The Case of Charles and Dana: Here’s a typical story that happens every day. Charles and Dana, a recently divorced couple, had been together for twenty years; eight while dating and twelve as a married pair. Charles always felt like he had compromised in marrying Dana. He was not as attracted to her as she was to him. And, when she made an ultimatum, he felt coerced, even though he agreed to the marriage out of his own free will.
Inside, Charles felt forced. For many this is not a strange story.
Dana, on the other hand, really loved Charles and believed that he had trouble committing like so many other men she knew. Perhaps Charles was a bit narcissistic, but he was smart and capable. He was handsome and fun. She put her foot down after eight years of dating, because it was time to make a commitment — or move on. Anyway, Dana saw her parent’s good marriage and believed that everything would work out fine, once they had a family together. After all, Charles seemed to love children.
A few years later, two kids came along and Dana’s attention refocused on them. In response, Charles felt compelled to come home later and later. He sensed the need to make money, but also felt less pressure and more attention outside of the home. Sex diminished, the couple fought occasionally, but the real issue between Charles and Dana was that they were living parallel lives. While Dana concentrated on the children, her part time job and the house, Charles was wondering what had happened to his life.
Enter Facebook; Charles had never forgotten his first love Kendra, and discovered that she was eager to connect again. This correspondence led to fantasies and more correspondence. They decided to get together one afternoon when Charles was on a business trip, and the magic returned. Fast forward; Charles started a four year affair with Kendra leading to divorce. He manipulated Dana into thinking there was no other woman, and engaged in bogus couple’s counseling (not super uncommon). Now, it’s a year after Charles moved out. Dana has discovered that Kendra had been in Charles’ life for many years. Nothing seems right. All she knows is anguish and anger. “There are two children involved, and he left me. This is not right. I will make his life miserable. “
Dana is devastated. Can she forgive? Should she forgive?
From the Couch: There are many layers to this betrayal. Dana is worried about money. She is worried if anyone will ever care about her again. She is wondering how she can deal with her children alone. But, here we will focus on her humiliation. After all, Dana gave Charles twenty of the best years of her life, and what does she have to show for it? She had trusted him. Plus, he’s running around happy as can be with the “love” of his life. It can drive you crazy.
Enter Melanie Klein, a psychoanalytic thinker who understood people like Dana. When you feel humiliated, you feel worthless, or less than nothing. You imagine what people may be thinking and desperation is never far away. You may even feel suicidal.
So, according to Klein, you try to turn the tables. You are humiliated, so you will humiliate him. You feel like ending your life, so you want him to feel the same way. You worry about your financial security so you want him to feel desperate for money. This turning the tables is the way many unhappy people deal with a sense of injustice. And it leads to bad things. Both for people like Charles and especially for people like Dana.
Melanie Klein warns us that in the fury of revenge, many people throw caution to the wind, even if it hurts themselves or those they love.
Dana Won’t Settle for Mediation: Charles asks for mediation or collaborative work. He wants to keep the costs down, and feels badly that Dana has been so hurt. He can’t make it right; he simply wants to go forward with as little toxicity as possible. Whether you agree with him or not, Charles truly feels that he left a marriage that was already dead; the problem is that he is the leaver, and Dana is carrying the burden of being the one who is left.
As I discuss in The Intelligent Divorce Book Series, in most divorces, there’s a leaver and a leave-ee. The leaver, in this case, Charles, has been grieving the marriage for some time. Plus he is leaving for something that he thinks is better – Kendra – his first love. Dana, as the leave-ee, carries the burden of abandonment and in this case rejection.
What does Dana do? She regresses. She marinates in her well deserved anger. She is committed to not being hurt again. And, she wants to turn the tables on Charles. After all, she thinks, “why should she be the only one hurting here?”
Dana Turns The Tables: So, Dana hires a crackerjack lawyer in order to hurt Charles. She lets it slip to the kids that their father left them for another family. She complains to her children that she is overwhelmed and that it’s all Daddy’s fault. She spreads her story around the neighborhood that Charles ruined their marriage. And, she takes on the victim role, demanding that no one continue to deal with Charles. She wants justice and attacks back.
Here is what Dana gets out of this intense barrage:
1. Dana turns passive into active and therefore feels better. It always feels better to be doing something rather than having something done to you. This is why it was so difficult for Dana to accept Charles’ offer of compromise. It may have been wiser, but she would have felt passive yet again.
2. It often feels better to be mad than sad. Dana is in acute grief. And attacking back is a way to run away from the devastating feelings of loss. In fact, she may “want” to be mad for years to come; it may seem a better alternative than to feel a hole inside her heart. But is it?
3. Taking a victim role means no guilt or responsibility. Dana has a narrative of victimization. She was a good wife and didn’t deserve this. All the responsibility of her pain lies with Charles. She doesn’t have to deal with the fact that she chose him. Or, the fact that the marriage was deteriorating. Or, that they lacked good communication. She is the victim, people should take notice, and she need not have any ambivalence.
4. Taking a victim role means power. The victim role is powerful. It places you on the moral high ground and in a strange way, it feels good. People feel sorry for you. They will help you out. And, you are not held completely responsible if you do mean things; after all, you’re a victim, what can anyone expect?
5. Dana hopes that Charles will secretly regret his decision and come crawling back. This is not an uncommon fantasy. Dana wants the kids to turn on their Daddy, even though he has never been a problematic father. She hopes that if he loses the kids, starts freaking about money, and sees that everyone has turned against him, maybe Charles will relent. Then she can reject him – or not.
We can all sympathize with Dana and understand why she and so many others like her (including men) would take a strong victim position and never consider any form of forgiveness.
Why forgive, if not forgiving is so empowering?
But, here’s the rub. Dana’s a victim, but now she’s a victim of being a victim. It’s a role that she’s cornered into, with heavy consequences for everyone around her – including herself.
1. Dana has two children and by poisoning them against their Dad, she is damaging them. Kids deserve to love and be loved by both parents. If Charles is available to love them, then Dana should allow it to happen. But, in a victim mode, Dana resents Charles with all her heart and wants her kids to do so as well. She may get them on her side but this can backfire in many ways.
- The kids may live a double life, telling her what she wants to hear so they can have a relationship with their father. This is crazy making.
- The kids may turn on her years later and accuse Dana of spoiling their relationship with their Dad. There may be no forgiveness for this.
- A judge may decide that Dana is unfit, because of her attempts to “alienate” the children.
2. Dana’s crackerjack attorney costs a fortune. Charles happens to be right. Most divorces can be handled cheaper and with less pain through mediation or collaborative law. Once Dana hires an aggressive lawyer, Charles will have to do so too. Dana may not care, because her victim position requires a battle. The sad thing is that she may come back to her senses five years later and realize that her children have no money for college.
3. Dana’s life is filled with angst and anxiety. When you forgive, you really let go. Dana need not forget what Charles did to her. She can protect herself. But, it needs to be done from a centered place. Staying enraged prevents any real healing. She needs to grieve and be there for her kids. Carrying endless hurt and anger will simply keep her in the past.
4. Dana fails to learn any lessons from her failed marriage. As long as it’s all Charles’ fault, Dana will not learn a thing from her failed marriage. Maybe, she over emphasized her kids and took Charles for granted? Maybe she had a nasty temper, or was judgmental. Maybe she had issues with intimacy. Love may come along again. It’s a good idea not to repeat old mistakes.
5. A judge may decide that Dana is the problem and not Charles. There is much debate about Parental Alienation Syndrome, but it’s not going away. The courts take it seriously. In PAS, one parent is accused of turning the children against the other one. Often the violating parent is ensconced in the victim role and believes that he has every right to “protect” the children. This can be a serious problem and judges may withdraw custody if they suspect PAS is going on.
Healthy Forgiveness: Dana is a victim of so much; of not realizing how bad her marriage was; of not recognizing that Charles never got over the wedding; of her loving commitment to her kids at the expense of the marriage; of her husband’s selfishness; of a random act, like a Facebook contact that triggered the end; and of a universe where bad things do happen to good people. It helps to forgive.
Dana can work with a member of the clergy or a therapist; her therapy on divorce will also include forgiveness work. Dana can forgive herself for not seeing what was really going on. She may not want to forgive Charles for leaving her for another woman – maybe never – but she can forgive him for being human. He went for love, and not a commitment to his family. Not nice. But not outside what people do. Most of all, she needs to forgive so she can get back to her life.
Forgiveness is a way of shedding pain. Dana can still deal with Charles proactively, but not destructively. If an aggressive attorney is required, Dana can have confidence that she went that way for the right reasons. Her pleasure will not be in torturing Charles, but in protecting herself, moving on with her life and watching her children grow up healthy despite everything. It’s the only good answer.
Did we say forget? No.
Forgiveness has power to heal. Dana and many others like her can forgive, even when it’s not easy. At the very least they can forgive themselves and their God. Retribution is a terrible force in this world and can lead to the hazards of a malignant divorce. From there, really bad things can happen.
The victim role is not worth it.
And the preciousness of one’s life demands more.
You can hear Dr. Banschick on The Intelligent Divorce radio show as well.