Are you playing victim in your divorce?

victim divorce


A few months ago I made a quip on Facebook about a crush I have on a certain comedian you have a crush on, too. A friend messaged me saying she knew his ex (who, true confession: I’d googled) and that the comedian is a total asshole.

“REALLY?” I responded. “Tell me everything!”

The “dirt”? He called her a cunt in his act and belittled her cooking.

“So why did they split up?” I inquired.

“Why?! Why?! Do I need to explain?!” my friend cried. “I could never have tolerated that!”

Apparently, that was the whole story.

To me, sounds like a garden-variety marriage, one that happened to end in divorce. Just like about half of them.

In my work and personal lives I have heard pretty much every divorce story out there. Addictions. Affairs. Coming-out as gay/transgendered/republican. Rampant jealousy. Sexual impotence. Unemployment. Chronic disease. Embarrassing midlife crises. Bankruptcy. In-law drama. Insane teenage children. Natural disaster-fueled meltdowns. Abuse of all kinds, and — in statistically impossible proportions — the recent explosion of everyoneandtheirbrother’s ex ‘having’ Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Like most things in life, whatever is happening to you seems way worse than it could ever happen to anyone else. Totally human, totally insane. I was sharing this observation with a recently separated friend. “Yeah, but you’ve never heard a divorce story like mine,” he challenged.

Oh yeah?

“My ex is stalking me on Facebook!” 

Oh, boy.

On one hand, all this divorce navel-gazing is completely human. Your marriage–or that of someone you care about–ends and that is a really big deal. Trauma. It’s never easy, and it is usually really, really hard. In fact, if you are like me, you behave your worst during your divorce.

Because, really, what do you have to lose?

He’s threatening to leave, after all. You found pictures of her mouth on another man’s penis. The house is underwater and his entire family knows all of your secrets and the neighbors saw you throw the hamper of filthy clothes at him across the yard.

This will go down as one of the worst times of your life, and it is horrible. And you will do things you are not proud of.

Me? Called him fat. I did. Knew it was a sore spot for him and I went there. Worst part? He wasn’t even really fat. Even worse? I didn’t care about those extra pounds. Not at all. Had no effect on my attraction or opinion of him.

I went there anyway.

I wanted to hurt him.

So I said it.

I called him fat.

Show me a divorcing couple who doesn’t go all the way there and I will show you saints. Really. They exist. They deserve special awards. Not just participation trophies. Actual precious-metal-plated awards that should be showcased on credenzas in the new, more modest homes these people occupy after their marriages end.

But let’s get real here. There are 1.2 million divorces in this country every year. The chances of yours being really special are small. And no matter what — I mean it, absolutely no matter the circumstances, you co-created it. Unless you were forced into that marriage, you chose that person. Maybe you were young, naive, bamboozled, lied to, intoxicated, or acting out freudian issues with your parents, but you made that choice. You participated in that relationship, no matter what. Maybe she stole the money, but you chose not to keep an eye on those accounts. Maybe they have an addiction, but there are no addicts without co-dependents. Maybe they lied the whole time, but you chose to believe or ignore the untruths.

Bottom line: You can’t play the victim. You just can’t.

This is life. Even if you don’t want that divorce, it is happening, a very real and common part of everyday life. Plenty of books and blogs and songs about it. Call your friend or cousin who went through it. Figure out out. Move through the hell with as much grace and clarity as you can. Try not to call him fat or scream in front of the kids or neighbors. Give him the benefit of doubt and try to keep your shit together. If you’re dating, try not to flaunt it for a while. That makes things worse. It’s hard. I know.  But try.

Ask any divorce lawyer and they will tell you that marriages that end at the hands of infidelity are the toughest to settle because the cheated-on party is so convinced of their victimhood.

Reality: Cheating happens when there are cracks in the relationship. Maybe not fair or pretty, but truth.

An other reality: Oldest. Story. In. The. World.

And when you’re talking to your friends and family about him, try — try really, really hard to keep things in perspective. Remember that you will likely have to deal with him for a very long time to come. Regardless, the sooner you own your part of the dissolution of the relationship, the sooner civility will ensue. The sooner you forgive yourself, the sooner you can forgive him. And the sooner you all can move on to your new lives and loves — including your kids, family and friends caught in the crosshairs of divorce. Which, by the way, also always happens.

And if you are the friend commiserating with your divorcing friend: You never know the whole story. You just don’t.

Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post’s ‘Must Read” list.

Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.

A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.

2 thoughts on “Are you playing victim in your divorce?

  1. Emma, normally I love your posts. This time, you left something important out.
    Victims of domestic violence and abuse who are going through divorce are still victims. Don’t try to tell them they “co-created” the abuse or are somehow complicit because they didn’t leave sooner. It’s Just. Not. True.
    Abusers can and do inflict more punishment during divorces; Lundy Bancroft’s “Why Does He Do That?” explains what abusers often do during divorce and how they are, unfortunately, successful far more often than we’d like to think.
    It’s horrific to be on the receiving end of an abuser’s vengeance during divorce. The consequences are real and sometimes permanent. Since abuse victims are trained by abusers to blame themselves, you are doing them no favors with this blog post.

    1. Abusers often have red flags before the abuse even begins. My mother was abused by her ex, and he had plenty of history and plenty to show before they even married. He had been married before, which ended in divorce because of his infidelity. He met my mother and convinced her to have his children becuase he wanted his own (not my father). Then he became jealous when the children gotmore attention than him. Then the history of how his father had abused him and his sister’s sexually came out. And me and my siblings came out about his abuse towards us. She knew, but didn’t get help. So yes, she was a co conspirator. She chose to ignore all of the signs. My grandparents warned her, but it only encouraged her to stay in rebellion. Just becuase she was afraid of being alone doesn’t mean she was a victim of her abuse.

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