QUESTION: I have a friend who was married for nine years before her husband left her for another woman. I think she was a loving and devoted wife, yet she seemed to feel that the breakup of her marriage was her fault. As a result, her self-esteem disintegrated and she has never recovered.
Dr. Dobson: It has always been surprising for me to observe how often the wounded marriage partner – the person who was clearly the victim of the other’s irresponsibility – is the one who suffers the greatest pangs of guilt and feelings of inferiority.
How strange that the one who tried to hold things together in the face of obvious rejection often finds herself wondering, “How did I fail him? … I just wasn’t woman enough to hold my man … I am ‘nothing’ or he wouldn’t have left … If I only had been more exciting as a sexual partner … I drove him to it … I wasn’t pretty enough … I didn’t deserve him in the first place.”
The blame for marital disintegration is seldom the fault of the husband or the wife alone. “It takes two to tango,” as they say, and there is always some measure of shared blame for a divorce. However, when one marriage partner makes up his mind to behave irresponsibly, to become involved extra-maritally, or to run away from his family commitments and obligations, he usually seeks to justify his behaviour by magnifying the failures of his spouse.
By increasing the guilt of his partner in this way, he reduces his own culpability. For a husband or wife with low self-esteem, these changes and recriminations are accepted as fact when hurled his way. “Yes, it was my fault. I drove you to it.” Thus, the victim assumes the full responsibility for his partner’s irresponsibility, and self-worth shatters.
I would not recommend that your friend sit around hating the memory of her husband. Bitterness and resentment are emotional cancers that rot us from within. However, if I were counselling her, I would encourage her to examine the facts carefully. Answers to these questions should be sought:
Despite my human frailties, did I value my marriage and try to preserve it?
Did my husband decide to destroy it, and then seek justification for his actions?
Was I given a fair chance to resolve the areas of greatest irritation?
Could I have held him even if I had made all the changes he wanted?
Is it reasonable that I should hate myself for this?
Your friend should know that social rejection breeds feelings of inferiority and self-pity in enormous proportions. Rejection by the one you love, particularly, is the most powerful destroyer of self-esteem in the realm of human experience. She might be helped to see herself as the victim of this process, rather than a worthless failure at the game of love.
This question and answer are excerpted from the book Dr. Dobson Answers Your Questions. Dr. James Dobson is a psychologist, author and president of Focus on the Family, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home. Correspondence to Dr. Dobson should be addressed to: Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo., 80903. (c), 1982 Tyndale House Publishers,