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Five Things I Wish I Could Tell My Ex

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A friend and I, both divorced for several years, met for lunch a few days ago. Over our Chinese chicken salads, she told me she'd recently heard a story about a woman who "announced" her divorce to her husband by storming out of his birthday party with the dog and the kids.

"I couldn't believe she would humiliate her husband like that!" said my friend. "And then I realized...I did the same thing!"

We talked about how we had both focused on all the egregious things our exes had done, and how years of putting up with egregious behavior had made us feel entitled to act badly in response. But with enough post-divorce, and post-custody-battle time under our belts, my friend and I now cringe when we remember some of the choices we made in the maelstrom of anger and resentment.

My friend is actually on good terms with her ex at this point and made an amends to him for her past behavior. He didn't reciprocate, but she wasn't expecting an apology. She simply wanted him to know she took accountability for her poor choices instead of blaming them on him. Once she did so, she told me, she felt as if a weighted blanket had been lifted from her shoulders. Now, five years after her divorce, she finally felt she could get on with her life.

I would love to be able to tell my ex I'm sorry about some of the ways I acted, both during the marriage and during the divorce. But any admission of mistakes on my part would just fuel his animosity towards me and his habit of blaming me for all pre- and post-divorce issues.

If I were able to have a reasonable conversation with my ex, however, this is what I would tell him:

1. I apologize for making you responsible for my happiness

When we met, you were focused on building your career, and I was focussed on building a nest. Instead of enjoying the what we had, I spent too much time hounding you for the trappings of adult life: a wedding, a house, kids. I told myself, and you, that I could not be happy without these things, all of which depended on your participation. I wish I knew then what I know now: that long-term happiness comes from self-agency -- things I can control -- and not externals.

2. I apologize for trying to change you

I tried to get you to be someone you weren't. Besides making you feel bad, this misguided effort was a colossal waste of time. It was also a smokescreen. Although I didn't realize it until years after we split up, many of the things I disliked about you were versions of things I disliked about myself. We would both have benefited more if I had worked on changing me, and not you.

3. I apologize for criticizing you

The most valuable lesson I've learned post-divorce is that there are really only two good choices for handling relationship problems: accept the situation and work on your part, or acknowledge that the situation is untenable and remove yourself from it. Criticizing doesn't invite cooperation or solve problems; it just creates more conflict and ill will.

4. I apologize for being passive aggressive

Sometimes, instead of verbally expressing my displeasure, I "told" you I was mad in childish, indirect ways. Staying in when you wanted to go out. Overspending on retail therapy when you told me we should spend less. Saying I was "fine" with an edge in my voice, while refusing to look at you. I was angry at you for being unavailable, but the way I expressed my anger pushed you further away.

5. I apologize for perpetuating a power struggle

Our relationship was a power struggle from the get-go. If I'd had more self-esteem, and better boundaries, I wouldn't have signed on for a marriage that I knew was never going to be a true partnership. Accepting a "bad deal" fostered resentment, competition, and retaliation in both of us. And it led me to justify all the behaviors I've mentioned. For years I was angry at you for treating me like a second-class citizen without taking responsibility for my part of the problem: I let you treat me that way.

In my fantasy conversation, my ex would then list all the crappy things he did, we'd shake our heads about what dopes we both were, and the bad feelings between us would dissipate. We could sit next to each other at our kids' graduations, toast each other at their weddings.

My ex is probably never going to move past anger, so this conversation will likely remain in my head. But I'm glad I can admit that his lousy behavior didn't excuse my own. I'm glad I can admit that I made some really stupid choices, so I don't have to make them again.