Realizing that we are responsible for our own happiness is divorce advice that many of my interviewees have shared. Understanding it and practicing it are two different processes though. It’s not something that you learn through a quick online tutorial – I think it’s a skill that takes practice and repetition, pushing yourself outside your comfort zone until the discomfort is no long discomfort and it becomes second nature. The transformation happens gradually.
That transformation can have a profound impact on our relationships and as Elizabeth found it, sometimes it means that existing relationships no longer work. Here’s Elizabeth:
It took a lot of trial and error to take responsibility for my own happiness. Then also I give a lot of credit to Al-anon which is for people who are affected by alcohol or just really dysfunctional behavior and anybody that they’re in a relationship with.
The mantra of that program is keep the focus on yourself. We are powerless over anybody else’s behavior, activities, happiness … all of that is not our responsibility. And in a dysfunctional family people adjust themselves to the behavior of somebody else.
What I believe is that all we really need to do is keep the focus on yourself, do what you need to do to stay happy. That doesn’t mean trample on anybody else. But hopefully they’re taking care of themselves as well. And the more I began to keep the focus on myself and make sure that I was happy, that really precipitated the end of my marriage.
I’ll give you an example: I had chosen a particular kind of diet and I was cooking four main meals within that repertoire. My husband would come home and say, “Are you eating your food tonight? I’ll just go out to the market and get something for myself.”
I was all apologetic, I was making two meals and then I thought, he’s a grown-up, the food is very good, there’s no reason for him to eat anything but what I serve. So I would say, “Go ahead. I am eating this.”
That became the demise of the marriage, not that one thing, but that was the focal point. That thing was, “Oh, I can see she’s not trying to placate me anymore,” which was how I went through the whole thing with trying to make him happy. I think people-pleasing is the phrase for that or enabling. And I just stopped doing it completely.
I got over guilt about being wanting to be happy a long time ago because I do feel that guilt and worry are really useless emotions. They just have no function. As long as I felt clean within myself as to what I was doing, I knew we were responsible for ourselves. And it was the same behavior with my mother.
I kind of latched on to my brother’s therapy. His therapist said, “What do you think is a good son?” He said, “Well, usually if I call my mother once a week and see her twice a year.” And so he defined what it was.
If I did that, that was never enough for my mother, “When am I going to see you again? When are you going to call again?” If it was enough for me, it was enough. If it were up to her, she would have me crawl back in the womb and go back to childhood, and just have me there twenty-four, seven. That was not going to work out.
So, if I could define being a good wife as providing a meal and being there as companionship and if he had a problem with it, that was his responsibility to figure out. He had to assert himself, which was something he was not very good at, asking for something he wanted or needed. I no longer took that on as my responsibility.
I’m currently reading The 4-Hour Workweek, by Timothy Ferris – one of the techniques he talks about is becoming a ‘proposer.’ By that he means instead of asking others what they’d like to do or eat, offer them a proposal. As I was reading this last night I was thinking about Elizabeth’s story – I think this is a good technique for learning to be responsible for your own happiness provided, the proposal is based on your own wants or wishes rather than what you think the other person might want to hear.
In my own marriage I felt I was the initiator or the proposer the majority of the time. It wasn’t balanced. There were times I so desperately wanted not to be the one coming up with the ideas even for something as mundane as what to have for dinner. One of my biggest frustrations was asking my husband what we should have for dinner only to have him respond, “I don’t know. What do you want?” Grrrgh.
Are you a proposer? What’s helped you find your happiness?
Photo Credit: 2013© Jupiter Images Corporation