Dear Carolyn: As a child, I lived through my parent’s horrible, physically violent, 10-year divorce. I remember standing in the kitchen at 12 years old, promising myself I would never divorce.
So, here I am, 51, my 13-year relationship broken up. We never married, as it helped me keep my promise to never divorce. But the effect of a 13-year breakup is the same. And I am the One thing I promised myself I would never be.
Any comments on my naive thought that never marrying would ensure I would never divorce? Or on how a person handles it when life shows them they are not in control, and they are faced with something they worked so hard not to have happen? How do I move on and respect myself? – The Person I Never Wanted to Be
No, you are not that person you never wanted to be, not because of this breakup.
And you’re not “naive.” I’d say traumatized, which is entirely different.
Your having to witness the horrible and the violent – between two emotional cornerstones of your life – likely compelled you at only 12 to script your own adulthood to take away this pain. When 12 is, clearly, way too young for that. You fixed on something before you could understand it.
That wasn’t your fault then and it isn’t now. It also isn’t unusual; trauma disrupts the natural progression of emotional growth.
Instead of beating yourself up for all of this, for making the youthful promise, for breaking it, for breaking up – which can be a healthy step, and so isn’t always a bad thing – please just update your goals and expectations to reflect adult understanding.
Actually, no – please forgive yourself first. Current version and 12-year-old one. You did what you could through unjust and difficult circumstances.
Then update your understanding of healthy goals, and then the goals themselves.
You can’t, for example, promise you “would never divorce,” because a partner can leave you, or you can find the relationship untenable for reasons you couldn’t foresee.
You can, however, keep a promise to yourself that you will never be “horrible [and] physically violent” during a breakup – or ever. And you can keep a promise to yourself never to drag out bad relationships or difficult decisions so long that they swallow up entire decades and cause widespread collateral damage.
You can keep a promise to yourself to be civil; responsive vs. reactive; mindful of your own frailty as well as others’; sincerely apologetic when you fall short; and true to your values even when it may cost you significantly to do so.
You can promise these things because they, all of them, are your choices to make.
Which brings me to the most important line in your question: You ask “how a person handles it when life shows them they are not in control,” and my answer is, that’s not what life just showed you.
Life just showed you that you control some things but not others.
And with other people being one of the more significant areas you don’t control, it showed you that relationship outcomes can be only partly up to you at best.
And it showed you, by extension, that the only healthy, achievablegoals you can set for yourself are the ones that involve only your behavior and choices.
Again: It is not your fault that you didn’t grasp this at 12, and it’s not your fault that trauma prematurely locked you into a child’s idea of happily ever after.
A good therapist can help you with this important update. “Lifeskills for Adult Children” by Woititz/Garner is also an effective primer for people who believe they missed out when everyone else was learning this stuff in childhood. (Though I think everyone has gaps, it’s just a matter of their breadth and consequence.)
You have an opportunity, with this breakup, to become the adult who finds realistic, achievable ways to meet the needs of your 12- and 51-year-old selves. Stability, patience, civility, maturity, accountability, consideration, forgiveness, self-love, self-respect. Sounds like a good life to me.
Dear Carolyn: You sometimes advise people to get screened for depression or ADHD based on things like procrastinating, forgetting things, failing to follow through, etc. How do you determine when to look for a diagnosis, and when someone is just lazy, inconsiderate, has bad habits, etc., and wants to co-opt legitimate diagnoses as an excuse? – Anonymous
Character. It shows itself in so many ways that it’s always available to arbitrate.
To use your example: You’re not sure whether someone’s “failing to follow through” is a matter of disability or choice. So, look to expressions of character that aren’t about productivity. Is this person honest? Kind to those with less power, like children, pets, service staff, the needy or infirm? Does this person ask questions? Listen carefully? Feel empathy? Remain open to different views?
It’s also a sign of character not to point fingers unless and until every compassionate option’s ruled out. Ideally not even then.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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