Hurt and loss. Sadness and stinging regret. Loneliness and guilt. The feelings of separation for me were largely painful ones. But in spite of this onslaught and the sense of defeat, one thing was never lost for me.
January 1996. My wife and I were no longer happy together. After years of struggling to regain intimacy, after years of hard work on both our parts to try and salvage our togetherness, we both felt very distant and very frustrated. She had considered moving out, but had decided to stay with me and try again to make it work. A few days later, though, I walked out.
I remember an argument. I remember feeling so angry that I felt my head was about to blow off my shoulders. I remember thinking, "That's it." I remember telling my wife abruptly that I was moving out. I remember thinking I couldn't handle the status quo of stress and conflict any more.
The logical part of me said: Surely, love is gone now. With the shouting and the anger and our broken hearts.
But my love for her did not go away. Nor did my love for my children. Nor did my love for myself -- though for a while I felt far more self-recrimination than self-love.
I have always believed in love, been motivated by love, been oriented by love. But I never knew it was so strong
I think love has survived because I love myself. I doubt and dislike myself sometimes, but I also feel a self-acceptance, a joy in being alive, in being me.
These feelings are my foundation.
Sometimes, of course, I don't feel very loving towards myself at all. So when I feel a good dose of self-loathing coming on, or I feel I'm not worthy of love -- I take some time to regroup.
I remind myself that love spelled backwards is evol. The beginning of evolution. To me, it means that no matter how low I might feel or how difficult life can seem -- if I can acknowledge love, then I am acknowledging my ability to change and grow. Sometimes, it's a good feeling just to know I'm not stuck.
I remind myself that love is unconditional, that love is perennial, that love is resilient; therefore, it follows logically that I can always rely on it.
Love becomes the foundation of my ability to bounce back.
Several days after I moved out of my home, I decided I wanted to try again with my wife to rebuild the relationship. The anger had passed and I knew that I didn't want to give up on keeping the family together. I wanted us each to be happier, and though I knew changes were necessary, I thought we could make them.
I also thought I had a weapon. Part of the difficulty in our relationship had been my inability to identify and express negative feelings. Hate, anger, jealousy, bitterness. I hid from them all. I was fully fluent in the positive feelings. And I reveled in a thousand different nuances of joy and happiness and ecstasy and contentment. But I was not aware of a large part of my experience. And so it was hard for my wife to get to know me closely, because I often couldn't say what I was feeling.
I had started going to a psycho-therapist. And I felt I was making some headway in knowing myself. The key breakthrough was simple: My feelings were part of me. ALL of my feelings. They were as real as a tree or a house or the sky.
That was great. Now I wanted to know what all these feelings were. The problem was that I had built up defenses against knowing them. Walls against feeling sad or angry or hurt. I had responsibilities. I was a provider. I was a manager at work. I was a dad. I couldn't go around being jealous or embarrassed or scared. It would be weak. In addition, I thought people wouldn't like me if I displayed negative emotions. Like a lot of people, I wanted to be liked, to be admired, to be accepted.
So I hid those "negative" feelings behind the strongest psychological walls I could build, and I convinced myself that those walls were protective walls, part of my will and my endurance, part of my strength.
But the walls kept my wife out as well as me. For years, she felt held at arms length. And though I showed love and support to her, the walls were at least one reason why we failed to find a deeper connection.
Yet, I was beginning to understand all that. And, excited by my self-discovery, I saw hope for my marriage. I went to my wife and told her I wanted to try again.
It was not to be. Though I was learning about myself, she had no faith that things would be different.
I was left with the feeling that it was too late. That too much damage had been done.
And the man who had walked out of his marriage found himself desperate to get back in, but not welcome.
Three Simple Steps
The disappointment and rejection I felt did not make me abandon the quest to know myself better.
That still felt right.
Weeks passed. And many negotiation sessions with my wife came and went. I continued to pursue a reconciliation that was never to be. That's me. I do not give up easily.
But amongst all the frustration, I had another breakthrough. I found it in a book, At Peace with Yourself, by Iris Barrow, a New Zealand author and social worker.
The concept was easy: To know yourself, you need to:
- Identify what you are feeling;
- Accept that feeling, whatever it is, as a part of you;
- Remember, after you accept the feeling, you get to make a decision about what you want to do.
Ms. Barrow made an important distinction. Between feeling and taking action, there is always a decision-making process.
A man cannot choose to feel a certain way -- he simply is angry. But he can choose how he expresses that anger. The man might say he gets violent because he's angry. I say that's a cop out. He feels angry, OK. He chooses to hit someone, not OK. He compounds a negative feeling with a bad choice.
What we feel is a given. Unavoidable. As real as a piece of steel. But the action we take based on that feeling is completely under our control.
I loved the concept. Suddenly, I could be in touch with my feelings, even dangerous ones, and still maintain the command, the captaincy of my life.
I couldn't always control the situation I was in. I couldn't control my feelings. But I had complete control over what I did.
It was a ray of pure sunshine.
And the three steps used together have been my recipe ever since -- especially when I'm in a situation where I don't know what to do or I feel stressed. I try to take time to identify what I feel, then accept it (often this means accepting other aspects of my life or environment), and then I try to make a good decision about what to do.
Sometimes that decision is to do nothing. To wait. Sometimes it is to take a risk -- to try something that may fail because it seems the best option. But almost always the process produces new alternatives. And I don't get stuck.
For Men Who Have Everything, Including a Broken Heart, #1
This is part of a Huffpost series -- in words and video -- about surviving separation. There are 12 segments in all, and the next eight will be arriving over the coming weeks. If you want to read the first three installments, there are links at the bottom of this post.
My goals are straight-forward:
I wrote For Men Who Have Everything, Including a Broken Heart because I would have liked a book like this when my first marriage nose-dived.
- Offer hope and humor to men who are disconsolate after a relationship has hit the rocks
- Offer a resource to women -- sisters, mothers, friends -- who care about such men
I offer it in a spirit of brotherhood and with a strong faith that once our broken hearts mend, we have the capacity to be more compassionate, wiser, more resilient and stronger than we were before.
There's more blogging and vlogging and to come. I promise it will be personal and positive. Sign up for email alerts and each time a new segment is posted, you'll be informed. Thanks.