By Jerald Young, Ph.D.
This article answers the question, “Are you willing to let being happy be enough?” Trick question? Not at all. To date, I have yet to meet one newly divorced person who didn’t say they wanted to be happy, but when faced with the painful memories of their divorce, acted as if being happy was the last thing they desired. Why is that? Let’s find out.
(This is the 16th article in a series of articles describing how contentment and satisfaction with life after divorce depends on being able to dissolve the very human resistance to the changes that divorce imposes on our lives.)
By definition, getting divorced means you got hurt. Your initial hopes and dreams for the relationship have been smashed to smithereens. Much of the pain of divorce seems unfair. You’re angry at the person who hurt you. You are angry at yourself for letting it happen to you. It seems only fair to let your ex-spouse know how poorly you were treated. It also seems fair that you let friends and relatives know how you are in the right and your spouse is in the wrong. Hence, it is extremely easy to become seduced into obsessing over your being right, and your spouse’s being wrong. Even to the point of giving up your own happiness in the process.
This raises the question, “What do you really want in your recovery from divorce?” Or, more pointedly, “If you had to choose between being right or being happy, what would you choose?”
Sounds Silly! Is This an Actual Choice People Make?
Who wouldn’t choose being happy? The real-life dilemma of having to make the “obvious” choice between being right or being happy was brought home to me by a change consulting client back in the early 1990’s. Until this incident, I did not even believe such a choice existed, because I believed anyone would choose being happy over anything else, including being right, regardless of the situation. How naive I was:
Janet’s story. Janet was a manager in a government organization. She was having trouble with her two highest-performing subordinate supervisors over some minor office issue. Her supervisors were close friends and they were turning in routine reports using a format that had too wide of a left margin on the form. Clearly, no big deal in the overall scheme of things. Janet told them multiple times to change the formatting, but they never did. Clearly, they were doing it to annoy Janet who was not widely liked.
Janet’s choice alternatives were either to make a formal issue of their “insubordination” and “write them up,” or to simply ignore it in order to maintain a calm working environment for the entire department, knowing it would go away if she no longer made such an issue of it. It was driving her crazy. She spent time trying to find a basis for firing them, knowing if she used as her reason “improper margins on reports,” she would be the one who would be in trouble. Not to mention she would lose her two best employees.
So, thinking I could force her to see the ridiculous nature of her upset, I asked her, “Janet, would you rather be right and make a big deal out of their minor insubordination? Or, would you rather be happy and overlook what is in the overall scheme of things no big deal?” Without hesitation she looked me straight in the eye and said “Jerald, I’d rather be right.”
The Pros and Cons of Being Right
We have been taught from an early age that to be “right” is a good thing. What kid doesn’t want to get the “right answer?” However, sometimes what we learn as children isn’t always as black and white as it may appear.
The upside of being right. When you are right, you can gloat and tell your ex, “I told you so.” You can humiliate you ex by reminding him or her over and over “I was right and you were wrong.” You can enjoy feeling superior and self-righteous. You will feel competent, in control, and powerful.
The downside of being right. The rush of being right does not last. So what if you won a game from the past? What about now and the future? People who you forced into a corner by being right are less willing to cooperate with you in the future. They are less likely to be willing to adhere to the rules of the divorce, at least willingly. They may follow the letter of the law, but not the spirit, which dooms such things as asking your ex to switch the kids’ visitation schedule to accommodate a last-minute change in your work schedule. Imposing being right on your ex breeds resentment. It can easily make a difficult relationship practically impossible, especially if you are co-parenting children with your ex.
The Pros and Cons of Being Happy
People do not simply “flip a switch” and suddenly they are happy. After going through a divorce, there are two conditions that are necessary for you to feel happy with life after divorce: (1) the removal of all attachments, both positive and negative, tangible and emotional, to your ex, and (2) a sense of optimism about the future. You know you have erased all attachments to your ex when you cannot conjure up any currently existing positive feelings or any negative feelings about your ex or the past life the two of you shared. A sense of optimism comes from realizing the next chapter in your life will let you become the person “you want to be.”
The upside of being happy. Well, not to belabor the obvious, being happy feels good. Isn’t happiness and contentment the goal of your life in the next chapter? You feel competent at handling the difficult divorce situation to your satisfaction. You feel powerful in knowing that you honored and played by your inner principles. You are proud that you had your head on straight and kept your eye on the prize without being distracted by ego or social pressure.
The downside of being happy. Happiness comes with a price. You don’t get to feel all-powerful, in control, and intimidating. You will probably have to give up some things that rightly belong to you. You melt into the background rather than being upfront on the throne with the TV lights shining on you. You must be okay with the other person’s thinking they won. You may look “weak”” to family and friends.
So, What’s the Point?
It comes down to how you handle the internal conflict between your ego versus your humility. There is no “slam dunk winner” in any divorce. We all suffer pain and endure disappointment in a divorce. To be happy often means you have to swallow your pride in order to get what you want – an attachment-free, optimism-infused life after divorce. To be happy enables you to see clearly what you need to do to dissolve the sources of resistance to change that prevent you from enjoying your life after divorce.
In his song, The Gambler, Kenny Rodgers describes the key to being happy thusly: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em. Know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away. Know when to run.”
Turns out, one of the most courageous acts a divorced person can make is to choose to “be happy.”
The way I would describe this choice is by asking the most important question any divorced person could be asked, “Are you willing to let being happy be enough?”