"What?!" you may be thinking. "Is she telling me to take the blame for this divorce?"
Not at all. Taking ownership is not the same as blaming yourself. Taking ownership means seeing yourself as having control over your life, as having made choices in the past that led to where you are now—even if those choices weren't fully conscious, or yielded the results you hoped they would.
By seeing your contributions to the downfall of your marriage, you cast yourself as someone with agency. A feeling of agency directly correlates with resilience after loss.
When something goes wrong, it's easy to blame ourselves. We look for a reason or explanation, and often settle on our "faults" as the cause. This can be especially true in divorce. But we have to be careful not to wallow in self-recrimination in divorce, as I explain in Principle of Parting #1: Commit to Self-Compassion. While we don't want to judge ourselves overly harshly, we do want to take ownership of what happens next, and claim our role in our marriage’s demise.
I know this might sound harsh. And what if your marriage ended after your spouse had an affair? No matter how it ended, you want to notice your role in your circumstances more generally to see how you exert influence over your own life.
I spoke to so many people whose spouses cheated, and the ones who had the easiest time moving forward were those who could see how they played some role in the downfall of their marriage—not causing the affair, but perhaps contributing to some of the disaffection or distance in the marriage. Or perhaps not listening to their own gut-level concerns. If your previous efforts mainly involved sticking with your marriage long past its expiration date, you can focus on that power, in a positive way. Reframe it as a positive example of the dedication you bring to your relationships and commitments. It’s easy to see ourselves in the worst possible light in divorce, but we all had good, noble reasons for many decisions that may later look deeply flawed.
William Glasser, a psychiatrist who pioneered a form of self-reliance therapy in the late 1960s, talked about how working at a veterans’ hospital in Los Angeles showed him that being cast as a victim paralyzes people, even if they’ve been truly wronged.
“What they taught, in effect, was that you aren’t responsible for your miserable problems because you are the victim of factors and circumstances beyond your control. I objected to that. My question is always, ‘What are you going to do about your life, beginning today?’”
Ownership of the past helps guide future choices. While a bad marriage can sap your personal power, divorce is a chance to take it back. Even if the divorce was not your choice, how you respond and the attitude you bring to your challenges is in your control. Finding some way to take ownership—not fault or blame but rather involvement—can help fortify your belief that you have the power to create a new life that you will love.
Read more about the Seven Principles of Parting.
Check out Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well to read how others found a way to take ownership, even of really difficult events, such as an affair.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.