“I can be empathetic of his trauma while holding him accountable for the decisions he made. After all, he could have made different ones.”
The empathy I have for others is a blessing and a curse, or so I used to think. My empathy has always been what I have considered to be one of my greatest qualities. It allows me to connect with someone in a genuine and authentic way. At times I can literally feel their pain, their rage, their hopelessness. It enables me to be compassionate and truly supportive. It is the one thing about myself that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
I used to think it was the cause of my downfall as well. I thought of empathy as this double-edged sword – if I wasn’t careful I could cut myself. It was what lead me to stay so long with my ex-husband. I knew his childhood was filled with trauma and hardship. I knew he had gone through things that no child should ever have to go through. I knew he was a product of those experiences. I knew part of him wanted something different. I thought I could be that something different.
I thought I could love his childhood away. No really, I truly did. He told me I was the one person who hadn’t abandoned him. The one person who helped him become a better person. I took this role seriously and was dedicated to it – even when it meant my own demise. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted more than anything to help him conquer his demons. So I stayed. Sword in hand. Ready to fight off any threat that put his success in jeopardy.
Sometimes he sent his demons after me. I told myself I needed to be strong enough to overtake them. There were times I was covered in bruises and cuts, literally. There were times I didn’t have the strength to get up off of the floor. Yet somehow I did. I used to think I did it for him. Now I realize, I did it for me.
Even after the divorce I had a hard time separating his trauma from the trauma he inflicted upon me. I still caught myself making excuses for him. He had a hard childhood. He has been through so much. How upset can I really be with him? It has been almost 3 years since we went our separate ways, yet I still found myself thinking this way at times.
That is, until this morning at 4:00 A.M. I must have been dreaming about something related or had this on my unconscious mind. Regardless, I woke up thinking about my dad. My dad had a pretty difficult childhood as well. He too experienced things no child should ever have to experience. He struggled with his demons for some time, but his story had a plot twist. You see, my dad recognized those demons for what they were. He saw the impact they were having on his life and he knew he didn’t want history to repeat itself. So you know what he did? He changed. He took a different path. He became a better man.
As I laid awake at 4:00 in the morning, this realization washed over me. Many people have traumatic things happen to them. These traumatic events, though unfortunate, do not give any single person permission to hurt others – physically, mentally or emotionally. Each person makes the decision whether they will allow their past to permeate the present or use the past to become stronger and wiser.
While my ex-husband had things happen to him that were beyond his control, he chose to continue on the path he was on – despite what it meant for him and anyone else in his path. He alone is responsible for every bruise he put on my body. He alone is responsible for every mental scar he left on my mind. Nothing I said or did or didn’t do and nothing that happened to him forced his hand. Nothing I said or did or didn’t do and nothing that happened to him excuses what he did to me.
I used to think my empathy was to blame for staying as long as I did. I know now my empathy will always be my strength. If others choose to take advantage of my empathy, that is a reflection of their character, not a sign of empathetic weakness in myself. Empathy is powerful. Empathy is sacred. Empathy is my invisible connection to other human souls. I will always be a better person with empathy in my heart.
I can be empathetic of his trauma while holding him accountable for the decisions he made.
After all, he could have made different ones.
Photo: Flickr – Sean MacEntee