Most of us have a story in our heads about the ideal marriage—the fairy tale romance, the perfect wedding, The Ideal Husband, who may or may not resemble the powerful politician in the Oscar Wilde play of the same name. But the fairy tale divorce? We don’t have a backlog of cultural expectations that our own divorce is somehow failing to meet. Which is great, because we can write our own divorce story now.
First, we may have to let go of an old, negative narrative, such as the notion that a blended family must include an “evil step-mother,” or the more recent myth that all happy families are alike, and they resemble each other by featuring two married adults—no exceptions permitted.
The woman I wrote about last week who couldn’t get past her anger clung to a false narrative—the idea that divorce necessarily devastates everyone involved. Her home had not actually been washed away by a tsunami. She had her work, her children. She organized regular social events for large groups, attended church weekly, had the funds for manicures and new shoes and the body-hugging purple dress she was wearing when we met. We were out at a good party on a Friday night in Los Angeles, the lights of downtown twinkling far below. Yet the story in her head had been abruptly interrupted by her husband’s defection. She’d been a character in The Perfect Marriage. The movie had stopped midway, and without a new plot line, it was as if her life were a roll of film spilling out all over the floor, chaotic, flapping, un-spooled.
So many people I’ve spoken to about divorce struggle almost as much from narrative disconnect, believe it or not, as from the logistical changes. Their story about what should have happened plagues them almost as much as the facts themselves.
Narrative disruption happens to all of us at some point in our lives. We lose the girl we loved, the job we thought defined us, the election or position that seemed rightfully ours. Rand Fishkin, the developer of the successful marketing software company, Moz, recently wrote a thoughtful post about how clinging to a false narrative dogged him in his career.
Understanding the narratives you’re telling yourself can help you rewrite them. “Our stories create core schemas about ourselves," says child psychologist Daphne Anshel. “A lot of times when someone has a huge amount of change to integrate into their lives, they haven’t made meaning of it. That can lead to a sense of internal conflict.” Anshel stresses nuance as a key to moving past limiting narratives while remaining honest with yourself and the reality of your life.
Rewriting your narrative to include the new facts of your life is not only necessary, but also can be powerful. This is the core insight of the new field of posttraumatic growth. A decade-plus of research shows that many people become stronger through the effort to make meaning out of unwanted, even traumatic, events. As Lawrence Calhoun, lead author of a recent paper about posttraumatic growth, writes, “Loss, especially unexpected loss, disrupts an individual’s beliefs about the world and initiates a process of rebuilding an understanding. During this process, many people come to realize their own strengths, appreciate the impact of their relationships, and have new spiritual insights.”
The play An Ideal Husband, in some ways a narrative of a divorce averted, is not only a hilarious, moving classic piece of theater, but also an example of Anshel’s point about the value of nuance. The wife in the play learns of an early, shady business deal of her husband, a man she’d believed to be morally flawless. Her first instinct is to condemn him, turn away from the marriage, sink into shattered despair. Instead, she develops flexibility. She finds a way to accommodate a deviation in her script of what constitutes “ideal,” to accept a new view of this man she loves that includes the fact that in a moment of weakness in his youth, he'd made a dishonest deal that helped his career.
Those of us divorcing don’t have the opportunity to save our marriage through a new narrative, but we can work on taking a flexible view of the ideal life more broadly, a belief that lets us hold onto the best parts of the past and build a future—and a present story line—we love.
What does your good divorce look like? Write me and let me know, and tell me if you’d like to be featured in an upcoming post. Also . . . my first newsletter is out tomorrow! Please sign up to receive it, and let me know what you think.
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.