The Intelligent Divorce

And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting

Radical Acceptance

Radical Acceptance is a gift I want to offer you.

         

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I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.

(Deuteronomy 30:19)

 

We are born into a world that is not of our making. We are given a place to grow up, parents, a family, a home, neighbors, teachers, friends—and an era in which we evolve. We don't get a choice in so much that really counts. Are you good looking, ugly or in the middle? Are you smart, challenged or just different? Are you tall, short—skinny, heavy—charismatic, marginalized—befriended or alone? Are your parents happy or even together? Do you have a brother or sister that you are close to - or are you bullied relentlessly? Are you born into a time of peace or a time of war, a time of impoverishment or a time of plenty, a time of faith or a time of cynicism?  If you take a deep breath and look at the circumstances of your early life, you will have to see that the whole project is essentially unfair. Some people are born into riches of all kinds, while others are burdened from the very beginning.

Then you live your life. You make decisions, meet people, and navigate through school and more. We all try. It is absurd to call people lazy. But some certainly have a harder time than others. With luck, someone loved you. Someone believed in you and in turn, you began to believe in yourself. If you were a more sensitive soul, you may have been injured by the numerous selfish people that you met along the way; and they are everywhere (welcome to the human condition).  Some of these wounds can last a lifetime, leaving you feeling stupid, unwanted, second best and so on. If you were what E. James Anthony called The Invulnerable Child, you were able to pull yourself up from nothing and make something of yourself: look at Presidents Clinton and Obama, two men who had weak paternal support and nonetheless, perservered. There are so many stories and your unique life is one of them.

Radical Acceptance is a gift—and I want to offer it to you. We must accept what happens to us. That doesn't mean that we like it or that it is fair. Life is not fair. If you are in the midst of a divorce, you gave up so much to make your marriage work. It didn't. If he left you, then you are probably holding a bag of resentment and hurt. If you left him, you've been grieving the loss of your marriage for some time. It is a big loss. We all want to rage at the world, or crawl into a depressed spot when we feel the injustice and randomness of our pain.

Or perhaps you were traumatized by an accident, an illness, a corrupt business deal, a rapist, the death of a child, Mother Nature. All this happens in this world and it may happen to any of us. As we age we grow wiser as the invincibility of youth is supplanted by the vulnerability of maturity. Kids simply don't know how precious happiness really is. It is a golden moment to be celebrated and cherished. And when you have love, grab it. I often say to my patients, "Grab the good, because the bad will surely find you."

When injured by others or by circumstance, I encourage you to feel it all; the outrage, the hurt, the questioning of your Maker, the fear of what will be coming next—if anything. This is grief work and it is a necessary part of healing. It is the spiritual equivalent to the body slowly healing a bad wound. It starts off in pain, and then remains tender, and when protected and soothed, a wound eventually heals. And scars are a sign that the body did its job. Grief brings you through pain to disbelief, to anger, to "only ifs" to profound sadness, to loss - and then to acceptance. It gets triggered again and again, like tsunamis of anguish that take you over when you least expect it. But, over time grief does get worked through. The wound heals, even if imperfectly. We are left with acceptance - and I would like to argue - Radical Acceptance.  It's a good thing.

There is something about the human condition in that we tend to hold onto bad memories more than good ones. We have sayings like, bad news travels ten time farther or faster than good news. It is probably evolutionary, because when survival was at stake, ancient homo sapiens had to remember where danger lurked. Their very survival depended on it. So, remembering the bad had value - but in the twenty first century, this quality provides us with too much pain and it is not worth it anymore. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a dramatic example of this biological safety mechanism gone terribly wrong.)

Radical Acceptance means that you understand that bad things do indeed happen to good people - and all the time. You can stay mired in your sense of injustice and self righteousness. You can develop an entire personality around your victimhood. But what purpose does it provide? An identity fueled by hurt and rage is a soul that is preoccupied by control and not love. You lose a second time because you become a victim of your own victimhood. And, in the worst case, you can become part of the problem. Very often, it was an injured soul or group that hurt you in the first place. A cycle of victims and oppressors does our species little good.

We must accept. Not in the classic Buddhist sense of non attachment. We should be attached. A wrong is a wrong; and it needs to be righted if possible. But we must start with the understanding that what happened to us is part of the quixotic human condition. From acceptance comes clarity - and from this place, you will be more able to make a difference. If you were married to a narcissistic man, for instance, mourn the loss that you may never have really been loved. Get over it, because you will have to coldly deal with his manipulations—and your outrage will only play into his charismatic hands. If your older sister was preferred by your father because she was beautiful and you were just smart, get over it. Let go. Radically accept your father's stupid (but human) mistake. It cost you. No question. You are angry and perhaps have a chip on your shoulder. Forgive and grieve the father that you wish you had. He was just coarsely human - like most of us. This kind of acceptance is the end stage of healthy grief - it will probably make you easier to live with - and give you much needed peace.

Radical Acceptance is an evolutionary good - if not a spiritual good as well. Most of us don't have to worry about wild beasts attacking us. We can learn from our misfortunes. We just don't want to be irreparately damaged by them. To accept means to see things clearly. It reinforces the notion not to give a second chance to someone who doesn't deserve it. You don't have to walk around feeling like a victim in order to protect yourself.

You see, acceptance doesn't mean passivity. It means freedom.

Let there be a blessing for us all to be free to see the world as it is, with its dangers—and its gifts. Grieving our losses is only a first step towards the wisdom of enjoying what is to be enjoyed. Most of us have blessings if only we permit ourselves to see them. Ironically, as we shed our expectations we become lighter and more open to every moment that we live. 

Grab the good when it comes by. The bad will find you where you are.

It is the way of things.

Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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