Light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were
—Barbara Streisand, The Way We Were
“I don’t want to point fingers, but he just stopped trying and there was nothing I could do,” Sarah tells me over a steaming cup of tea. “How could he just decide to stop loving me? He wouldn’t even work on it. He just left. Left me, the mother of his kids.” Her fingers pressed into the side of the cup, whitening with the pressure.
I hear this story a lot. Single parents who are trying to understand why their relationship ended and how the ex could just stop trying. Just stop wanting to be in it. And it hurts, hurts deep down. Sparking anger, shaking down to the pain of rejection and abandonment. They don’t want to blame their ex and they try to understand, yet most of the time they can’t help but blame them for leaving. Blame them for not wanting the relationship anymore or turn around and blame themselves. Are you on one side of this fence?
I’ve found there are two dynamics you need to understand with if you want to move forward in a healthy, constructive way: blaming and wanting.
The Blame Game
Lets talk about blame. While it might seem like a productive way at the time to push the pain away, making someone else responsible for it, at the end of the day blame is draining the person pointing the finger. Why would I say that? Because when we blame another for the pain, not only are we trying to push the pain away but we are also giving away our power. If Sarah blames her ex-husband for the pain she feels and for the way her life is now, she has just made herself the victim. The one who has no power.
Or she could blame herself, run through the hundred and one things that she did that he didn’t like, over and over again. “I never should have watched Game of Thrones.” Or blame herself for things that are out of her control. “It is all my fault, if I hadn’t let my sister stay, it would have all been ok.” When blame is pointed inwards, it just swaps one pain for another.
So what is the alternative? Firstly blame, no matter which way it is pointing, is rooted in judgment. There is a strong idea that someone has to be wrong. I offer you the idea that clinging to ideas of right and wrong is only going to cause you suffering in this case. If you change it around to a basis of understanding, things change. I believe so strongly that everyone is doing the best with what they have got. We all do things that we regret and we all have things happen that hurt us.
A big part of finding understanding is to own your own stuff and not take on theirs. This means that your feelings are your own, your reactions are your own. No one can make you feel or react in a certain way. In a relationship it is all a tango—a turn here, a dip there. Own your part in the dance. Feet got stood on. It happens. And I guess that the trick is now to take full responsibility for your life once the dance is over. It is the way to take your power back. Don’t position yourself as the powerless victim.
What about wanting?
The other thing that I want to say about this is that wanting to be with someone is complex. It is impossible to make yourself want something. If you don’t want it, you don’t want it. And when somebody in a relationship stops wanting to be in it, there is no amount of effort that can change that. There is some secret special alchemy that can take place to change that wanting, but it isn’t a choice.
Sarah’s husband didn’t choose to stop wanting to be in the relationship; the alchemy failed. He tried for years to find a way back to wanting to be in it but that seemed to be undermining the relationship further. Faking wanting someone is soul breaking for everyone just as much as being married to someone you know doesn’t want to be with you or vice-versa. He was denying who he really was and longing to want her but unable. Nobody wants to end the relationship that has brought their kids into the world, and yet nobody wants to be in a relationship with someone they no longer desire.
I don’t offer this to say that either Sarah or her husband were the ones who were right or wrong. There is no nice way forward when one person in a relationship loses that wanting. Not for anyone. There is pain on both sides of that newly built fence. All I can offer is working towards a blame-free approach that promotes understanding. If this was the way that your relationship went down, then cutting the blame, releasing the grief, and finding a way to move forward is going to help you. Help you step into the power, so you can build a life that is yours, truly yours, on this side of the separation.