I’ve noticed something while spending time in the personal development field; if the participants haven’t found happiness already, this is what they are searching for more than anything else. I know this from my own quest for happiness. I have a bookshelf full of books with titles that reflect my own search. Each time I was at a bookstore, I would advance confidently among the rows in the self-help section, sure the missing piece was tucked in the pages of one of the books before me. Checking out was another story; I would appear nonchalant, hoping the salesperson wasn’t judging me to be a total nut case. I’ve literally hundreds of books on the subject, all chosen to give me some piece of the puzzle to put peace and happiness together for me.
The song, “Happy” by Pharrell Williams broke triple platinum not long ago, meaning it has sold three million copies since its release. It’s just getting started as people across the globe do their own take on the dance for viewing pleasure on YouTube. We all want to feel, “like a room without a roof.” This feeling is so what so many of my clients are searching for by getting a divorce. They say things like, “I deserve to be happy,” or, “I’m just not happy any more.” They seem to think by losing their spouse the walls crowding them will open up and they will be better off.
I’m not so sure.
Actually, I know. I make my living from divorce. Years ago, when I had a therapist of my own, I was asking her if I should give up on my relationship. She would never give me a direct answer. It was infuriating, and I told her as much. “Can’t you just tell me what to do? When I’m a lawyer and someone asks me what to do, I am going to tell them to leave the bastard.” And I did. If someone asks me what to do, then nine times out of ten I will tell him (or her) to go for the divorce. I remember after 911 thinking that I should advertise with a massive billboard, saying “Life’s short, get a divorce!” I knew I would be thrown out of town, so I gave up on that marketing strategy. Yet this is what I was buying into as well. You can find happiness by leaving your spouse.
Heck, in both of my own divorces I had ended up happier. I was sure that prescription would work for the hundreds of clients coming my way. Had I been doing them a disservice? The truth is that most of the times I had potential clients in my office, they had already made their decision (hence the appointment with the divorce attorney). Many times it is clearly the right thing to do. If your spouse is abusive, addicted or alcoholic, mentally cruel, cheating on you, lying to you, or just making your life unbearable hell then yes, getting away from the toxic situation will definitely get you closer to your room without a roof.
Strangely, these are the clients who have the hardest time leaving their spouses. I’ve seen people abused in so many ways, and yet they can’t decide whether to leave or stay. Are you for some images you wish you could forget? One woman I met with had been living with her husband defecating on her. No, you didn’t misread. He was using her as a human toilet. He also had numerous male lovers, but she was so unsure about leaving.
I was practically begging her to file for divorce. I said, “Can’t you see what this is doing to you? You don’t have to live like this!”
She would agree with me then waffle with fear; fear of not being able to make it without his salary to support her, or fear that she was too old to get a job and make it on her own. I tried to tell her that being strapped for money was not the worst thing in the world. Honestly, being pooped on by your husband may be one of the worst things! And yet… she couldn’t go through with the divorce. Instead, she said she would keep praying for him to change.
That brings me to my own divorce – my first one. I was 21 years old when I met my husband, and not being familiar with addiction or alcoholism coupled with being at a University where partying was the primary sport, I didn’t see his drinking as a problem. There was no denying his cocaine use was a problem, but his drinking? Who was I to tell him how much was too much? Before we married his parents had taken him out of college, where he had been barely making it for eight years, and checked him in rehab. He had been writing bad checks to cover his drug habit and it had finally caught up with him. My mother told me, “Pray for him to change.” I had a bad feeling about getting married, but by the time he was checked in, I had already planned my wedding and I didn’t have the guts to back out.
He had a special dispensation from the facility for our wedding and honeymoon, and he wasn’t going to misuse it. Our first stop after the wedding was the package store. He was plastered throughout the first five days of our marriage. By then, it was clear he had a problem. I was praying, bargaining, pleading, crying, and giving ultimatums. He was still drinking. I had to finish college so he and I lived apart the first few months while he was “drying out” with his parents. He felt no such desire to dry out around me. As soon as we moved in together he began drinking every night – up to three six packs a night was his habitual routine. I was a nervous wreck.
Finally, after developing an ulcerative stomach problem, which manifested itself because I spent hours being sick each day, I realized I couldn’t stay with him. I wasn’t happy. The praying wasn’t working and it was time for me to move on, move out, and find a better way. It seems to me that he couldn’t have been happy either. I don’t know what drove him to drink such massive quantities each day. He wasn’t sober long enough to talk about the causative factors, and I wasn’t as savvy as I am now on the happiness front. After being yelled at while shoes and a hair dryer were lobbed at me, I made an easy decision.
That is, until I told my mother. I have the distinction of being the first person in my family to get a divorce (not the last, mind you, I have been the divorce attorney of choice for many Daniels that followed me). Perhaps she felt I hadn’t prayed steadfastly enough. I do know that she was worried about what people would think of me. For years I received my home church bulletin in my married name. A few years later I was visiting with a boyfriend who had a child from a previous marriage. My grandmother, who was living with my parents, seemed to believe the child in question was mine. After asking my Mom about it she said, “She won’t know the difference and I don’t want to tell her you’re divorced.”
You may imagine how this made me feel. It’s one of the reasons I have made it absolutely clear to the people in my office I am not going to judge them. The clients searching for happiness often think they are stuck between making themselves happy by leaving their marriage or making their family, children, friends, or whoever else they deem to be important in their lives happy by staying married. Seeing how the D – word was received in my own family has helped me be more compassionate when dealing with this fear. But maybe, just maybe, the happiness that seems to elude them is not something they are going to find either by leaving or by staying. Where is the room without a roof? It’s when they stop looking at either solution to find their happiness.
Ultimately, it’s when they find it within themselves. When I came across this simple yet stunningly difficult realization, I didn’t waste any time. My epiphany came during my training at Mike Dooley’s Train the Trainer conference when, while half listening, I heard him say something to the effect of, “You can continue trying to out why you aren’t happy, or you can just turn the page and decide to be.” I got up from the table that afternoon and made my way to my room, where I had been hiding from all the crazy happy people at the conference. I laid down and couldn’t stay still. It made such sense.
I was going to decide to be happy. It didn’t depend on my partner, or my family, or my friends, or what was going on in my life. It depended solely on me. It was my decision and my choice to live in a way that made me feel good. It’s taken awhile for me to assimilate what I learned from Mike into the conversations I have with my clients. In all honesty, I am not sure how to let the cat out of the bag. Leaving their spouse may not be the answer after all. Or if it is, it’s a temporary fix. If you don’t leave happy, you will be right back where you started before you know it.