Before we got married, 23 years ago (!!!), I read lots of relationship advice. I wanted this thing to work. And the best piece of advice I read (probably in a magazine such as Glamour or Allure or Vogue, which was a lot of what I read in 1996) was from a person who had been divorced multiple times.
I no longer have the source, or the name of the person who said it, so this is a paraphrase.
Here it is:
“When you get divorced once, it can be all the other person’s fault.
“When you get divorced a second or third or fourth time, you have to start looking at yourself and where your fault lies. It isn’t always the other person’s fault.”
Wow. To 24-year-old me, this was a revelation. I tried so hard to do everything just right. In my mind, I was always blameless.
But something about this statement sank into my soul.
That’s because I knew it was true.
If I could go back and tell that young newlywed one piece of advice, it would be that developing the objectivity to sort what parts of a conflict lie with you and what lies elsewhere — and acknowledging the fault that lies with you — is the key to growth and wisdom.
Of course, this is a great piece of advice to follow in your partnered relationship. But it also works with your children, with friends, in work situations, in ALMOST everything. (Scroll down to the very bottom for situations where this framework does not apply.)
When I am faced with a conflict, I take a breath, I visualize going outside myself and looking at the situation from a bird’s-eye view, and I ask myself:
“What part of this do I need to own?”
“What do I need to do differently in order to help fix this situation?”
Almost every time, when you look at a situation with some objectivity, you see that conflict frequently is a joint effort. Sure, you can point at what someone else is doing wrong. That’s easy to do, and you’re probably correct. But when you step back and ask yourself where you went wrong and what you could do differently, you will usually find answers there, too.
You can only do so much to correct what someone else is doing. That’s work they’re going to have to do. You can, however, control and manage your role in a conflict. You can apologize. You can take active steps to make things right. You can examine your patterns of behavior and figure out how to change them.
This is empowering. When you let this sink in, you transform from “letting things happen to you” into someone who makes things happen for themselves. When you own your share of conflict, you start to step into your power.
To that nameless oft-divorced person, I say: Thank you. Thank you for making my life better and stronger. I hope you have found the “happily ever after” you sought, whatever that looks like.
Remember: You can do anything. Really, you can.
WHEN ALL OF THIS DOESN’T WORK
(tw: abuse of all kinds)
One thing I want to be clear about: There are situations where this framework doesn’t apply. We’re talking about normal conflicts that arise, where there’s no imbalance of power or violence involved. If you’ve experienced emotional or physical abuse, or sexual abuse or violence, this is not the time to ask yourself where you are at fault, because you’re not. When someone else makes a choice to harm you, they are the ones at fault and they bear the full responsibility for it. Your responsibility is in healing and becoming stronger despite their actions. End of story. And children never, ever bear a share of the blame in their trauma. Never. Not ever.