Betsy was severely hurt as a child, but you would never know it. Everything about her appears rosy and happy. Her relationships are always void of conflict because she never disagrees with others.
Knowing that, you can understand why it came as a total surprise to her husband, Bill, when she said “I want a divorce.” At first, Bill thought something must be physically wrong with Betsy. Then he thought there might be another man in her life. After all, you don’t just end a 19 year marriage for no apparent reason. He recalled that she once suggested they see a marriage counselor, but from his viewpoint, everything was fine. They rarely argued and their lives were financially comfortable, so it didn’t make sense. This time, he begged her to go to therapy. She agreed, but stated adamantly “nothing will change my mind.”
During their first session, he listed the reasons their marriage should continue. However, throughout the session, Betsy responded only in monosyllables. Finally, I suggested seeing each of them alone at a later date. She readily agreed.
In her session, Betsy opened up and provided a litany of reasons for her decision. “He never listens to me; he occasionally drinks too much and gambles to excess; he isn’t as hard-working as I would like; he is more involved with his mother and our daughter than with me. We’ve never taken a vacation together. On every occasion, he includes his mother, whom he caters to and needs to please. She’s a fragile lady who is cunning like a fox and controls her son.” She went on to say that, early in their marriage, they agreed to alternate holidays between their families. But, then a pattern emerged. Each year when they were preparing to visit her family, his mother became deathly ill and, on several occasions, even required hospitalization. Every time, their plans changed. Bill’s comment was “She is old and after she dies, your time will come”. Betsy said nothing, but underneath, an emotional volcano boiled and churned and finally erupted.
I suggested to Betsy that, prior to getting a divorce, it seemed important that she inform Bill why she was so upset. I also felt it was essential that she learn to verbalize her emotions, particularly those of anger. Further, I indicated that, even if she was adamant that nothing would change, she still had to alter her behavior. Otherwise, every future relationship she had would result in the same scenario. She assured me that she would never marry again. I told her that history has a tendency to repeat itself and she would likely wind up relating to her daughter in the same fashion she had to her husband, his mother and her own parents before them. Several days later, Betsy told Bill why she was so unhappy.
To my surprise and, I believe, to Betsy’s, Bill heard her and understood her position. Even more surprising, he reacted very positively. There was one problem, however. The more he changed, the more he expressed his love and concern for his wife, the greater the estrangement between them. Eventually, Bill told Betsy, “I’ve tried. I know that what you told me is true and I want our relationship. But I give up. The more I try, the further away you get. If this is the best it will ever be, we need to go our own ways.” A silence followed, then Betsy began to cry hysterically. When her sobs subsided, she said “It’s not that I don’t care. I know you’ve tried. So much so that now I think you’re totally neglecting your mother and I feel responsible. You’re the kind, caring person I loved when we dated. But, after we married, you changed. Your love went toward our daughter and your mother and all I got was leftovers. I love who you are now, but I don’t trust you. I’m afraid that if I let myself care, everything will go back to the way it was before, and I won’t have the courage to stand up for me again. What assurance do I have that this isn’t just a way to manipulate me and to get me back in line?”
Bill was flabbergasted. It angered him, but I intervened and tried to show him that the distrust wasn’t of him, it was of herself and it wasn’t an unusual reaction. The fight most people experience in life is not with others, it’s within themselves. It’s learning to have the courage of their convictions, to behave in accordance with what they know is best, to stand up for themselves, their values and principles and to feel that they have a right to the love and nurturance they desire. The paradox most people find difficult to understand is that the more you feel, the more you fear. Thus, the more loving he behaved, the more frightened she became. What she needed now was reassurance, not ultimatums.
It’s the same for all of us. If we want to live life in a manner that gives us a sense of well being about ourselves, we have to learn to speak up for us. Not to stand up to others, but to stand up for ourselves, to express our views and to set limits and boundaries for us. It’s not a case of “you have to change”, but rather “I have to change so that you know there’s only so far I’ll bend or so much I’ll tolerate.” It isn’t a case of threatening others, but of showing them that you have the integrity and strength to stand up for what you believe in.
These are not easy steps to take. Standing up only comes after a lifetime of successful battles with yourself, which eventually help you to realize that you must consistently act in a way that exemplifies the feelings and emotions you embrace within you. Don’t wait until you are totally without fear. Instead, face your fears and, in spite of them, have the courage to show the world and, most importantly, those people important to you, who you are, what you need and what you stand for. I cannot stress how important a task that is, nor the degree to which it will give you the sense of well being that you have searched for since childhood.