The C in CAST stands for compassion. I know shocking, right? But this is more complicated and nuanced than it looks like at first glance, because it involves not only compassion for yourself, but for your ex. You can decide which one is more difficult…
If I have learned anything in these last few years is that nothing sturdy can be built if it isn’t on a solid foundation of self-compassion. Treating yourself the way you would treat your child, your friend or your partner is a non-negotiable for us all if we want to contribute to a better world. If that sounds grandiose to you, then you would be right: I maintain that self-compassion is what we need on a macro scale to survive as a species. How you treat yourself determines how you treat those around you and how you treat the world in general. See where I am going with this?
We act shitty to each other when we feel bad about ourselves. The way to stop feeling bad about ourselves is to realize that we are human—not angels, not devils—just humans bumbling along, trying our best and frequently making mistakes. It is not in the fact we make mistakes, but in how we respond to them that our true mettle comes through.
This requires building up a sense of self where we can acknowledge our flaws, love ourselves for them and try our very best to do better without beating ourselves up. In a world where many senses of self are built on the quick sand of external validation and desperate need to hide what we think is unacceptable to others, to build a sense of self on the sturdy ground of compassion is rare. It really, really needs to become more common if we are to survive each other.
In terms of divorce, self-compassion is also the most important rebuilding material. It will help ward off the shame of feeling stuck, of listening to that voice inside your head (and probably those outside of it) that you should be over it by now and move on, that voice that says you are unlovable because this person has ceased to love you.
Here’s the thing. The end of a marriage is the death of a life built together. It is the end of a family unit, the end of a lot of plans and dreams and ideas for a shared future. It is something that takes time to mourn and understand. There is no timeline, no good way to grieve. It is complicated because the person you loved for so long is a different person now, a stranger loving someone else and living a life apart from yours.
It takes the time it takes to come to terms with that.
So self-compassion. First and foremost, and above all.
Compassion for you ex
But it also takes compassion for your ex. This one might be hard to do at first if they have hurt you badly. If they have cheated on you, lied to you, blamed you for their unhappiness and told you it was all your fault, that it was because you were too [insert adjective here] or not enough. It is hard to have compassion for someone who not only has betrayed your trust but continues to treat you badly, to advance a narrative that feels completely unfair and crazy about your life.
Yet, the more you build up self-compassion for yourself, the more you will be able to see other people’s behaviour less through a stark, narrow lens of accusation and judgement, but through the wider aperture of this tragicomedy we call the human condition.
You will be able to see their behaviour less in terms of the hurt they caused you, but in terms of the wider behavioural patterns to which all of us humans are prone. One of the biggest ways we humans get in our own way—and thus in the way of everybody else—is through the harmful behaviours caused by cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive Dissonance Theory—or why your spouse is acting batshit crazy
Cognitive Dissonance is basically the mental discomfort caused when our behaviours do not coincide with our beliefs. It leads us to performing a whole slew of mental gymnastics to reconcile them: rationalization, dismissal, accusations, etc.
In the year after J confessed to the affair, he kept saying “I am a good person, there must be a reason why I am doing this.” I suspect that in order to reconcile the gap between his image of himself as a “good person” and the person who was cheating on his wife and leaving his family, he had to come up with an explanation. The most available targets were me and our marriage.
- I was too bossy, too demanding, too stuck in my routine.
- I didn’t pay enough attention to him.
- I did not give him space to exercise his own agency.
- If only I had gone out with him more to the after-parties, maybe he wouldn’t have cheated.
- Why couldn’t I admit our marriage was in a ditch, that there was a disconnect between us. Why couldn’t I see it? Why was I being so stubborn?
It was all my fault and he was the victim. I made him cheat by being that unlovable.
At the time, it felt like some evil spirit had taken over the body of my husband and was spewing this toxic, distorted view of our life together. It was so far away from my own experience that I was totally destabilized. It felt, well, batshit crazy.
A part of me knew, even then, that he was desperately wrestling with his own conscience. I could see he was trying to make sense of his own actions, albeit by blaming me for them. Though his words stung (still sting), deep down I knew it was not about me.
He wasn’t evil or even trying to harm me. He was experiencing a doozy of a cognitive dissonance and, like most of us, didn’t have the skills or self-awareness to realize it. I suspect the unconscious framing in his mind went something like this: I am a good person. But good people do not cheat on their wives or want to leave their family. Bad people do that. Therefore, either I am a bad person (and a quick descent into shame), or it is not my fault. If it is not my fault, then whose fault is it? Cue in obvious answer.
Of course, this is all speculation. He is the only one who knows what was going on in his heart. Nor is it an excuse. It is simply a theory, a partial explanation for his behavior. It helps me to keep seeing him as a human being who was having some large, complicated emotions and did not know what to do with them instead of succumbing to the tempting narrative that a demon body-snatched my husband.
The ways we try to reconcile cognitive dissonance have a lot to do with how we try to combat shame. In fact, I think the two are intrinsically entwined. It exposes how sturdy our platform of self-worth is. If we are sitting on a robust perception of self that believes we are trying our best and will sometimes make mistakes that will need correction, we will be able to see cognitive dissonance as a useful marker for when we are behaving outside of our values and welcome it as an opportunity to make amends and take corrective action.
If we are on a rickety platform of self-worth where our sense of self does not know how to integrate our flaws in a healthy way, cognitive dissonance is going to be experienced as shame and the defenses will kick in on a nuclear level.
My point is: we are human. We have certain ways of protecting ourselves when our actions don’t align with our perception of ourselves. If we are not aware of these tendencies, we can do a lot of harm. J had never been terribly introspective. At the time of his leaving, he had undergone a hard year that included disheartening work experiences, a beloved father slowly dying and a deep depression. In the middle of that he got to go on tour and leave all the drudgery of domesticity behind, where a beautiful, artistic woman who was not his boring wife expressed interest in him. He wanted to not feel depressed anymore. He wanted to feel alive.
I get it. I really do. I just don’t excuse it.
The cognitive dissonance between his sense of self and his actions also explains his anger toward me. It was the strangest thing—he was the one that cheated, that lied, that left and yet every interaction we had for the first couple of years of separation were tinged with contempt and anger at everything I said.
It was really, really disorienting.
Dostoyevsky put this phenomenon pretty succinctly: “He has done me no harm. But I played him a dirty trick, and ever since I have hated him.”-The Brothers Karamazov
It has only been lately that I have also realized the part cognitive dissonance played in my perception of J. While he was busy building a portfolio of all my flaws in order to justify leaving me, I was doing the opposite. The more he distanced himself, the more I doubled down on my positive view of him. This led me to diminish my own pain and hurt and effort so I did not have to confront how dismissive and hurtful his behavior was to me.
So, to recap. First, build up your compassion for yourself. Take the time you need to grieve. Honor yourself by giving yourself the love and non-judgement you would give your daughter or best friend if she were going through a break-up. Then build on that so you can feel compassion for those behaving badly around you. Compassion to see the root of bad behavior and the stories behind it. Then, when you are ready, try to apply that to your ex.
Don’t get me wrong—this doesn’t mean you have to forgive them. I am of the Harriet Lerner school of thought that says forgiveness is something that should be earned through sincere apologies and corrective action. But we still have a responsibility to not get stuck in our own anger and bitterness. Having some compassion for your ex will help you feel lighter. Though there will still be a sadness for what could have been, the hurt will be less of an anvil on your heart. I promise.