairs or 'secret' behaviors because of the discord and unhappiness in the relationship and an unwillingness to talk about it with your significant other/spouse, which can lead to the aforementioned messy and contentious divorce or separation.

There are also people I know who are in strong, healthy relationships.  They seem few and far between, but they are out there.  Some are fully committed to each other and only each other.  Some are actually in open relationships (they are married or in a committed primary relationship, but have their spouse's/S.O.'s blessing to date other people).

They are the ones that realize a relationship is work. It takes two.  It takes honesty.  It takes being 100% transparent and truthful, even if it's not what the other person wants to hear and even if it's difficult for you to be so vulnerable and reveal your 'weaknesses'.  It takes open, honest, communication. It takes respect and honor. It takes an open mind and a compassionate heart.  It requires the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes to see the other side of an issue.  It means you come to the table when things are not right, not run away or blame.  You are a team.  A partnership.  You are equals.  You got into it together.  You get through it, together.  You learn the fine art of compromise.

They have learned to play nice.  No, they don't walk around blissed out all the time.  They argue.  They fight.  They talk it out.  But they listen and say they are sorry.  They respect.  They forgive.  They work hard to grow and change together. They support each other.  They get it.  For better or for worse.

The Beginning
When love is new, it is intoxicating.  It's easy to spot someone in the throws of a new romantic relationship. There is romance.  There is an endorphin high.  There is something wonderful about being courted and wanted and having your feelings returned by someone you are attracted to.  You do new things together. You go places.  You show each other off.  You are always 'on'.  Looking and acting your best.  It's nearly impossible to sustain for a lifetime.  Therein lies the flaw of being human. Emotions and feelings.  Eventually, our feelings get hurt.  Especially if we don't learn the art of effective communication.

As relationships grow, they change.  At times they plateau or stabilize.  This is a natural thing.  With familiarity, comes routine.  Eventually, our 'real' selves start to show.  That constant state of being our best selves is nearly impossible to sustain long term.  We are human after all.  You know, the one where we don't dress to the nines to impress our significant other, where we begin to take compliments and day to day things for granted and love is implied, not said or even shown much.  The world where our partner sees our 'bed head' and still loves us.

Sex that may have been fantastic and frequent in the beginning of your relationship may become routine and less frequent.  Physical affection may dwindle.  The hand holding and cuddling that was so sweet in the beginning slowly dwindles.  Not necessarily because the love is not there, but because life happens.  We work, we have kids, we get busy, we get tired.  And we drift apart.  If we don't make the effort to connect, it becomes harder and harder for us to.

Do we 'settle'?
I've had many a conversation with many a person about how when we are young (or not so young), we 'settle' because we feel this person is 'good enough' or because we fear we will never find someone 'better'.  It may be because they fit the concept of our 'ideal' mate in looks, job status, personality or some other traits we thought we wanted in a partner.  Maybe it's because our biological clocks are ticking and we were looking for a spouse and a baby making partner more than a true life partner.

Some people choose to marry or enter a committed relationship with someone they know deep inside of them is not the 'right' fit.  They hope they will change or be good enough.  They hope that the differences they might have, the ones that irk them, will somehow magically disappear or become less bothersome.  That rarely happens in 'real' life.

All too often, we realize at some later point in our relationship we are unhappy.  Some people choose to go with the flow.  Some seek a relationship that they feel gives them what they are missing.  Some will choose to end their relationship.

In the end, it doesn't matter if we settle or not.  What matters is that we talk to our partner when we are unhappy and attempt to find happy again. What that is will depend on how those conversations go.

Kids stress a relationship.  Big time. 
Ah, kids.  They complicate things.  They are expensive.  They are demanding.  They 'ruin' the life you knew as a single person or a childless couple.  The vast majority of people who have children planned on having them.  They consciously set out to have babies. Yes, they were created and born of your love.  They are YOURS. How quickly we forget that when we become stressed and overwhelmed by the demands of parenting.

If your relationship was not strong and stable with open and honest communication before kids, it means more work to maintain your relationship after you do have them. All too often this comes as a complete shock to a couple when they have their first child.  The more children, the more stress that seems to come along for some.

Some people can't handle the stress children bring to a relationship.  They start to work later or spend more time with friends.  They travel more.  They avoid the kids and/or their partner rather than communicating.  Eventually, the relationship will break down.

Even if you have had kids for years, talk about how parenting has changed you or potentially will change your relationship and why.

Communication.  Communication.  Communication.
Communication often breaks down as relationships stabilize because the reality is it was never that good, honest, or frequent and 'real' in the first place.  Very few people are 100% honest and truthful with themselves, let alone with their significant others.  How many white lies have you told your S.O.? How many things do you hide from them?  Communication with ex's?  A porn habit?  A shopping habit or 'secret' credit card or bank account?  Debt? A history of illicit drug use, addiction, or a run in with the law?  An affair?

Over time, communication breakdown breeds resentment.  Resentments cause further breakdown and can build and before we know it, we think the other person has changed.  The truth is, so have we.  Or maybe the other person has not changed at all and we have.

Instead of trying to talk about the issues, we place blame on the other person.  We may begin to seek what we are missing in our relationship with them elsewhere.  With friends.  With ex's.  With alcohol and drugs. By working later or traveling more.  Instead of confronting the issues, we end up creating more.

All relationships need good quality communication to work.  Teacher and parent.  Parent and child. Boss and employee.  Friend to friend.  Husband and wife.  We, as humans are generally pretty bad at communication.  Words.  Body Language.  Tone.  They all convey different aspects of communication.  The advent of social media and electronic mail has only further complicated communication, reducing it to an impersonal level where it's hard to understand tone and impossible to see body language.

Talk.  You must learn to talk.  To each other.  Openly.  Honestly.  Daily.

The Blame Game
The crux of it is, all relationships take two people to work.  The truth is if your relationship is broken, it took both of you to break it.  Sure, one person may have more of the 'responsibility' say, if they went off and had an affair or drained the savings account without your knowledge, but something that was fundamentally broken in your relationship with each other led to it.

Blaming the other person or placing all the blame on yourself is unfair and highly likely to be an avoidance of conflict.  An avoidance of confronting the reality of who you are and an inability to face the consequences of the choices you have made and the responsibility you hold in it.  Because you are responsible, at least in part.

No one 'does' anything to anyone else.  No one 'makes' you say, feel, or do anything.  Only you are responsible for your actions (or inaction) or feelings.  No one else holds any special power over you. Unless you allow them to.  That, too, is all you.  Not them.

We all make choices.  Some good.  Some not so good.  They all have consequences.  Also some good and some not so good.  Some are really, really, hurtful and bad.  We make the choices we do from only two places.  We either choose from a place of fear or from a place of love and compassion.  It's important to realize why you are making the choices you are as it relates to YOU.  Not to the other person.  Because you are the only person who controls what you say, think, feel, or do.  Yep,  You own it.  Not them. You.

So re-frame how you view the other person in the context of yourself.  Make it about you.  Because it is. Nothing happens in isolation.  All of your choices impact someone else when you are in a relationship.

Be truthful.  Always.  
Chances are, eventually the truth will come out and it will be far better if it comes from you in the beginning. So, if you had an affair.  Fess up.  You don't like such and such about your partner.  Tell them.  Nicely. Overwhelmed and feeling unloved?  Tell them.  Racking up debt?  Tell them and get help. Maybe you are chatting on line with someone the other person doesn't know about and wouldn't approve of. Tell them.  Be honest.  Own it. Explain why you feel what you feel or why you did what you did.  It's not because 'they' did or didn't do such and such. It's about why YOU did or said what YOU did.  They should do the same.

Does this mean you have to change?  Not necessarily.  It does mean you have to understand, speak, live and be willing to stand in your truth.  You need to own your behavior, your choices, your actions. If you can't, then why are you doing what you are doing because it's hurting someone you once loved?

Try to do this calmly.  Sure, there may be a heated argument.  But stay present.  Count to 10.  Breathe. Write it down first if you have to and exchange letters than discuss it.  Seek the assistance of a counselor or good friend who can be impartial.  Talk in a neutral or public place where you are more likely to stay calm and present emotionally.

Please, talk to each other.  Be honest.  Be kind.

See their side of the story.  Put yourself in their shoes.
There are always two sides to every story.  Make an effort to see the other side.  To understand their argument, even if you don't agree with it.  Don't judge.  Just listen.  To each other. Even in the middle of a bad break up, you need to see both sides to fully understand why you are in the situation you are both currently in and so you don't repeat your mistakes in the future.  You need to be aware of how your choices impact others, not just yourself.  It's about being a good and mature human.

Everyone brings 'baggage' to a relationship.  Hopefully there was full disclosure at the beginning of your relationship about what this baggage is.  Maybe there was not.  Maybe you thought there was, but other things emerged over time neither of you realized or could have anticipated. Chronic or mental illness, a medical crisis like battling cancer, financial crisis, job loss, the demands of parenting or pregnancy loss/infertility struggles, or a profound loss like the loss of a close loved one all strain relationships.  They change us.  They challenge us.

Realize there is a reason for the choices we make.  Find it.  Share it.

No matter how hurt and angry you are, play nice.

One word.  Karma.  It's a bitch.  It really is.  So no matter how angry, bitter, hurt, betrayed, or devastated you are, be kind to each other.  In words and in deed.

Don't spread rumors.  Don't lie.  Don't embellish.  Don't exaggerate.  Don't taunt.  Don't name call. Don't say things that are not truth and fact (check them, first).  Don't blame.  Don't steal.  Don't damage their stuff or their reputation.  (They will do just fine on their own damaging their reputation, don't worry.)  Don't say or do things just to piss off the other person.  Don't allow yourself to stoop to their level if the other person is doing these things in an attempt to hurt you.

Remember, only you control what and how you feel and how you act.  It's no one else's 'fault'.  It's all you. How they react to it is their choice.  How you act, is yours.

In this age of social media, keep in mind what you post is out there forever and can and will come back to potentially haunt YOU.  Chances are high your family, friends, kids and co-workers past, present and future will see it.  While no one should, people judge.  Think of the repercussions before you go down that road. For all of you.

Don't say or do anything when you are angry.  Chances are you will regret it.

Basically, follow the Golden Rule.  Do unto others...

In other words, don't be an ass.  No matter how angry or hurt you are.  It serves no one but the lawyers whose pockets you are padding.

When and how to tell the kids

Parenting is a team sport. If your relationship with your significant other is failing, don't fail your kids. Keep your feelings for the other parent out of your conversations and interactions with the kids. To the kids you must present a united front.  You must say and show them that you both love them and care for them.  That you will be a part of their lives (if you truthfully will be and want to be).  Tell them your relationship is ending but not your relationship with them.

Make absolutely, 100% sure you never, ever, blame the kids for the failure of your relationship with the other parent.  It is NEVER the fault of the children.  They will think it is.  You must be sure they know they did nothing wrong.  You made them together.  You parent them together.  United in what is best for them.  Always.

Do not use them as pawns.  They are not 'weapons' against your now estranged partner.  They are YOUR CHILDREN.  Do not try to take them away from the other parent unless their lives are truly in danger.

Don't push the kids to do something they don't want to.  If they want to live with only one of you or the shared parenting schedule is upsetting them, talk to them and try to honor their wishes and needs. Doing so from the beginning will help them to better cope and have a stronger relationship with you as they grow.  Try not to force them to do something they do not want to do unless the court orders it.

Be mindful of your children and THEIR needs and wants introducing someone 'new'

Kids are wicked smart.  Even babies and toddlers *get* emotion.  They notice everything.  They absorb that energy.  They learn by watching you.  They will behave the way they see you behave.

Kids are definitely affected by the relationship their parents have.  Affectionate children come from affectionate families.  If kids see you name call and fight and yell as your primary mode of communication, don't be surprised when they do the same.  Not only to you, but to their own children and spouses someday.  Do you really want them to have the same relationship struggles you did? Think about that.

Before you introduce someone new and 'special' to your kids, make sure it is going to stick.  Far too often, parents who break up have a 'rebound' relationship.  Maybe it began before the parental relationship ended, maybe it was the reason the parental relationship ended or maybe it is simply the thrill of someone new who seems to understand and care and think you're all that and a bag of chips. You fall for them.  You think it's 'right' or they are the real 'one'.  Before you go any further, stop.  You once felt that about the person you are breaking up with/divorcing too.  Don't lose sight of that!

When and if you introduce the idea of someone new in your life depends on the age and maturity of your children and how they are coping with the separation of you as their parents.  Their relationship with you should take priority.  Broach the subject in a conversation first.  Ask them how they feel. Don't put words in their mouths.  Don't be surprised if they are upset or never want to meet that person or meet them but never like them.  Listen to what your kids are saying and why.  Honor their wishes.  Chances are they think you are replacing their mom or dad.  Of course they are going to be upset about that.

Never force them to meet, spend time with or 'like' the 'new' significant other.  Give them time to adjust.  Help them connect with a counselor if they are struggling with your break up or someone new in your life.

I dated Joe for nearly 3 years before I introduced my boys to him as my boyfriend.  They had met him in group settings as a 'friend' about a year earlier.  It was only after they met, spent quite a bit of time together and it was clear they liked him and he understood what parenting meant and was willing to be a father figure for them (and an amazing one he is) that I agreed to marry him.  If my kids did not like him or if he were not able to 'handle' the demands of parenting them and what I was like as a mom (as opposed to just a girlfriend) I would not have married him.  We may have continued our relationship, but living in separate homes and without an integration or marriage.  My kids are just that important.

The bottom line
We are human.  We all make mistakes.

We also all deserve to love and be loved for who we are.  Unconditionally.  To that end, we all deserve respect, trust and truth from those around us. Especially those we choose to partner with in some way.
Communication makes the world go round.  Mis-communication makes misery go round.  Talk to each other.  Get help if you need it.

Relationships are fluid and dynamic.  They change.  Because people change.  Sometimes, we grow closer.  Sometimes we grow apart.  It's because we are growing.

No matter what the state of any given relationship is, it deserves to be treated with love, compassion, respect, honesty and grace.

Be kind to one another.  Choose from a place of love and respect, even if it's in ending a relationship.

Forgive.  Yourself and the other person.  You loved them once upon a time.  Chances are you still do, it's just in a different way.

Go in peace.

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