Lost love is painful but there are things you can do to make it hurt less.
Beth and Rob were happily married. You could really feel their harmony. Talking with them, you never got that awkward impression of unresolved issues trying to surface. When telling stories, they would duet smoothly, no tension, neither yanking the other this way and that. They were on each other’s same page. From the twinkle in their eyes you could tell that they loved having a story held in common.
Like any of us—the members of a church or tribe, business or family—our love is as strong as our common identity, the fable we tell of who we are together, what brought us together, what makes us strong and right, the story of our common values, missions and purposes.
But Rob, once an infrequent drinker, began drinking a lot. Beth didn’t like it and she let him know, giving him lots of chances, encouragement, and help to get on the wagon. It was all to no avail.
Her patience was exhausted, Beth decided she had to leave Rob. She told friends that Rob had become an alcoholic. Rob, sobered by her departure, resolved that he could and would change. He told friends that he was a recovering alcoholic, on the mend, getting his life back together.
Their once-harmonized stories now diverged. Rob was busy convincing himself that he was getting sober; Beth was busy convincing herself he couldn’t.
These weren’t merely their neutral assessments of Rob’s prospects. Beth needed to believe Rob wouldn’t stop drinking. Believing he could stop would erode her resolve to findhappiness elsewhere. If she believed he would stop, she would be tempted to go back to him to give him still more chances. The last thing she wanted to hear was that he could stop, and the last thing Rob wanted to hear was that his effort to sober up was futile. That story would erode his resolve.
They still talked to each other occasionally as they worked through their painful divorce. But now, after years of being able to say no wrong to each other, they now could say no right: Rob telling his story of self-encouragement; Beth telling her un-encouraging story about the likelihood he could get sober. Neither of them wanted to hear the other’s story about what had become of them.
In partnerships of all kinds, we try to find harmony to persuade and be persuaded in our attempts to harmonize stories. When the partnership ends, we’re better off giving up on that harmony. The consolation of breakup is that you can retire from efforts to find that harmony. We’re freed from that work.
Beth not only needed to give up on trying to get Rob sobered. She needed to give up on trying to persuade Rob of anything, and he on her. Telling stories in common is its ownaddiction and when it stops working, we should stop trying to make it work, agreeing to disagree outside of each other’s earshot.
The habit of telling harmonized stories dies hard. At separation we’re tempted to convince each other of our reasons for it. We don’t stop on a dime trying to generate a story in common, though we should.
Harmonized storytelling died hard for Rob and Beth. They didn’t stop on a dime. Rob accused Beth of being a quitter, lacking faith, being uncaring and callous. She was more tactful than that, but between the lines she hinted that Rob was delusional to think he could change much. They told their divergent stories to friends, often with exaggerations, each telling the story they needed to hear so they wouldn’t be swayed from their newly divergent resolves.
We find this pattern in all sorts of breakups, not just over alcoholism, but drugs, infidelity, divergent parenting styles, interests, values and missions, and not just in broken romances, but schisms of all kinds, in splits within families, business partnerships, religions, circles of friends, political circles.
Recognizing the pattern, we can take it less personally. Rob deciding Beth was a quitter isn’t really about Beth. People just say what they need to hear to make the transitions they decide they need to make.