Divorce is a series of behaviors, not a disease

Dear Neil: I was abused sexually, emotionally and physically as a child. Subsequently, I messed up two good relationships, and now I feel that no one would want me. I seem to get everything wrong with other people, and I end up feeling isolated, alone, betrayed, abused and confused. I pretend it’s sort of OK, but then I feel self-blame, self-criticism and low self-esteem. How do I build up my sense of self again? I don’t know what to do.

Alone in New Zealand

Dear Neil: My parents separated when I was a toddler and subsequently divorced. I separated from my husband when my children were ages 6 and 8, and we divorced two years later. My daughter, now in her mid-teens, has said that she would like to get married someday but that it won’t last because “that’s what runs in the family.” In truth, amongst family, friends and her friends’ parents, there is roughly a 50-50 mix of long-term marriages and divorces. What would you say to her?

Don’t Know What to Say in Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Wellington and New Zealand: I’d say that relationships are difficult and that it takes work and skill to keep a marriage together, but that divorce is a series of behaviors, not a disease, and it does not run in families. If she desired to be in a marriage that stayed together for life, she could do it. It would require of her and her husband patience; commitment; respect; effective navigation through anger, differences and conflicts; learning how to keep the fire and the romance burning brightly; friendship; affection; and having fun together.

Tell her she’s not ready to marry until she’s up for those challenges, because regardless of what happened to her parents or friends, marriage is not supposed to be temporary.

Author Nathaniel Branden (“The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem”) reminds us that among other things, self-esteem requires a desire to understand our mistakes and an eagerness to correct them. Self-esteem further asks of us to figure out what our goals and purposes are in life, and to go after achieving those goals: We must be willing to take responsibility for our actions in the attainment of our goals, and accept responsibility for the achievement of our desires – and further accept responsibility for our choices and actions. Self-esteem invites you to be on your side – to be for yourself – and to refuse to be in an adversarial relationship with yourself.

With that in mind, here is an exercise Branden offers that might help you improve your self-esteem. Complete as many of these statements as you can:

  • If I were more accepting of my body …
  • If I were more accepting of my feelings …
  • If I were more accepting of my sexuality …
  • If I were more accepting of my intelligence …
  • If I were more accepting of my mistakes …
  • If I were to take more responsibility for my life and well-being …
  • If I were going to take more responsibility for the attainment of my goals …
  • If I were to take more responsibility for the success of my relationships …
  • If I were to take more responsibility for my choice of companions …
  • Sometimes I make myself helpless when I …
  • If I lived 5 percent more self-assertively …
  • If 1 were to treat my thoughts and feelings with respect …
  • If I were to treat my wants and desires with respect …
  • If I were to express 5 percent more of who I am …
  • If I were to take more responsibility for my personal happiness …
  • If I wanted to raise my self-esteem today, I could …

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