As a homework assignment for girl's weekend this past summer, I was asked to read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz. I was fully willing, but somewhat skeptical, since as the only child of a counselor, I was raised on a steady diet of self-help. I think I overdosed.
After the first few pages, my skepticism was replaced with excitement and understanding. This was one book that made sense to me.
The premise is straightforward: four agreements that, if followed, will change your life. The book is short and the agreements are extremely simple, but nowhere near easy. They are applicable to every area of life and manage to be general and still useful all at once. They are interconnected, one always leading to another.
As part of my own work with The Four Agreements, I am drilling down and applying them to various areas of life. I've already explored The Four Agreements in marriage and The Four Agreements in wellness. Those were easy applications. After all, those are areas where your intention is to be honest and you want to be your best.
Now, for the hard one -- The Four Agreements in divorce. How can these covenants help you navigate such an awful time with more dignity and awareness? Can these promises actually hold true while in midst of a life disintegration? Can they help to provide support and focus intention in those darkest of days?
I think they can.
The dictionary lists "acceptance" as one of the synonyms of "agreements." Perhaps that is a better approach when it comes to divorce. After all, you may not agree with the divorce; you most likely do not agree with your spouse or ex-spouse; and you certainly don't agree with the courts. But you still have to accept it if you wish to find peace. So, bad grammar aside, here are the four acceptances of divorce:
1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
"I can be impeccable with my word. He/she is a #$%@! Did you hear the latest?"
I think we have all been there. Refraining from badmouthing your soon-to-be-ex is a daunting task. He or she may appear to have morphed into some cartoon villain, fiendishly planning attacks while safe in his or her secluded lair. You feel justified in your verbal besieges; after all, you're just responding to the volleys thrown at you.
But step back a moment. Where are your utterances really coming from? You're hurt and speaking out to try to distance from the pain. You're scared and trying to armor yourself with words. You're angry and slinging insult-trimmed arrows. You're sad and seeking comfort from others.
Are your words really about your ex? Or are they about you?
Is it more impeccable to say, "I'm frightened. I haven't been alone in a long time and I don't know if I can do it. I'm scared that I won't be able to be a good parent for the kids. I'm worried that I can't be strong enough for them."
"My ex is such a terrible parent. Every little thing is a battle. I don't even think he/she thinks about the kids, much less wants to be there for them."
This acceptance was extremely difficult for me. I felt justified in my anger and outrage and I needed to express it. I felt like he had stolen my voice by refusing to talk, so I screamed instead. I poured pages of vitriol into my journal, I sent him scathing emails and I cursed him to others.
But on some level, I knew that, while purgative, those strategies were limiting. When I painted him as the villain, I cast myself as the victim. To release my bindings, I had to release him as well.
Do not expect perfection of yourself with the acceptance. You will be disappointed. Rather, keep it in mind and strive to express what you're feeling underneath the chaos of the split. Try to avoid blaming, either yourself or your ex. Try to accept the entirety of your ex, from the person you loved to the one you no longer know. Speak to them both.
2. Don't Take it Personally.
I hadn't read the book yet, but this little acceptance changed my life. When I embraced this message, I began to forgive and to release the anger. Before that point, I saw him as deliberately working to destroy me. On some level, I pictured him plotting in his basement office, stroking the soul patch on his chin:
"Let's see... I've already maxed out this card. Hmmm... I know! I'll use the one in her name so that she has to deal with it later. Okay, now that the financial ruin has been planned, what else can I do? Well, obviously, an affair would be upsetting. Now, where can I find a willing woman? Oh, and at some point, I'll have to leave her -- yeah, that will really destroy her! What would be the worst? In person? Phone call? Letter? Sticky note? Skywriting? I know! I'll do it with a text message. She'll never see that coming!"
Pretty crazy, huh? I was taking it personally. In reality, he was not thinking of my well-being any more than I considered his during the divorce. Once I realized that his decisions and actions were about him, not me, I could stop reacting defensively and start seeing more rationally. He was hurting too.
It is difficult in a divorce to not take things personally. After all, you two were a partnership, a team, and now your partner has been recast as your adversary. It's a wake-up call to realize how individual we really are. You were married to each other, yet you each experienced the marriage through your own experiences and perceptions. We can have empathy for another, yet we have to take responsibility for ourselves.
Our egos take a beating in divorce. They perceive any attack as directed and they try to fight back. Put down the gloves and accept that the ego is simply protesting, much like a child throwing a tantrum. Let it cry. Let it scream. And then wipe its tears.
3. Don't Make Assumptions.
Divorce is a time of great unknowns. Our brains hate the unknown, those gaps in the narrative. They strive to fill in the missing pieces. The medium used? Assumptions.
We assume we know why our ex is acting a certain way. We assume we know how he or she will respond. We assume that their actions and words accurately reflect their beliefs (as though they are impeccable when we are not).
We respond to assumptions rather than reality, building an entire relationship based upon an ever-weakening foundation of expectations.
We reach conclusions before we listen. We anticipate before we observe. We expect instead of accept.
Assumptions are a surefire way of maintaining your suffering. You are all but guaranteed to be hurt and disappointed when you live off expectations. This is yet another way that we can keep ourselves in the no-responsibility victim role, as we can see our hopes dashed again and again.
A divorce begins with letting go of the assumption that your marriage would last forever. The pain of the divorce will continue as long as you hold on to your other expectations. There is peace in letting go.
4. Always Do Your Best.
Be gentle with yourself. You have suffered a great loss.
Be patient with yourself. It takes time to heal.
Be loving with yourself. You are deserving.
Be kind to yourself. You are not your mistakes.
Be firm with yourself. Always strive to do better.
...and recognize that your ex is probably doing his or her best as well.
A version of this post first appeared on the blog, Lessons From the End of a Marriage.