It takes courage to reclaim those aspects of yourself you were willing to sacrifice to make your marriage work. How do you reclaim your Self when you’re in the middle of an identity crisis?
Many of us give up or give away various parts of ourselves to keep a relationship. It is also true that what you were attracted to in your loved one was perhaps what you have not yet opened to or accepted in yourself. Although the process may be difficult, owning your authentic self is one of the gifts that can emerge from the pain of divorce.
It takes courage to reclaim those elements of yourself you were willing to sacrifice to make your marriage work. For example, while you were married, you may have given up being proficient around household maintenance by acting as though you were incapable; or you may have denied your intellectual capacity by not finishing school (women do this primarily because they are afraid of out-pacing their husbands). In an effort to please your spouse, you may have given up all your “free time” instead of pursuing activities you enjoyed.
Perhaps you felt the relationship should have been completely symbiotic, so you abandoned personal friends of long standing or failed to develop friendships of your own outside the marriage. Whatever it was, it was a denial of your authentic Self.
I am not talking about compromise here. Compromise is an important and necessary part of living with another human being. This discussion is about the tendency to completely deny or let go of important aspects of our essential selves. The task after divorce is to reclaim your authentic self and to keep it alive — to become what you were before you gave in (or gave way) to the relationship. .
Reclaiming your Self during an identity crisis
Some of the roles you identified with have changed: husband, wife, lover, breadwinner, homemaker, family man, housewife. Ask yourself: “Who am I now if I’m not a wife/husband?” What parts of your identity did you bury in your spouse?
When you disown or dishonor your true Self, and do not take the time to reclaim your Self, you limit the possibility of intimacy in future relationships. Many of us never recognized or celebrated ourselves as being truly unique and distinct to begin with. We surrendered to our partners, and allowed ourselves to become “part of” another person without giving ourselves or them the opportunity to know us.
When you give up so much of your authentic Self, there is a subtle erosion of self-worth and of the spirit, and gradually “who you really are” completely disappears. The person your spouse was initially attracted to no longer exists. You abandon yourself — and your spouse abandons you.
As we are able to be honest about who we are, rather than hiding and trying to please others, we become increasingly able to accept the truth about others. That does not mean we choose someone with whom we are not compatible. It means that, when we openly make ourselves present and available, we can receive and be received by someone with whom our heart will sing.
When I do divorce recovery workshops, I invite the participants to list five things they gave up to be in relationship to their spouse or partner. “Things” can mean hobbies, persons, pursuits, feelings, possessions, religion, etc. Invariably, one of the most repeated items on the list is “my friends… all of my friends were our friends… I had no friends of my own.”
Other frequently listed items are “personal and/or spiritual growth” and “time alone for myself.” It’s sad, but true, that many of the people I’ve encountered in this process are aware that, for some reason, the relationship produced a prolonged period of stagnation in the area of personal/spiritual growth — a period of non-growth and non-creativity that is most important to recover and nurture.
The second part of the exercise is to go back and write under each statement of what you gave up, what you are doing now, or would like to do now, to reclaim those things.
The Ghost of Marriage Past
If you neglect to examine why your marriage happened and what you have learned or gained from its ending, you risk bringing the “ghost of marriage past” into the next relationship, and the next, and the next. So let’s take a look at a few things.
— “I was never really myself when I was with her/him.” If you find yourself saying this, then ask, “If I wasn’t myself, who was I?” Perhaps you didn’t express what you needed very well, or you did things you didn’t want to do because you wanted to be loved.
However, it was you up on that “stage” (or in that kitchen, or bedroom): no one else was playing the part for you. If you find yourself saying, “I was never really myself in that marriage,” you may have boundary issues (i.e., co-dependency, not knowing where you begin and end) — what I call the “I am my mate” or “my mate defines me” syndrome.
If you are willing to face your real self, you won’t need to bring a partner into your life who ends up exaggerating the qualities you deny about yourself. You won’t have to do a rerun of your last marriage. Self-analysis is enormously transforming and is particularly valuable after a relationship loss. The “ghost of marriage past” cannot survive introspection! However, in-depth self-analysis is not done often enough, and this is precisely why many second and third marriages have a higher rate of failure than first ones. It may take courage to look at the patterns and processes that got you stuck in the first place, but your chances of success in future relationships greatly increases when you do — especially if you choose someone who has done their work in this area as well.
— “He/she really messed me up.” Again, as part of your self-exploration or introspection, it is important to take a serious look at how you may have played the victim. Release old memories in which you were not healthy or happy or otherwise victorious in love and life. Take an honest look at your role models for success and failure (i.e., mom and dad’s marriage). Forgive yourself for not seeing this the first time around, and use this opportunity to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Here are some guidelines for re-creating your future and minimizing the “ghost factor”:
- Ask yourself: “Am I constantly running away from recognizing the patterns that could transform me?” It’s not easy to look at relationship patterns, but if you put some energy into it, the rewards can be tremendous.
- If possible, use your spiritual connection to assist your healing process. Let your higher self, or Goddess/God help give you the strength to let go of addictive types of relationships and move on.
- Look clearly at the reflection you see of yourself in others and try to use the insights you gain to create a better life for yourself. At the same time, beware of those who seek to define you negatively (i.e., people who insist you are stupid, ugly, lazy, etc.).
- Here’s a radical suggestion for speeding along your self-inspection (do not do this one unless you feel strong enough): why not use your ex-spouse for some benefit? Your ability to continue relating to this person is almost a direct indication of how far on or off the mark you were during the relationship itself. If you are still friends, you probably had a good sense of basic trust during the relationship. If you’re still playing games — especially without any awareness that you’re playing games — you have more learning to do. Things may change between you as one or both of you enter a new long-term relationship. Thus, flexibility will also come into play. How well you handle moving from being angry at your partner to accepting his or her temporary need for distance from you, to forming and maintaining a friendship, will also give you clues about your needs, abilities, and anger. So will your responses to their new relationship. Of course, it may not be appropriate or safe to be friends, but if possible, use your ex-spouse to learn about yourself and your responses, and about your relationship needs.
When you begin dating, you may find yourself slipping back into an old destructive pattern. If you’re not sure whether this is the case, please ask your close friends for their feedback. Your friends aren’t necessarily wiser or more intuitive than you, but they will be able to view your situation more objectively.
Trust that you are a capable “ghost buster” — learning valuable psychological and spiritual lessons when you are willing to look at who you are when in a relationship. As you take this journey, remember you are moving closer to reclaiming your authentic Self.
Help reclaiming your Self
Write down one thing you did this week you thought you couldn’t (i.e., learned to drive, left some dishes in the sink and loved yourself anyway, went out to dinner alone, changed the oil in your car, mowed the lawn, or cooked your own delicious dinner) and hang a note on your bathroom mirror or your refrigerator which says, “I am proud of myself because I ______________________.” (you fill in the blank)
“I am willing to own all of who I am. I see a world in which I am totally loved for me.”
Learning from your marriage
Here are some self-analysis questions to help you learn from your past mistakes:
- How was my marriage similar to or different from my parents’ marriage?
- What need(s) did I bring into my marriage? Am I taking care of those needs myself these days?
- What did I learn from being married? Why did I marry him/her?
- What do I want to re-create in the next relationship? What do I want never to re-create in the next relationship?
“Everything I am now willing to learn from the past empowers my present and allows me to trust in the future.”
Pamela D. Blair, Ph.D., is a therapist, spiritual counselor, and life coach. She is the author of I Wasn’t Ready to Say Goodbye: Surviving, Coping and Healing after the Sudden Death of a Loved One. She has lived through two divorces and is now happily married. Dr. Blair is the Director of the Divorce Resource Network and maintains a private practice in Hawthorne, NY.