For several years after my divorce, whenever anyone asked me the story about how my husband and I broke up, I gave them my sad tale of cheating, betrayal and financial ruin. I’d been completely in love with my charming husband, who left me only a year and a half after we were married, not long after I walked in on him with an old girlfriend. I’d had the rug pulled out from under me. He was the villain, and I was the victim.
I was devastated, but eventually I tried to get over the divorce and find a new partner. Dating is notoriously hard for a woman in her late thirties, especially if she lives in a major urban area, and I blamed my bad luck on demographics — and the conviction that men my age only liked younger, thinner women. Still, I managed to go out on a lot of dates, but most of them were disasters. I had coffee with men who confessed that their ex-wives had restraining orders against them, or who rode bicycles everywhere not out of concern for the environment but because they’d lost their license after a DUI. I found men who split the tab for tea, and one who told me outright that I wasn’t attractive enough for him. There were probably some nice guys in the bunch, but deep down I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t make the same mistake and fall in love with a man who’d hurt me all over again. Instead, I kept my distance or went out with men who were laughably wrong for me as if to prove my point – which was that, essentially, all men are dogs.
Then I happened to take a seminar with a personal coach. I came in for some time management skills and ended up taking on a much bigger issue in my life. Martha Borst, the coach, was an imposing redhead in her sixties, full of energy and clear intention despite what would, for most people, be a devastating disability: her hands and limbs are gnarled with rheumatoid arthritis. She was not someone who seemed stuck because of her limitations.
Borst began by talking about the importance of setting goals and keeping commitments in our lives, to oneself and to others. Then she brought up the notion of accountability. We are all at some level accountable for the events that happen in our lives, she said. We play a role, and we need to acknowledge that role in order to see how our participation affects how things end up. It’s only when we see how our actions have everything to do with the results in our lives that we can start to change them.
Borst asked us to try an exercise with a partner, to tell a story in which we’ve been victimized. I realized I didn’t know where to start: I was always telling those kinds of stories. Take the tales of my bad dates, which amused my friends. In each tale, I was a fun-loving, outdoorsy gal who likes Alice Munro, African dance, organic vegetables, The Wire and anything Italian, who mysteriously ended up suffering in the company of one of the many clueless, damaged, shallow, narcissistic single males over 40 who populate our major coastal cities. But the Big Story, where I was the sorriest victim, was the tale of my divorce, betrayal, heartbreak and subsequent financial ruin at the hands of my ex-husband.
When we were all finished telling our stories and wiping sorry tears from our eyes, Borst asked: What if you told that story differently? What if you told it as if you were accountable for what happened? How did you end up in that situation? What was your part?
I was reluctant, but I tried it, and mentioned the choices I’d made, the red flags I’d ignored, the fact that I’d brushed aside my ex-husband’s ambivalence because I was determined to get married and have children. I told the story that way, and surprisingly, it was a relief. Blame did not fall down upon my head.
I made mistakes, to be sure. “The great thing about mistakes is that if you recognize them, you don’t have to repeat them,” Borst said.
That was a liberating, reassuring thought: Instead of being the unwitting victim in my marriage, apt to suffer in any subsequent relationships, I simply didn’t have to marry that guy again. It was in my power to recognize my errors. Nor did I have to be afraid of a new relationship, constantly choosing inappropriate men to date so I’d have an excuse to avoid what had become my greatest fear — being vulnerable, giving my heart and being hurt. Had I been dating viable partners, Borst wondered, or finding yet another character for my story about how ridiculous it was for me to be in a relationship?
I was surprised at how happy I felt after retelling my story; a huge weight lifted from me. I thought of the other victim-type stories I tell myself: It’s impossible to buy a house as a single freelance writer. My generation of independent and feminist women is out of sync with men and so inevitably will end up single or unfulfilled. I can’t lose weight because my parents put me on a diet at an early age. Men my age aren’t interested in women my age. I can’t write another book because it won’t sell as well as my last one. I’m middle-aged and stuck, blah blah blah.
I realized that if I took responsibility for my actions in all those situations, instead of acting like the victim, I had the power to change them all. And in fact, within two years, I’d bought and built my own house, wrote a book, and found a nice man I’d overlooked in college. I’d become unstuck, once I realized that no one was holding me back but myself. I made myself accountable for my actions, and so gained the power to change them.
Laura Fraser is the author, most recently, of the travel memoir All Over the Map.