I've learned a lot of lessons over the last 20 years since my divorce. It dawned on me recently that even though I didn't have a divorce party (just wasn't in the mood) it doesn't mean that I can't mark the 20th anniversary of my divorce in some way. So here it goes, my list of the 10 most important lessons I've learned in the last two decades:
1. Your partner is not going to change. In other words, you can't change a cat into a dog. Love just isn't enough to significantly alter a person's basic nature and upbringing. For instance, if you fall in love with someone who is reserved and you need outward signs of affection to feel secure, you'll feel chronically dissatisfied. Most likely, these differences will probably erode loving feelings over time and diminish positive interactions in your relationship.
2. Rather than trying to "fix" your partner, focus on improving your own life. Many people stay in dysfunctional relationships with the unconscious desire to change their partner and avoid dealing with their own issues. According to codependency and relationship expert Ross Rosenberg, this pattern is common and couples often stay in highly dysfunctional relationships to their own detriment. Rosenberg notes, "The inherently dysfunctional 'codependency dance' requires two opposite but distinctly balanced partners: the pleaser/fixer (codependent) and the taker/controller (narcissist)." Rather than investing your energy into fixing your partner, make a commitment to improve some of your undesirable traits -- we're all flawed in some way.
3. Opposites attract but usually don't stay together. Rosenberg describes opposites as "human magnets" who are irresistibly pulled toward each other, not so much by their conscious decisions or intentions, but rather by their opposite "magnetic field." He writes, "Such partners with complimentary magnetic roles are irresistibly drawn together and locked into a relationship that is nearly impossible to resist or break free of." He posits that couples who are opposites are immune to breakups due to the amorous nature of their relationship magnetism -- unless one partner moves in a healthier direction, and the other one doesn't follow.
4. Avoid jumping into an intimate relationship too quickly. The idea here is to take it slow -- really, really slow. Slowing down the pace of your relationship, regardless of the impulse many people feel to move things along quickly, will give you the opportunity to get to know your partner better. The odds of seeing the truth of the relationship increase when we take time to get to know someone, according to psychologist Kristin M. Davin, PsyD. She advises, "Many become sexually involved before they're ready and potentially problematic issues get obscured until much later in the relationship. I see this all the time. Date. Talk. Really get to know each other." In my case, I knew my ex for less than a year when we became engaged so I was blindsided by many of our differences.
5. Practice forgiveness. Forgiveness isn't the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move forward with your life. Accept that people usually do the best they can and try to be more understanding. This doesn't mean that you accept your partner's hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. In the future, if your relationship is basically healthy, develop a mindset of acceptance and forgiveness about daily disappointments. After all, none of us is perfect. Don't let resentment impact you greatly and try to let go of small annoyances.
6. Sweeping things under the rug usually doesn't reap good results. Communicate honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns. Express thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Resentment can build when couples bury hurt feelings, so be vulnerable and don't allow upset feelings to fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about holding onto hurt feelings. When we listen to our partner's side of the story and process it briefly with them, we no longer need to hold onto hurt feelings.
7. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute. One person's ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Drs. Julie and John Gottman write: "One person's response will literally change the brain waves of the other person." Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on. Love is not enough. Saying you're sorry can heal a wound even when you didn't hurt your partner's feelings intentionally. Resentment builds over time if couples aren't able to talk about hurt feelings that arise from unresolved grievances.
8. Develop a Hurt-Free Zone policy. This term coined by author David Akiva refers to a period when criticism is not allowed. Without it, couples usually feel less defensive, thus hurt feelings and rejection dissolve. Akiva writes: "Your prime directive right now is to eliminate the most toxic negative communication and reduce intense negative emotions for 3 to 4 weeks."
9. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. While self-sufficiency and autonomy can help you weather the storms of life, it can also rob you of true intimacy. For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel that they are needed and appreciated for the support they give. If you have been let down in the past, the prospect of needing someone can be frightening. Opening up to your partner can make you feel vulnerable and exposed but it is the most important ingredient of a trusting, intimate relationship. If you can't be vulnerable with your partner, this is a red flag so pay attention!
10. Learn to trust your own judgment. If you find yourself saying things like, "I knew things were awful and I should have ended it earlier," you may need to pay attention to your inner voice or intuition. Ending a relationship doesn't make you a failure. Rather it probably means it just wasn't the right one for you. According to Kristin M. Davin, PsyD., "We tend to ignore red flags because we want to be in a relationship." She posits, "we put on our rose-colored glasses and off we go. Throw the glasses away and trust your gut."
In sum, I don't regret a moment of my past -- or the decision to get a divorce. But I'll keep this list close at hand as a reminder of lessons learned. I hope it helps you move forward and find the kind of love that allows you to be your best self and embrace all that life has to offer!