A couple of my girlfriends invited me out dancing. I don’t always take up invitations like this, but this time, I seized on the chance. They were only in town for the weekend, so why not make the most of it? I forced myself to dress up and at least try to have fun. Only an hour or so later, I cracked.
“You guys, I have to tell you something.”
“You can tell us anything. What is it?”
“My husband asked for a divorce, but he doesn’t want us to tell anyone until after the holidays.”
“Oh, we were wondering when that would happen.”
“We never liked him. We always thought you were awesome, and we were waiting for you guys to break up so we didn’t have to hang out with him.”
That was how it began. The news got out. One after another, my girlfriends told me that my soon-to-be ex had made blatant passes at them. They were creeped out by this, because who wants to get involved with someone who is in the middle of a divorce? At least wait a couple of days! Much less when it’s a former partner of someone you know well. They all exchanged gossip with one another, and knew that he was more or less approaching everyone. So that’s flattering.
Divorce fallout is one of the few times when people really get to speak their minds about someone’s flaws, and we love that. What could possibly be more fun than picking someone apart when he acts badly? I recall a few of the things I was told he said about me, and I shudder. Rather than feeling justified in my own gossip fests, I feel gross, wishing neither of us had indulged in that kind of retaliation. I wish it more now. I don’t blame him so much as I blame myself for ignoring my inner voice and talking myself into being with him. I blame myself for rushing to get involved. I blame myself for not introducing him around and getting private feedback before we moved in together. There were probably hundreds of thousands of men I could have chosen who would have been equally bad choices for me; it wasn’t particularly his fault. He could have been anyone. I wasn’t at a stage when I knew how to be more discerning.
After the divorce, I heard a lot from a lot of people. They shared so many stories of incidents and conversations with my ex that made them not like him. I got similar feedback from people who didn’t know one another. The consensus about the man I had married was pretty consistent. He was rude. He was unpleasant. Nobody could figure out what I saw in him. We didn’t seem like a good match. This was all comforting, because I was starting to come out from under the spell in which our breakup was entirely my fault. It raised uncomfortable questions, though.
Why hadn’t anyone said anything sooner?
There were three answers to that.
First, nobody says anything. It’s not even an unwritten rule, it’s just A RULE. It comes up in etiquette books all the time. If you say anything negative about your friend’s date, even after they break up, they will inevitably get back together, and then neither of them will want to be friends with you anymore. Most people don’t want to believe unpleasant stories, such as that their partner made a pass at someone, cheated at any point in the past or present, abused someone, or has a criminal record. It’s hard to believe that this is true, but the same pattern comes up in families when a child reports abuse and the family blames the child for “lying.” We fall under the spell of charming, manipulative people. Even when they aren’t so charming, it doesn’t take much to start believing the negative things someone says about us. We get isolated from our friends and family, and suddenly this mean person has us all to himself. He says it’s us against the world, and I don’t notice that it’s actually him against me.
Second, as a wise person told me a few years later, I wasn’t ready to hear the truth. If anyone had said anything, I wouldn’t have believed it. She had known me most of my life, and I had to concede that she was right. I thought I was in love, and anyone who questioned that was thereby questioning my taste and my judgment. My autonomy was at stake. (It was at stake either way, but I didn’t realize it, as we rarely do when we trade the illusion of autonomy for reinforcement of our stubbornness).
Third, someone did say something. We had already moved in together, though; I moved too fast. I was 22 and I thought I knew what I was doing. My mom called me after my ex came over to meet my family for the first time. She said she had talked to my sister-in-law after we left, and she said, “He seems angry and violent to me.” They both agreed that he seemed a bit grim and dark. THIS MADE ME SO ANGRY. “HOW can you say such a thing? He would never hit me or be violent to me!” He never did hit me, that’s true, but in the last week or so of our marriage, he did truly frighten me to the point that I left the house. That was three years after my SIL spoke up. Maybe if she’d pulled me aside and looked in my eyes, I would have taken in what she said. She understood a few things about darkness. For whatever reason, as a 22-year-old, I couldn’t hear it through my mother as intermediary. I have total trust in my (former) SIL now, and I would always listen to anything she has to say. In fact, I try much harder to listen to anything that anyone has to say, because usually, they only say it once.
I have a pretty good track record for going to weddings and guessing which marriages will last. There have been a couple of times when I got a wedding invitation in the mail and slapped my forehead. Under no circumstances would I ever breathe a word about my opinions. A bad marriage is a young person’s mistake. I don’t even like telling my young ladies when I like the guy they’re seeing, because the rubber stamp of approval from an older mentor is usually the kiss of death for the relationship. They don’t know yet how to spot the red and green flags. I like him for you. He listens so carefully when you talk. He laughs at your jokes. He absolutely lights up when he sees you entering the room. The compliments he chooses when he talks about you tell me that he sees you, he sees you the way your friends see you. He’s at a 10 out of 10 in liking you and enjoying your company. If you like him, go for it!
What an older person knows, that a younger person doesn’t, is how rare or common certain attitudes are. So few people radiate fascination, joy, or enthusiasm. When we’re lucky enough to meet such people in our youth, we can get the idea that maybe this is the baseline. If we keep looking, we’re sure to find someone just a bit better. The total package plus a little bit extra. An older person’s mistake is to cling to this illusion of The One That Got Away, thinking it was this one special person, rather than that it didn’t work out with that person due to our own attitudes and behaviors. When we are ready to reciprocate at the level of the special person from the past, we start to realize that there are other people available at that level. We just weren’t meeting them as often, and we weren’t mature enough to keep them content.
The first thing we have to eliminate is the tendency to stay involved in lackluster, dissatisfying, disappointing, or frustrating relationships. On a scale of 1 to 5, if it isn’t at least a 4, get out. Don’t do anyone any favors. Staying in a 3 or less is also trapping your partner in something that will never be enough for either of you.
Let me tell you why I don’t like your boyfriend.
He’s a naysayer. Anything you want to do, he finds a way to shoot it down. He’s never excited for you. He doesn’t celebrate your wins. He talked you out of going on your dream trip because it’s not his dream trip. He talked you out of getting that scooter you wanted. He talked you out of getting that tattoo. As far as we can tell, he doesn’t like your taste in anything or approve of any of your plans. If it wasn’t his idea, he doesn’t want to do it.
He doesn’t want to hang out with your friends. He’s rude, and not just to me. He’s snarky. He makes disparaging “jokes” about you.
He’s lazy. He never wants to go anywhere. He doesn’t follow through. He lets you down. He doesn’t do his share. He takes advantage of you and takes you for granted. He keeps making big promises that he never carries out.
What do you even see in him? He’s not nice to you, he doesn’t make you laugh, he’s never done any kind of extravagant romantic gesture that I ever heard about. Even if he was rich and good-looking, which he’s not, it wouldn’t be worth it. Since you got together, your smile has dimmed. You’re not your vibrant, lovely self anymore. He’s washing you out.
He hasn’t kept up with you. You saw his potential when you got together. Maybe the rest of us didn’t, but we gave you the benefit of the doubt and figured you knew something we didn’t. Maybe he’s different when the two of you are alone together. We shrug him off when we think about you. Years have gone by, though. Take another look at him. If you didn’t know him and he asked you out today, you wouldn’t even have a cup of coffee with him. You’re totally out of his league. You deserve someone magnificent, and this guy you have hanging around is not magnificent.
When my ex asked for the divorce, I was devastated. I cried myself sick. I let him spend hours telling me all the things he didn’t like about me. I tried to convince him to go to couples counseling, to give me another chance. At 24, I thought I was too old and too messed up for anyone to ever love me again. I hated sleeping alone. I was scared. I felt that I had no purpose in my life. I didn’t know who I was without my marriage. BUT. I got used to being single. I pulled my socks up and went back to school. I learned to enjoy going to movies and restaurants alone. When I met my current husband, six years later, I had my degree and my driver’s license. By the time we started dating, I had lost most of my extra weight and paid off my consumer debt. I proved to myself that I didn’t “need” anyone, especially the ex who wasn’t on my side anyway. Objectively, there is no way my ex could even begin to compare to my husband, whom I never would have met if I hadn’t gotten that divorce.
Instead of being with someone who makes jokes at your expense, be with someone who tells stories that make you look good. Instead of being with someone who abdicates chores, be with someone who does his share plus a little extra sometimes. Instead of being with someone who “puts up with you,” be with someone who admires you and thinks you’re funny and interesting. Be with someone who thinks you’re as sweet and cute and smart as your friends do. Instead of being with someone and having to make excuses for him, be alone. It should be obvious to anyone why you like him. Be with someone who likes you for who you are, who makes you smile, who surprises you in pleasant ways. Be with someone who encourages you and cheers you on. Be with someone who maybe makes us a little jealous that you found him first.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.